The spark of creation. In some stories, this could be as literal as lightning. In the case of Gothic, the spark of creation is the sparks of electricity that shoot in your brain to create the world around you. In this case, the sparks are given a push by a night of taking laudanum.
The origin of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s Vampyre is generally fabled to be a night at Lord Byron’s remote island castle with Percy Shelley, Byron, and Mary’s half-sister Claire. In Gothic, they drink, take a whole shitton of laudanum, read ghost stories, have sex, have a seance, and hallucinate themselves half to death.
Almost the entirety of Ken Russell’s masterpiece is a hallucination of some sort. Within 10 minutes, everybody is drinking laudanum, and they never ever stop. Especially Percy Shelley who is having a freakout due to the haunted nature of the evening. Percy and Mary are haunted by Mary’s previous abortion, while Byron is dealing with Mary telling him that Claire is pregnant and he better not hurt her. Combining a heavy opiate with death and newborn life, suddenly everything is given a great horrific weight.
Byron and Percy also spend much of their time espousing on free love. But Polidori’s presence as a tortured homosexual who is lusting after two heteroflexible men with girlfriends, plus the weighty presence of pregnancy and abortion, life and death, undercut the mindless drug-addled rantings of two horny men. Essentially, Russell was pointing out the hypocrisies and limitations of the 1960s sexual revolution while also indulging in its belief system. Similar limitations were shown in The Source Family, when they basically ignore any homosexuals.
Gothic is one of Ken Russell’s ultimate tricks. It’s a story about creation disguised as a drug and sex movie disguised (and marketed) as a horror movie. If anything, Gothic should be watched for pure ballsiness alone. Russell gives himself free reign to indulge in his favorite cinematic tricks for 87 minutes, and that’s not entirely bad. From having mechanical sex dolls to goats running around the castle to trees catching on fire to mutated breasts to to to, Russell is having a devil of a time pushing the visual stimulation of the audience.
Which also proves to be a problem for most audiences. Watching Gothic as a horror movie is a frustrating endeavor because nobody is in danger of anything except themselves. Watching Gothic as a historical is interesting, but rarely are historical hallucinations completely telling. Watching Gothic as a drug movie leaves a sour taste as all the drugs are fueled with a nightmare intensity. You have to be able to accept all three at once and be on your toes at all times.
That being said…a horror movie of hallucination is fantastic fun. Plus, all the sex and drugs and wild-eyed extremeness makes Gothic a required viewing. Especially late night just before you go to sleep. You might even be tempted to write something the next day as great as Frankenstein.
This review is part of Oldflix, a series of articles that highlights films soon to be eliminated from Netflix Streaming.