Blu Reviewed – Gothic (1986): Ken Russell's Overlooked Trip Into Literary Madness

Ken Russell has a well-earned place in cinema history as one of the most unique, provocative, visually and thematically audacious filmmakers of all time, with bold and controversial masterworks such as The Devils, Women In Love, and Lisztomania highlighting his career as a one-of-a-kind auteur. His work in the 1960s and '70s is iconic for his brilliantly volatile collaborations with Oliver Reed (Women In Love, The Devils), his often-surreal psychologically-subjective quasi-biopics (Lisztomania, The Music Lovers, Mahler, and others), and his boundary-pushing polarities of sensuality and brutality. However, as the 1980s went on, his films seemed to not quite permeate the cultural consciousness as deeply, becoming more of modest cult favorites than major art-house events, despite still being extremely strong works of cinema worthy of the same attention. He started the 1980s with two of his biggest studio projects, Altered States and Crimes of Passion. But after that, he made a string of three films for the smaller Vestron Pictures - Salome's Last Dance, Gothic, and Lair of the White Worm - which didn't quite seem to connect with audiences at the time, although they are all very good films, arguably just as strong as the two that preceded them. Perhaps it was because Vestron, a company who thrived on horror, action, and sci-fi, just didn't quite know how to market the unclassifiable strangeness of a Ken Russell picture, or perhaps because they couldn't give them the level of exposure that his previous major-studio work enjoyed. Whatever the reason, this triptych of films did decently well for Vestron initially, but took some time to grow into minor cult classics on VHS. But all three subsequently suffered from lackluster distribution on DVD which caused that cult-classic reputation to taper off a bit, and ensured that they became lesser-seen entries in Russell's filmography. Gothic in particular struggled over the years with obscurity, and thanks to terrible treatment on home video and severely misleading marketing, it has remained one of Russell's less-seen and most-misunderstood major films. Now it has finally gotten a truly great home video release that gives it the respect it deserves, in the form of a collector's edition blu-ray from Lionsgate's Vestron Video Collector's Series imprint, which previously rescued Lair of the White Worm in much the same way. Gothic is long overdue for a reappraisal; for audiences to realize that it is in fact something of a late-career masterpiece of Russell which belongs in the same category as his early surrealist, psychologically-subjective biopics like Mahler and Lisztomania. Hopefully this new blu-ray is the key to that finally happening.

My only misgiving about this blu-ray is that the film being released under the horror, sci-fi, and B-movie focused Vestron Collector's Series banner does threaten to perpetuate one of the biggest problems that Gothic has had over the years: the misconception that it is a typical horror film, when in fact it is a beast all its own, and arguably not even horror at all. Vestron's trailers for the film, theatrically and on VHS, marketed it as a straight-up horror movie, which set it up to miss its target audience: many horror fans found it to be very perplexing in a way they did not expect, and many of those who would have loved it skipped it because of how drastically the trailers undersell its thematic complexity and drama. Yes, it is steeped in both visual and narrative horror elements - steeped in the dread-filled look and feel of Gothic fiction - but these are used in the service of a psychological character study; a highly stylized and occasionally surreal emotional portrait of four great artists whose work exemplified both the frightening and the romantic, and helped shape horror storytelling as we know it. It isn't horror so much as it is about horror, and the personal and psychological experiences that lead these literary figures to create it. It is through this lens that Gothic is best viewed, as something that honestly would be more at home in The Criterion Collection than the Vestron Collection (though I again must emphasize that my concern is one of audience expectation; Vestron/Lionsgate has done a marvelous job with this beautifully-restored and feature-packed special edition).

The Film:

The four artists captured in Russell's psychotropic portrait are Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson), Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), and Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall), and the film is an imagined version of what might have transpired during a real weekend that the four of them spent - along with Mary's step-sister and Byron's sometimes-lover Claire (Miriam Cyr) - at Byron's villa, taking laudanum and telling each other ghost stories. This weekend is famous in literary history as the weekend which inspired both Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein and John Polidori to write The Vampyre, and Russell interprets this critical literary crossroads as a drug-fueled descent into their psyches as they push each other to seek out their deepest, darkest fears, and to conjure their fears into being for them to confront. After the four hold a seance as a sort of story-conjuring ritual, the film has their fears literally manifest as a malignant spirit which has been conjured to haunt them; but this is what we see through the eyes of five opiate-fueled unreliable narrators, so we are left to question if we are witnessing their bad trips and their shared hysteria as their internal states overtake their senses, or if it is real after all, and they truly did conjure up something worthy of their stories and poetry. It is a fascinating narrative device for Russell to play with, but thematically it may not matter whether the apparitions are real or imagined: what is real are the inner demons and deep fears which they conjure up, and it is these inner demons which they must conquer in order to channel them into some of literature's most influential works.

