The night that Mary Shelley later described as the moment she came up with the idea for Frankenstein, rightfully regarded as one of the greatest horror stories of all time, has become so infamous in and of itself that it has been referenced by several films, including Bride of Frankenstein and Haunted Summer. The general premise is that Lord Byron, at this point living in exile due to his famously hedonistic lifestyle, is visited by Claire Clairmont, who is romantically obsessed with him. Along for the ride are Mary and Percy Shelley. From the very start, Percy is more into the vacation than Mary, who is desperately worried for Claire’s obviously unstable emotional state. The weather turns cold, so the crew, along with Byron’s physician and lover, John Polidori, have a competition to create the best ghost story. In Gothic, their wanton opium use and hedonism gives birth to an actual monster, who haunts them throughout the film.
Gothic is directed by Ken Russell, and if you’ve seen any Ken Russell movie, you know that this is a guy with a very specific and very distinctive style, no matter what kind of story he’s telling — although he does tend to lean into the macabre. There are very few directors who master a sense of constant hysteria from the beginning to the end of a film, and his movies tend to involve sharp, shrill music and a lot of people panicking. The best example of his erratic style would be in his 1971 film The Devils, a story about sadistic, sex-obsessed nuns that very nearly ended his career. Copies of the full film are still difficult to find; it’s never been released in its uncut form, and it was banned in several countries while heavily edited for release in others. His follow-up to The Devils was a cute love story called The Boyfriend, which still maintains a bizarre sort of hyperspeed, with random scene switches and a lot of yelling. Recently I read a sentence that more or less said that Russell’s critics have often accused him of having an obsession with sex and Catholicism. This is true, but I think his fans would probably also agree with that assessment. Whether you think that’s a good thing or not is up to you.
To give an idea of where Russell was coming from with this film, promotional images were a direct reference to a painting—specifically, Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, which depicts a small demon perching on a woman’s chest. As censors were always on high alert when they heard Russell’s name, especially after the fiasco with The Devils, Gothic‘s poster was ultimately edited to have a reclined Natasha Richardson appearing sans demon, but the scene itself still appears in the film. Russell’s compulsion to add scenes from famous paintings into a movie about Mary Shelley should give a fairly clear idea of his attention to and ultimate utilization of strange historical details.
I don’t mean to go all Andy Rooney, but back in my day, Disney wasn’t so friendly. They were MOSTLY friendly, sure, but there was…