In June of 1816, there occurred in a country house in Switzerland one fateful night which would echo down the centuries thanks to the bursts of creativity it represented. This was when Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) visited Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) at this mansion with her husband Percy Shelley (Julian Sands). Also in attendance were Byron's hanger-on Claire Clairmont (Miriam Cyr) and the physician John Polidori (Timothy Spall), so the stage was set for a night of debauchery as they set their minds to conjuring up something that would terrify each other...
Such was the effect of that night, the one which inspired Mary to write the classic novel of horror Frankenstein (and Polidori to pen The Vampyre, not as famous but still influential), that it has passed into legend, so much so that there were four movie versions inspired by the events released in a matter of two years, the others being Haunted Summer, Rowing with the Wind and a science fiction take, Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound. Of all of those Gothic seemed to have eclipsed them, if not as the definitive last word on that evening, then as the visualisation most widely seen, although even then it remained a cult item.
Much of the reason for that following was not down to the cast, but more the director, Ken Russell. Gothic was one of the last of his films to gain a wide release before the fallower years of the nineties and beyond, leading up to his death where he had spent most of that time making glorified home movies. Certainly the Russell hallmarks were here, although the script was written by Stephen Volk, the man who shocked a generation of Brits with his TV play Ghostwatch. But that fascination with the creative process, now not concentrating on music composers but literary craftsmen (and women), was blatant in its appeal to the director, and what fuelled the narrative which only grew more delirious.
Not that it began with any great restraint, but just when you thought it could not get any further over the top, Russell amped up the hysteria and the actors were happy to go along with that. In practice this meant a lot of running about, rushing in and out of rooms like it was going out of fashion, and a finale which looked to be Russell's attempt to beat Wes Craven at his own game. Whether the seance that the assembled historical figures held was the source of some kind of demonic eruption of imagination, or if it was an actual supernatural happening, was something the film played with, as for all its wide-eyed madness there was a playful quality here.
Not that the mechanics didn't show through in places, in some of the performances such as Sands' grinning loon who did not quite convince as anything more than an actor's workshop gone out of control, and perhaps the budget was not enough to keep up with the innovation, but Russell sustained the levels of insanity to impressive heights within the means at his disposal. This took in puddles of green slime to illustrate the fear of decay, a recreation of Fuessli's painting The Nightmare, and Cyr taking off her nightie to show she had nipples for eyes, all of which in other hands could have tipped over into outright absurdity, yet here came across as perfectly appropriate. What did not convince quite so much was the notion that this was a genuine recreation of what went on that night, as while the main players could have fuelled one another's invention and vision you doubt they went quite as far as all that. Electronic music by Thomas Dolby, which doesn't match the action.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.