The film begins in a somewhat straightforward fashion, as a period drama about these five literary friends getting together for a weekend of philosophy, poetry, and debauchery. But even then, it is a thoroughly Ken Russell vision of this type of story: a heady, passionate whirlwind of chaotic personalities, as their minds and passions race, and their freewheeling behavior races with it. While we often think of the Romantic poets with reverence, we see them here as they probably really were: brash, egocentric, hard-partying enfants terribles who love lovemaking and laudanum as much as they love intellectualism and the written word. They are the rock stars of their day, and Russell plays them as such, with spot-on performances from the whole ensemble. Full of swagger and charisma that masks his often-reprehensible behavior, Gabriel Byrne's Lord Byron is a wild and insatiable early-1800s Jim Morrison or Mick Jagger. Julian Sands' Percy Shelley, meanwhile, is just as mercurial and overindulgent, but with the wide-eyed otherworldly romanticism of a David Bowie. Miriam Cyr's Clair is like the groupie to these rock stars, trying to keep up with their wildness, but out of her depth. Timothy Spall's Polidori, meanwhile, represents the culture-shock of the values of that day being thrown into Byron's libertine world: a self-loathing puritan guiltily harboring feelings of lust and homosexuality that clash with his religion (Byron and Shelley are both played as bisexual, but they were able to see through the homophobic morals of the era in a way that Polidori was not). It is Mary Shelley, played with quiet intensity by the late, great Natasha Richardson in her first feature film role, who is the coolest head and most centered mind of the bunch, whose brilliance hasn't yet been overtaken by the hedonism of the rock-star lifestyle that she now lives, even as she feels just as deeply as the rest of them, if not more so.

Watching this group is fascinating, and one feels in no hurry for the horror-ish material to even begin: they are deeply compelling personalities played excellently (with the ever dark and charismatic Byrne predictably stealing much of the show), and the film at once bursts the bubble of the myth of the Romantic poet while also adding depth to our perception of them. They speak to each other in self-consciously intellectual bursts of poetry as if to one-up each other in eloquence, in a way that would seem laughably over-the-top if many of these lines weren't pulled straight from the actual journals and letters of the real people by screenwriter Stephen Volk (Percy Shelley: “It is an age of dreams and nightmares!” Byron: “Yes, and we are merely the children of that age.”). It is all, in classic Ken Russell fashion, almost too over-the-top, but just restrained enough to remain plausible. Likewise, the visuals have little bursts of surrealism that could only come from Russell, jolting you out of the rhythm of a period drama with their strangeness. And all of this is just when the five are still relatively sober, and the film is in its comparatively more restrained first half.

When Russell starts to journey deeper into their heads, and as their minds become more and more affected by the dual influences of opiates and deep-running psychological terror, things only get stranger and stranger as the runtime goes on. The horrors that they conjure up from their psyches are a mix of classic Gothic horror imagery, drawn both from the genre's literary and cinematic roots, and purely Russell hallucinations of often psychosexual surrealism. They build slowly – in keeping with the concept of our characters getting gradually more afraid and intoxicated as the night goes on – until finally reaching a fever-pitch of frantic, unhinged madness. The crux of his horror sequences, however, are not special effects, but lighting and cinematography. The whole film is beautifully shot, mostly on location in an authentic manor house of the same period as Byron's villa, but in the last act the shot compositions become particularly otherworldly. Shots in this part of the film recall his collaborations with Derek Jarman, his production designer on The Devils, and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that despite being restrained by a smaller budget, Russell's visual power and elegance had not been at all diminished with age.


The picture:

It is this visual elegance which had, unfortunately, suffered more than any other aspect of Gothic over the years thanks to the film's awful home video distribution. Vestron's VHS release of the film was in keeping with the standards of its day, but the one and only official DVD release which followed (from the famously shoddy Artisan Films) was a straight-up port of that VHS/laserdisc transfer, in a time when it was already severely out of date. The biggest problem with this transfer is that it was open-matte 4x3, meaning that it took the careful widescreen masking off of Russell's images to create a picture that revealed too much, and looked far too loose in its framing thanks to all the extra area at the top and bottom of the picture. For a filmmaker whose shots are as precisely, artfully framed as Russell's, open-matte is just as destructive to his shot compositions as pan-n-scan, and unless the viewer zoomed in on the picture on a widescreen TV to artificially create the 16x9 matting themselves, this presentation made Gothic look significantly less well-shot than it is. The film was only ever made available in its intended aspect ratio in Europe, where MGM held the rights, and released a widesceen DVD; indifference to the film in America caused Vestron's VHS/laser master to be the one and only accessible version – until now.

