Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Finger the Moon and Quaff Mad Laudanum: GOTHIC (1986)

Readers know I look askance upon adoring fetishistic biopics, the auteur often covertly trying to align their own stars with their heroes whether its conscious or not, and in the process making, as they say, a movie about--to borrow Zen koan-- a pointing finger rather than about the moon. Ignoramuses! What do they know about great art and suffering? They love to make a gorgeous finger and presume the moon will magically appear. Well, for Ken Russell, it may be thrice as true as for others but he at least goes for broke - he's all in. He'll show you the moon, and then stick that finger in its deepest crater. Such a crater is GOTHIC, the 1987 all-out wild night in during a storm with Percy and the future Mary Shelly and her swinging mystical half-sister Claire at Lord Byron's 19th century Swiss chalet while quaffing laudanum, indulging in rock star sensuality and wordplay, conducting a seance, trying to contact Mary's dead baby, etc. and conducting a ghost story writing contest. Mary winning in the long term with Frankenstein (with Percy's help) but Byron's personal physician Dr. Polidori wrote The Vampyre (with Byron's help), creating the first work of vampire fiction. So you could cite this long druggy night as the birth of the gothic style of horror fiction and the first salvo towards the Universal pantheon. BUT here we're a long way from normal narrative, more like a creative lunatic ground zero, reminiscent of what an intimate group sex acid trip might be if held at a swanky mansion done up with creepy haunted house carnival ride tableaux and wild sound effects.

We can see this kind of pre-MTV yen for adding surreal pre-music video imagery to musician, artist and film star biopics in his whole 70s output: Valentino, Lisztomania, The Music Lovers, Savage Messiah, Mahler, and Oscar Wilde attending a performance of his Salome's Last Dance at a high-class brothel. The results erring all-too-often on the side of the bawdy and grotesque, often leading to pretentious and unwieldy dialogue, with the subject and a taste for bizarre imagery and no real way to make them cohesively match. It's not to say he couldn't deliver, especially when given an actor able to actually sound natural in his artsy waxing, like William Hurt in Altered States or Oliver Reed in The Devils, wherein a handsome, brooding star kept the revolutions on some kind of firm axis.

For Gothic we almost get that. There's Natasha Richardson as Mary, very good in the tense agonized sweat-sheen fear states but upstaged in the looney-tunes Anita and Marianne-style cool glimmer twin reflection department by Miriam Cyr as her nympho-mystical half-sister Claire, shagging Lord Byron (who isn't) and pregnant with his child; Julian Sands comes off probably the best of them all as strung-out Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), totally haunted by a terror of death coupled to regular bouts of opiate withdrawal (though based on the plentitude of laudanum seems unlikely). Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron comes of just so-so. One expects a little more as far as leaning into the madness rather than seeming like merely a smooth-talking cad. His demons seem to consist of dimly realizing the human damage his bisexual orgiastic take no prisoners approach to sex has wrought upon his partners. Lastly, there's Timothy Spall, overacting the roof off as Dr. Polidori, gamely keeping everyone high off their asses while eschewing the orgy in favor of banging his hand on the nail that holds the cross over his bed (presumably to keep himself from masturbating -- a mortal sin!)

Since this is a Russell movie, the sex and drugs are all urgently leading to something, that old devil moon again. Here it all hinges on a seance where, they believe, they accidentally summon a vampire spirit into the chalet during a seance (guided by Claire, a medium). It howls from without, laughs from within and mocks them from the next room, driving each character deeper into the strange bowels of the villa, and into their own labyrinthine minds.

The main thing is, though, in a house stocked with servants and guests all in different rooms, who would be surprised to see a shadow or hear a voice laughing in another room while trying to sleep? These things are where Russell shows a surprisingly tenderfoot awareness (exhibited in his earlier Altered States) of the effects of the drugs being taken. No one really high on laudanum is going to give a shit about someone laughing in another room, or get the heebie jeebies about death - that's for the next night, after the laudanum runs out. It's the same sort of confused thinking that leads some writers to confuse the DTs with drinking instead of with not drinking. The DTs being the result of alcohol withdrawal rather than overuse.

