The Shittiest Films Ever Made
No. 12: Gothic
There’s such a thing as too much style. I know the Baz Luhrmanns and Julie Taymors have their legions of fans, but I’m not one of them. I prefer filmmakers who are able to exercise a little moderation. It’s not that I only enjoy understated character studies or I wish every movie was My Dinner with Andre; I just don’t like being yelled at. Subtlety is so scarce in films like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge that watching them is like having Baz Luhrmann, that fucking elf, screaming in my face for two hours. Why would I want that experience?
Some of my favorite films are dripping with style. You’ll find no bigger fan of Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino than me. Fuck, in Tarantino’s last few films the display of style has been the whole point. The difference between Tarantino, Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, all the other visual virtuosos I respect, and Luhrmann and Taymor is that the former bunch knows when it’s time to turn the volume down. Death Proof is packed with long tracking shots and jump-cuts, its soundtrack is full of the esoteric pop music Tarantino loves, but there are also long stretches of quiet, of conversation, quick little moments that could get by you if you’re not paying attention. Even the audacious action sequences are careful not to get too caught up in their pyrotechnics — compare the car chases in Death Proof or the fight scenes in the two volumes of Kill Bill to the pretentious slow-mo snooze-fests from John Woo and tell me which better serve their stories, and are more fun to watch.
Restraint is an alien concept to Luhrmann and Taymor and Woo (“Luhrmann and Taymor and Woo” . . . somebody should write a poem), as it is to Ken Russell, the director of Gothic. Self-indulgence had been the defining characteristic of Russell’s career for decades before he made Gothic in 1986 — in 1975 he directed both the film adaptation of The Who’s rock opera Tommy, and Lisztomania, a musical biography with Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt, co-starring Ringo Starr as the Pope and Rick Wakeman as Thor. Yep.
But once upon a time, Russell had a reputation as a trailblazing, visionary filmmaker. He directed Women in Love in 1969; it won a Best Actress Oscar for Glenda Jackson, nabbed Russell a Best Director nomination, and is still a well-regarded film today. Before that, he made a series of influential documentaries about artists, dancers, and musicians for the BBC. Stanley Kubrick, one of the most restrained and deliberate directors in history, cited Russell’s BBC work as an influence on his stunningly photographed 1975 film Barry Lyndon.
How did Russell go from an acclaimed Oscar-nominated, BAFTA-winning auteur to a guy known for making hallucinatory composer biopics and flamboyant literary adaptations? What path took him from Women in Love to The Devils, which Roger Ebert gave zero stars, to Gothic? Was it the same trail that Francis Ford Coppola took to get from The Godfather to Jack? Maybe. Who the hell knows? The only thing I do know is that Gothic didn’t win any more BAFTAs for Russell, and it ain’t real hard to see why.
The film is a heavily fictionalized account of the night in 1816 Percy Shelley and his soon-to-be-wife Mary spent at Lord Byron’s place, when Mary was inspired to write Frankenstein. Doesn’t sound like such a bad idea for a movie, three giants of English literature gathered together for a stormy night in a spooky old mansion, swapping ghost stories. Hell, this subject matter and these characters — Byron’s reputation as a libertine, the Shelleys’ sexual radicalism — seems tailor-made for an extravagant director like Ken Russell. I mean, it’s not like the guy never made another decent movie after 1969; he directed Altered States in 1980.
Unfortunately, what might have been a creepy, atmospheric, historically informed horror story is instead an overblown exercise in excess. Try to imagine an episode of Dark Shadows directed by Joel Schumacher. Lightning flashes, thunder rumbles and rain pours down outside; candles throw long shadows across the floor and up the wall; and, judging from the crumbling stone and plaster corridors and the sheets of cobwebs hanging all through his dungeon of a basement, Byron really needs to fire his housekeeper. Russell uses odd, exaggerated set-ups to shoot his actors, extreme close-ups and steep low angles that give everything a very weird feel. To steal a line from Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s just too fucking too. The screenplay is a generous serving of weird with enough leftovers to make weird sandwiches for the next week all by itself.
Percy and Mary, along with Mary’s half-sister Claire, arrive at Lord Byron’s place in Geneva to spend the summer. Also in attendance is Byron’s friend and lackey John Polidori, a doctor with a blood fixation who kicks off the freaky festivities by serving Byron a platter of leeches. Scary stories are told, presumably some pretty potent psychotropics are ingested, Byron fucks Claire a few times, and attempts to fuck everyone else in the house at various points throughout the night. To keep things interesting, Byron pulls out a human skull and leads the group in a séance. Shortly thereafter, all five of them begin to suffer vivid, nightmarish hallucinations . . . or are they?!
It’s a question I think Russell means for us to ask, but while I was watching I couldn’t have given less of a shit whether the demonic experiences of Byron, Percy, Mary, Claire and Polidori were real or just products of their drug-fueled overwrought romantic imaginations. Percy in particular (played with, um, enthusiasm by Julian Sands) is such a basket-case that it’s hard to do anything but laugh at him. A few minutes into the film, he’s already buck-ass naked, standing on the roof in the rain, screaming exultantly about the power of lightning. I’ve seen Julian Sands in a few films. He’s got a look and a voice, and I think he could be a decent actor if he had a director willing to crack him in the balls with a bullwhip whenever he starts chewing on the scenery a little too much. Ken Russell is not that director.
Many of the events depicted during Gothic’s stormy night in Geneva are taken from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: a tree is set ablaze by a bolt of lightning, Percy rants and raves about the possibility of creating life (some of his dialogue lifted verbatim from Victor Frankenstein), and Byron labels Percy “the modern Prometheus.” Despite mining her novel for material, Gothic virtually ignores Mary Shelley until the last twenty minutes or so. Russell is more interested in the sexual tension between Byron and Polidori, Byron and Percy, Byron and Claire, even Byron and his sister Augusta, who appears only as a porcelain mask which Byron forces his maid (named Justine, another allusion to Frankenstein) to wear while he gropes her. As the only character who isn’t an outrageous, debauched eccentric, Mary mostly fades into the background, even though her work is the only reason anyone gives a shit about her and Percy’s sleepover at Lord Byron’s.
Like I said, a little style isn’t a bad thing. If Gothic had been directed by James Whale or Terrence Fisher, it might have been a classic. As it stands, it’s likable camp at best, and dogshit melodramatic bombast at worst. As drama and horror it’s a total failure, and one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, but I’d still rather sit through it than another calculated, homogenized Hollywood blockbuster. When it comes to dramatizations of Percy and Mary Shelley at Lord Byron’s place, however, I prefer the prologue to Bride of Frankenstein. It’s more fun in three minutes than Gothic is in an hour and a half.