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‘…one of the best films from a lauded British director…Gothic has appeal for literary and horror fans, and its critique of male excess is one that still feels pertinent today…’

‘The devil, as well as God, is an Englishman,’ is a typically provocative line from Ken Russell’s Gothic, an absolute phantasmagoria of a film from way back in 1986. Back then, my teenage self was just old enough to watch a X certificate movie without standing on someone’s shoulders inside a raincoat, and was keen to see what kind of mature films that consenting adults watch. The story of how Mary Shelley came to imagine the idea of Frankenstein and his monster, Gothic harks back to Russell’s days at the BBC making Omnibus documentaries about cultural figures, but with a dollop of modish 80’s dream horror smeared over the surface.

Playing with surprising reserve for a Russell film, Natasha Richardson takes the role of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who heads for a posho mansion-house glamp on Lake Geneva with her wild poet husband (the late Julian Sands) in tow. They’re guests of the Byronic Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), who lives up to his celebrated tag of being ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’ Byron gets his pervy assists from a good old-fashioned mad doctor and author, Polidori (Timothy Spall) and even has a crisp Dexter Fletcher waiting in the wings as storm clouds gather, lightning strikes and Bryon’s guests have to pick their way carefully through a confusing forest of cod-pieces, snakes and courgettes. In a slew of excess, drugs and specifically pints of laudanum, Mary Shelley takes issue with the patriarchy, and somehow conceives a monster in the process…

Russell never saw an opportunity for group madness that he didn’t like, and manages to catch the feel of a small gathering who choose a path to depravity, ‘blinded by their own wickedness’. But beyond the vestigial gloom, there’s more to this poetry party than most; ‘They have it in mind to raise the dead,’ worries Mary, and Byron’s commitment to his own cause leads not only to skull-touching séances, but casually poor treatment of his current girlfriend Clair Clairmont (Miriam Cyr), who Bryan wants to have an abortion. ‘A brilliant man can still be evil’ says Byron, but is he really any smarter than Mary Shelley? She rails against what she hears ‘A contradiction in terms; an intelligent woman!’ and rejects the (male) notion that her willingness to give birth to a literary phenomenon is the result of angst over her own lost child. That’s partly why Mary is so involved in the central conflict with Byron; Russell may have been as mad and bad as Byron ever was, but he understood the hell of a woman scorned, and Mary remains firmly the audience surrogate here as male indiscretions pile up around her.

Gothic isn’t a straight horror film, but is also too fancy-dan to be considered a biopic, even by the most unreliable standards; it’s a fantasy, much like much of Russell’s other work, and its primary intention is to entertain. With Gaddesden Place in Hertfordshire doubling for Lake Geneva to keep the budget under two million, Russell feels free to uncork a hamper of bizarre, baroque images that keep a capable cast on their toes; Byrne makes a particularly fierce Byron, and Spall’s gibbering Polidori is something to behold in his undercrackers. With genuine country-house locations looking mint under Mike Southon’s cinematography, this is a very worthwhile restoration from the BFI of one of the best films from a lauded British director. Gothic has appeal for literary and horror fans, and its critique of male excess is one that still feels pertinent today. You’d be better getting your fix of actual literary history elsewhere, but as a way of drawing the unwary to a very modern take on Mary Shelley’s story, Ken Russell’s Gothic reveals itself to be a rather monstrous success.

Gothic is on BFI Blu-ray release on 18 September 2023. Thanks to the BFI for access.

Special features

  • Presented in High Definition
  • Feature commentary by film historian Matthew Melia and Lisi Russell (2018)
  • The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002, 83 mins): Ken Russell returns to gothic themes in this legendarily lurid late video work starring both the director and his wife, Lisi Russell
  • A Haunted Evening (2023, 35 mins): Stephen Volk, the writer of Gothic, revisits his earliest feature script
  • The Soul of Shelley With Julian Sands (2017, 18 mins): the actor reflects upon the making of Gothic
  • Amelia and the Angel (1958, 27 mins): in this charming early Russell short, a young girl, cast as an angel in the school play, is distraught when her brother damages her treasured wings. Pocket money in hand, Amelia traverses London on the hunt for a new pair in time for the play
  • The Guardian Lecture: Ken Russell in conversation with Derek Malcolm (1987, 88 mins, audio only): the director reflects upon his career up to the release of Gothic
  • Original trailer
  • ***First pressing only*** illustrated booklet with new essays by Ellen Cheshire, Jon Dear and Matthew Melia, film credits and notes on the special features

Product details

RRP: £19.99 / Cat. no. BFIB1496 / 18

USA, UK / 1987 / colour / 88 minutes / English language with optional descriptive subtitles / original aspect ratio 1.85:1 // BD50: 1080p, 24fps, LPCM 1.0 mono audio (48kHz/24-bit)

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  1. I have really dim memories of watching some of this on VHS back in the ’80s and pulling it at some point while muttering “What the hell is this?” Maybe it’s worth another look. Maybe.

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