Seeing Gothic beautifully restored on Vestron's blu-ray, in its proper aspect ratio on this continent for the first time, is a revelation: the film looks every bit as lush, haunting, and darkly gorgeous as I had imagined it would. What a difference it makes when the people doing a home media release actually care about doing justice to the look of the film: from the carefully-restored widescreen framing to the opulent color to the overall excellent clarity and detail of the transfer, this is a whole different viewing experience from the lazy, slapdash Artisan disc we are used to. It's a cliché to say that it's like seeing the film for the first time, but in the case of Gothic it almost is. On the strength of the transfer alone (actually, even on the strength of the aspect ratio alone), this disc should be an immediate, unquestionable double-dip for those with the old DVD.


The Sound:

This blu-ray presents Gothic in its original 2.0 mono soundtrack, which has its inherent limitations, but is very well restored. Dialogue is clear, clean, and comes through much better than on the DVD, and the sound effects are wonderfully atmospheric. Thomas Dolby's excellent score also comes through strongly. Mono limitations aside, this is a well-mixed film, and the sound design builds the Gothic horror atmosphere quite effectively indeed. As presented on this blu-ray, it sounds as good as it possibly can in its authentic theatrical form.


The Extras:

In addition to the gorgeous remaster, the special features present on this release are its other biggest selling-point, as they present a great, very thorough cross-section of the film's production. There are brand-new interviews, approximately 20 minutes each, with actor Julian Sands, writer Stephen Volk, and director of photography Mike Southon, and the three add up to a pretty solid and thorough one-hour documentary about the artistic journey of making the film, and especially about the process of collaborating with Russell. The interviews are very substantive, dealing heavily with two deep topics: how, from these three very different areas of production, they worked to pull off the difficult genre blend of a horror-ish story that is also a highly literary dive into the minds and thoughts of real artists, and how they all experienced Russell's artistic process. It's great to hear such intelligent people get literary and philosophical about the first topic, but it's also fascinating to hear their thoughts on the second topic: their insights into working with Russell give a strong understanding of what a brilliant and visionary (if mercurial) artist he was. The late filmmaker's reputation as a chaotic enfant terrible precedes him, and all three men indicate that at times he could be hard to work with, but they all paint a picture of that difficulty being more than outweighed by his brilliant artistic process, and the ways in which he (contrary to his image) cultivated collaboration and put great trust in the artists around him. Clearly working with Russell was a very formative and positive experience for all three of them, and the behind-the-scenes stories they tell further expand my respect for the filmmaker. The absence of the late Natasha Richardson is of course deeply felt: I would love to hear her thoughts on Gothic, both because it was her first feature film, and because it was something of a family reunion with Russell, since her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, had collaborated with him on one of the most iconic films of both of their careers, The Devils. Alas, Lionsgate's apathy towards the film ended too late for that. Gabriel Byrne, Timothy Spall, and Miriam Cyr's absence from the extras is also unfortunate, but the interviews that are here are excellent, so that can be forgiven. Furthering the behind-the-scenes insights on the disc are two commentaries: one with Russell's widow, Lisi Russell, and one with composer Thomas Dolby, accompanied by an isolated track of his excellent score for the film.


Overall, this is a top-notch special edition for a film that was long overdue for this sort of treatment. There are more extras that fans could have wished for (primarily interviews with the other three living stars of the film), but the extras that are here are both plentiful and substantial, and given that Lionsgate neglected this film so badly for so long, I'm just thrilled that they produced such strong extras for it in the first place. The whole Vestron Video Collector's Series is an awesome move by Lionsgate, reversing with a vengeance their long-running habit of neglecting their more off-the-beaten-path and culty catalog titles, and Gothic may be the most impressive entry in the series yet. At the very least, it is certainly the film in the collection that was most overdue for a special edition treatment. This really is a Criterion-Collection-quality movie, but since Lionsgate has a firm policy of not licensing to other distributors, I'm very glad that they rose to the occasion instead, and made this release as good as it deserved to be. The transfer is beautiful, and finally presents Gothic as it should be seen, for the first time since theaters. Hopefully this will at last lead to a long-overdue reevaluation of the film, not as some odd cult horror movie, but as a late-career masterpiece by a one-of-a-kind cinematic auteur.

Overall score:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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