The wild unhinged supernatural whooping might have been easier borne with a better druggier sound mix (ala recent works like Climax and Spring Breakers), there's the feeling none of these actors might have done drugs except maybe Julian Sands, who has a kind of kinetic sexy madness with his poesy lines (never forget how perfect he was in Naked Lunch, this is a guy who knows how to seem like he's being seen through a psychedelic prism, full of creepy come-ons where you find yourself being led by him into strange alleyways when part of you is screaming to run but another part is enthralled. Here he's an opium addict who needs higher and higher doses to keep the poetic madness and fear of the grave from reducing him to a howling, gibbering (but still shockingly loquacious) thing. Luckily Sands makes it very sexy and has a fine moment standing naked in the storm atop the roof shouting about electricity. Cyr, for her part, a muse not a writer (the Anita Pallenberg of the group) does a bang-up job as the one with a mind more open to the supernatural forces. Sheends up the movie on all fours, covered in mud with a dead rat in her jaws but everyone realizes she's the only sane on in the group.

Still. no one in the grips of full bore withdrawal or laudanum intoxication can say complicated mouthfuls like "I was almost conscious when the smell of the damp earth hit me! There was an oppressive weight on my chest!" without slurring or jumbling the words. And if you compare their rantings to other 'all in a night' dialogue-driven movies about single nights amidst a small coterie of intoxicated artists, such as Performance, one comes away with the same impression of Russell one gleans watching Altered States. If he has done psychedelics, he darned well didn't do enough.

Certainly they all make a good foursome, grinding against each other. But there is also Timothy Spall's sexually frustrated, closeted Dr. Milidori who keeps them all high as a kite with his ministering, and eventually smashes his hand repeatedly on a nail to stop himself from masturbating (since it's a sin). Good grief. By the end of the night he's bathed in sweat, head shaved, bloody and babbling -- sigh, anything for attention. I know this type well. The same acid trip that lifts the rest of us up to a higher plane leaves them an insecure wreck. We can feel the crippling self conscious emanating out of them like an uncouth discharge.

Russell films with a lot of fisheye lenses as character run in and out of mostly empty rooms, the kind with clean wooden floors and maybe one old piece of furniture in a corner covered with white linens, evoking any number of Kate Bush videos. Another issue is that, this being the age before electricity, this huge mansion is way too brightly lit for the circumstances. It's not flat TV lighting per se, but it's a far cry from the gorgeous use of blacks we get in other, similar movies. Russell has a gift with setting up good actors in wild sets with florid dialogue, but falls apart in the pacing element. While compulsively watchable, Gothic is wildly disjointed and ridiculous. Horrors merely tumble on upon the other with no rhyme or reason. We never get a sense of where anyone is in relation to anyone else. It all ends with an unborn baby floating beneath the depths, as close in head shape to Karloff in Pearce's makeup as the lawyers will bear.

One interesting note is the way homosexuality is handled. Though there are the two ladies, both available for whatever, the terror of the (female) vampire spirit they conjured steeps the latter half in a kind of unbridled horror of the female body. Byron continually makes his female lovers wear gender neutral masks  (including his housemaid) or cover their faces with sheets (even Mary), and Percy's big fear is a woman's breast with eyes for nipples. Cyr's Claire is regularly deemed a kind of combination coquette and animalistic shaman: "She's locked in sleep! Trapped like a dreaming human form." Meow!

