Five go mad at the Villa Diodati: Ken Russell’s ‘Gothic’

by Andrew Weltch

 

The creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a fascinating tale in its own right. In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron invited fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his lover, 18-year-old Mary Godwin, to stay at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, along with Mary’s’stepsister Claire Clairmont, and Byron’s physician friend (and biographer), Dr John Polidori.

Forced to entertain themselves during miserable weather in a famously cold summer, they agreed to a competition to write the scariest ghost story – and Mary’s contribution was the basis for Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Arguably the first science fiction novel, it led to countless imitations and a whole sub-genre of films. The competition also saw the creation of Polidori’s The Vampyre, which set the template for Dracula, another literary and cinematic horror thread that would stretch through the 20th century and beyond.

This gathering of creative talent has been portrayed on film several times – most notably perhaps introducing James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but never as notoriously as Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986).


The film is based on a screenplay by Stephen Volk – the first of many film and TV horrors, including the famous Halloween hoax Ghostwatch (1992). He sent the script to Virgin Films, who offered it to Russell. He reworked parts of it with Volk before filming began. Russell already had an interest in the story and had planned to film a version of it a decade earlier, but had been unable to raise the budget. Having cut his teeth on TV documentaries and earned praise for his biopics of great composers, Russell’s first feature was Women in Love (1969), which – despite its many attributes and an Oscar for Glenda Jackson – is still mainly remembered for the homoerotic naked wrestling scene involving Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, which (unusually for a mainstream film) showed male genitals.

He continued to push boundaries, most notably in The Devils (1971), whose extreme sexual and violent content, linked to religious themes, led to its being banned in many markets and heavily censored in others. Sex, violence, and religion would be prominent in Gothic too. Gothic was filmed in the summer of 1986, mostly in Hertfordshire, with a talented and fashionable cast – Gabriel Byrne (Byron), Julian Sands (Shelley), Natasha Richardson (Mary Godwin), Timothy Spall (Polidori), and Myriam Cyr (Claire Clairmont), while synthpop musician and producer Thomas Dolby wrote the score.

Initially, the film has much in common with ‘conventional’ horror films – apparent innocents arrive at a spooky old mansion, greeted by a hunchback servant, and welcomed by a vampire-like host in Byron – he’s pale, mysterious, predatory, and there are ‘jokes’ about his sleeping in a coffin and being a devil with a cloven hoof.

 

 

But Gothic soon leaves convention behind. After our famous five take a drink of laudanum – the first of many – we are never quite sure what is real and what is imagined. A game of hide-and-seek in the largely empty house takes us into the cellar, thick with cobwebs and rats, and into rooms whose only occupants are automata – dancing or playing music. We encounter Dr Polidori’s jars of leeches – the go-to remedy for a range of ailments, and nature’s own slimy vampires – while thunder and lightning provide the reassuring familiarity of so many horror films.

 

Byron may seem to be the insane one of the group (‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, we are told), but it is Shelley who climbs naked on to the roof during the storm, to be close to the lightning – “the fundamental force of nature”. Claire appears possessed, suffering convulsions, and Polidori is so disturbed he deliberately wounds his hand on a nail where he had hung a crucifix.

Only Mary seems to avoid slipping into the madness that surrounds her, for the time being at least. But she confides in Polidori that she is haunted by the memory of giving birth to a stillborn baby the previous year, and would give anything to bring it back to life.

This is, Shelley proclaims “an age of dreams and nightmares”. And Gothic is certainly dreamlike. In one nightmarish sequence, Mary has visions of her dead son, finds herself trapped in a room full of doors, sees herself giving birth to a dead baby, sees Polidori’s naked body with cockroaches coming out of his mouth, witnesses Shelley being buried alive, and Byron covered in leeches. The nightmare seems set to end as she prepares to throw herself from the balcony – but Shelley rescues her.

 

 

There are dreamlike recurrences of creatures out of place – a fish (nearly) out of water, splashing in a near-empty bird bath; a huge snake draped over a suit of armour; goldfish (one of them dead) in a washbasin; a pig’s head on the kitchen floor (which in Byron’s mind becomes Polidori’s); and finally baboons in a cage on the lawn being fed from a silver platter.

 

There’s sex too, of course. Byron summons the maid for sex – a seemingly well-rehearsed and tiresome routine for her, although the other servants are sufficiently intrigued to listen at the door. Mary finds a book of erotica, which initially disturbs, then apparently arouses her, and after staring at Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare on the bedroom wall, prompts a dream in which a goblin-like dwarf crouches on her and claws at her face – an erotic scene which echoes the painting. Soon after, Byron performs oral sex on the pregnant Claire, emerging like a vampire with a bloody mouth.

The five read ghost stories while topping up on laudanum and agree to a competition to write their own. But their drug-fuelled imaginations seem to unleash a creature: is it death? The devil? Shelley sees it in the stable and panics. Byron sees it in the cellar, where it leaves a deposit of slime – ectoplasm? Some devilish bodily fluid? Shelley and Mary find more of its slime in the house, while Polidori claims to have been attacked by a vampire.

Shelley says they’ve given birth to a creature which is a ‘jigsaw of our worst fears’ and Mary claims it’s a monster that didn’t ask to be born – descriptions which bring to mind Frankenstein’s creature.  After the terrifying frenzy of the night before, the storm passes, and the mood changes dramatically. They’re outside in the sunshine, polite and civilised, drinking tea instead of laudanum. “There are no ghosts in daylight,” Byron tells Mary.

Gothic isn’t an easy film to watch – it’s often puzzling, sometimes disturbing and even scary. As a cinematic vision of that famous gathering, it contrasts vividly with the sedate version presented by James Whale half a century earlier. This is very much the stuff of ‘dreams and nightmares’.

Andrew Weltch is a writer, editor and public relations consultant, whose interests include film and history. He blogs about arts and entertainment and runs a communications consultancy.