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Movie Review: Ken Russell's GOTHIC

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"People have often asked me how a girl of such tender years came to write 'Frankenstein'. In the summer of 1816, I visited Switzerland with my future husband Percy Shelley and my half-sister Claire Clairmont. We spent many evenings at the Villa Diodati in the company of Lord Byron and his physician, Dr. John Polidori, who was later to write 'The Vampyre'. To amuse ourselves, we told ghost stories while the storm raged outside. Thus out of electricity and apparitions, my monster came to me..." - Mary Shelley

Ken Russell has never been accused of taking the subtle approach, a fact that I am thankful for, particularly when it comes to Gothic. Ken Russell gives us his interpretation of the events that occurred in the summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland, when Percy and Mary Shelly and Mary’s half-sister, Claire Clairmont, decided to pay Lord Byron and his lover, Dr. John Polidori, an unexpected visit.

What begins as a harmless - albeit slightly awkward - reunion of old friends gradually takes a darker turn, when the lascivious Lord Byron suggests that the party create their own horror stories for the nights entertainment. As a storm rages on outside and the laudanum flows, they weave themselves into a hallucinatory frenzy and hold a séance in which they each conjure up their deepest fears, calling them to life. Collectively, they summon a creature born from their imaginations, which begins to haunt the villa, driving everyone to the brink of insanity in the process.

Ken Russell brings his notorious flair for all things excessive to this little project, and the result is fantastic. Working with a stellar cast, including the late Natasha Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Miriam Cyr, and Timothy Spall, Russell casts a seductive spell and allows you to become part of the madness. Everything is gloriously over-the-top, from the performances to the script, not to mention the musical score by Thomas Dolby, which uncannily fits the hectic mood of the film.

Needless to say, if you are a fan of Russell, you will be instantly drawn to this material. If you are a bit more conservative in your viewing choices, you may want to skip this film, and rent Haunted Summer instead. As with any Russell film, sex and nudity is abundant. There is even a psychedelic scene involving a pair of breasts that have eyes where nipples should be. If the previous sentence offended you in any way, I would advise you to stay far away from this one. For adventurous film buffs, however, Gothic is not to be missed.

Gothic is only available on DVD from Artisan, as is unfortunately presented in pan-and-scan. As of now, this is the only option available to those of us in the US, unless you own a region-free DVD player, of course. The UK release is presented in widescreen. Hopefully, this wonderful film will receive the proper Blu-ray release that it deserves very soon.