Gothic was one of a mini-spate of films that came out around the same time concerning themselves with the famous meeting between Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley at the Villa Deodati in 1816, which gave Mary the inspiration to write Frankenstein (1818) and Byrons physician John Polidori to write The Vampire (1819), which were both key works in 19th Century horror. Other films centred around the Villa Deodati Writers Workshop included the more serious (and rather dull) Haunted Summer (1988), the obscure Spanish-made Rowing with the Wind (1988) with a miscast Hugh Grant as Byron, and Roger Cormans Frankenstein Unbound (1990), which had time-traveler John Hurt encountering both Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and his monster.
There is a good idea somewhere at the heart of Gothic, one that deals with the conjuration of the groups individual fears Marys grief over her lost child, Shelleys defiance of religion, Polidoris frustrated homosexual desire for Byron and how each of these becomes a monster that influenced the names that were present at the Villa Deodati. You could see the same idea making for a good play someday. However, any serious airing it is going to get is hijacked from the start by Ken Russell in lunatically OTT mode. Right from the first scene, Russell lets go at it with dogs chasing maids around the garden and encroaching thunderstorms. He then goes on to pile on an amazing array of demonic imps, silver servers full of eels, nipples with eyes, ghosts in suits of armour with giant iron codpieces, menstrual blood-drinking scenes and Miriam Cyr covered only in cobwebs eating rats. Synthesizer whiz kid Thomas Dolbys score shrieks and thumps in the rafters like a hyperactive thunderstorm. Most of the cast go like the clappers as though in a competition to exceed the other for the most eye-rolling performance. However, it is a storm in a teacup that gets amazingly frenzied about not much at all.
Ken Russell has assembled an appropriate cast of over-actors Julian Sands, Timothy Spall and Miriam Cyr who at least match Russells direction with their performances. One of the films more lunatic images is that of Julian Sands naked on the roof in the middle of a lightning storm shouting out defiance to nature. Gabriel Byrne certainly makes an appropriately dark and charismatic Byron. Natasha Richardson is a haunted and beautiful Mary, although she seems simply too glamorous and beautiful for the part the surviving portraits of Mary show her as someone small, mousy and almost certainly haunted by a sad life.
The historical authenticity of the film is also somewhat doubtful for one, it was Byron that visited Percy Shelley, not the other way around. Moreover, the title seems erroneous while two of the most influential Gothic horror works namely Frankenstein and Polidoris The Vampire came out of the summer, Shelley and Byron were not what one could Gothic writers at all the Gothic movement was pro-superstition, pro a kind of theatrical horror and anti-reason, while Byron and Shelley were vigorous proponents of reason and man as God.
Ken Russells other genre films are: the spy film Billion Dollar Brain (1967); the historical possession and witch persecution film The Devils (1971); the surreal and quite deranged adaptation of The Whos rock opera Tommy (1975); the science-fiction film Altered States (1980); the psycho-sexual thriller Crimes of Passion (1984); the campy Bram Stoker adaptation The Lair of the White Worm (1988); the abysmal Mindbender (1996), a biopic of the psychic fake Uri Geller; The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002), Russells demented home movie riff on Edgar Allan Poe; and an episode of the horror anthology Trapped Ashes (2006).