Since I've had wild night like this, and indeed first saw this film via a rental watched around 3 AM during an acid trip with my bandmates and girlfriends, I have a kind of proximal responsibility towards Gothic, as if it's a page in a scrapbook. It's so almost great. I wonder what wildness might have resulted in its stead if, before setting down to write the script, Russell could have taken a bunch of shrooms with some cool artsy college kids and then taken them to a double feature of Suspiria and Performance. Dude, it might have changed his whole perspective. But instead with Gothic it seems he's taking the long way around. Instead there's exchanges like this:
"But God is dead!" - Percy
"But haven't we raised the dead?" - Mary
It's nice that these decadents do gaily grind to each other but the problem is that these relationships never develop nor give us much of an arc, they start at a 9 and go up to 10 and stay there for the bulk of the film. Mary isn't a fan of Byron's strange hold over Percy and her sister Claire. She tells him Claire is pregnant (in real life she'd have his child) and Byron's response is a flippant "I'm sure even Polidori can perform a simple abortion" which seems so needlessly cruel and anachronistic it takes us out of the vibe. Mary grieves for her own dead child (thus the submerged baby brought back by electricity that will be you-know-who). We learn she's the least into the ghost story challenge, and, in a sly, backhanded way, the film almost robs her of sole authorship of Frankenstein, implying it is just as much the product of her lovers' frustrated homosexual drives: The repressions of the time giving birth to monsters as gay artistes force themselves into heterosexual pair bonding and bring the wife to a lot of weekends with other brooding "Byronic" artistes like themselves for some laudanum quaffing and what goes on in the Alps stays in the Alps.

The good part is the intended similarity between this magic night and the correct way to take LSD, i.e. in the right set and setting, in a big safe space full of cool rooms to run through, with a bunch of cool artists who aren't going to take advantage of your dislocated mind, at least not anymore than they have already. To do it right you need plenty of space to run around facing your own demons, having wild sex with phantoms, and/or taking a shower with your clothes on. To that end, there's plenty of well staged weird little scenes, not unlike as if God or the chalet's decorator had arranged it all to evoke a haunted attraction, where each room has some bizarre sculpture that moves (there's someone inside it!) or has an boa constrictor coiling around its neck, or whatever.  

As for Halloween it's the perfect party movie, as I remember from seeing it really drunk with a bunch of people, all of whom were cool and high and able to spout poetry without it sounding much too measured, scripted and aware of its immortal importance. Yet here we are.  The moon is just as far away as ever. Maybe the gift of memory is that one is free not see how it all may have looked from the outside, from the aghast dorm room neighbor trying to study while you run shrieking down the hall raving about eternal life, dripping beer and rain water while feeling yourself a blessed mad poet angel dripping sunshine and brilliant wordplay down upon a grateful continent. 

-- Sorry if this is rambling - my cat Olive died in the middle of the night last night. I'm still in shock. There's a huge Prime list of films for Halloween coming my next post, but I had to give you a taste. If you're still there. The stream of consciousness writing eases my tortured brain. She was the best cat in the world, and watching her die in my girlfriend's arms after her death moans woke us at 3 AM will haunt me the rest of my days, so much like nightmares and dreaded thoughts I'd had lying there with her between us, basking in her magic unifying love. But I think of her goodness. The good times. And let her spirit depart for whatever cool cushion may wait for her in the next realm. Death is a fuckin' nightmare to watch happen. I'd never seen it, a being I dearly love gasping in a seizure of fear and pain then going totally dead before you even fully wake up, panicked but irrational, unable to even read the phone in a frantic scroll for help, glasses off, seeing double on the screen and then -----a living cat changes to dead tissue with a silent gasp, before we could even..... Powerless, dreaming of a way to just shock her back to life via the thunderbolt of a compassionate Zeus or Franklin, like Shelley with her dead child in the sea. There is nothing so horrible as watching a being you love dearly, suddenly, with a shudder followed by a stillness you've never seen in a creature you've cradled in your lap for so long, go so very dead. Remember the good times. That dewey look she gave. We love you Olive. xoxoxo Thank you so much for being with us. xo


  1. I saw this at the Spectrum Theater in Albany,NY with an ex who had a disturbing tendency of insisting we attend every new Ken Russell film long after I'd had enough of him. You can imagine the resulting level of nightmarish intimacy but this was a woman who compared our relationship to Sartre's Roads to Freedom Trilogy.

  2. She sounds like quite a gal. I'm not familiar with the Freedom Trilogy, but nightmarish intimacy and Ken Russell overload sounds like quite an ordeal

  3. very sorry for your loss, Erich.

    -mark brewer


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