Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Honourable Mentions: Gothic

The 1986 Ken Russell opus has much that would attract me to it. For a start off it is a Ken Russell film and I am somewhat of a fan of the maverick director. The film describes the imagined events at Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva, and – historically – the 3 days spent at the Villa led to the creation of both Frankenstein and The Vampyre. It also features Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and his is a figure to which I have long been drawn – I do like an anti-hero.

Russell paints a dreamscape of fears onto the screen, which is well suited to his style and vision. Snakes (a Russell staple), fish flopping in dried bird baths and wandering goats meet mechanical ladies in a psychedelic cornucopia.
The Villa was the summer residence of Byron who was there with Doctor John Polidori (Timothy Spall). Into the mix came Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands), his lover – and later to be wife – Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson) and her half-sister Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr). Claire had previously had a love affair with Byron.

The group heavily used laudanum and had been reading ghost stories, such as the collection entitled Fantasmagoriana. It was then suggested that they have a writing competition. In the film they soon become bored of the idea and hold a séance that gives birth to a creature composed of their fears (at least in their drug-addled minds) and this allows Russell to paint a symbolically rich, gothic tapestry around the viewer.

Whilst describing the birth of the modern vampire story and the story of Frankenstein, there is not, necessarily, a vampire within the film – though it is hinted that Polidori might have been attacked by one at one point, as we shall see. The film, however, contains much in the way of vampiric imagery and narrative and, beyond that, deserves an honourable mention for the description of the event itself.

When the idea of the story competition is first mooted, Polidori’s suggestion is “What about a dark English nobleman who draws women to him, sucks their blood and discards them empty.” This slight against Byron fits in well with the fact that his eventual literary vampire was a satire of his, by the time of publication, former employer.

This metaphor of Byron as vampire is carried further in the film. At one point Byron says to Shelley, “would the smooth neck of a woman be so desirable were it not for our secret wish to see upon it a trickle of blood.” Mary, at another point, accuses Byron of enjoying living up to the image of a vampire, in a way a strange comment as the nobleman vampire would not exist until Polidori wrote his opus and perhaps hinting that the concept was already floating around. Russell uses the imagery of Fuseli’s the nightmare, which featured an incubus – the mythology of which is akin to that of the vampire, to a degree.

In one of the more disturbing scenes, Byron is orally intimate with an insensible Claire and surfaces, if you will, with blood across his mouth. Whilst this is not vampiric, more a metaphor for the abortion Byron wishes the woman to have (she is carrying his child who, historically, would be born and named Alegra), the sight of blood upon Lord Byron’s mouth – especially given Polidori’s in film description of a vampire and the actual character he created – is somewhat poignant.

As the night progresses the guests of the household become more and more erratic. Polidori is found with a wound upon his neck. Whilst Byron suggests it was either a tourist with scissors or, more likely, a case of self harm, Polidori claims he was attacked by a vampire. “I felt its icy breath. I felt its fangs sinking into my throat.” He exclaims.

None of the characters come across positively. Mary seems prudish, despite the claims of free love, and jealous. Shelley seems self obsessed and narcissistic. Claire seems as mad as a hatter – helped by Cyr’s wonderfully intense mad stare. Byron is portrayed with a sinister arrogance, a hateful individual who is fuelled by his own inner conflicts. Polidori seems a simpering fop and potential suicide (despite a verdict of natural causes it is likely that the real Polidori did commit suicide).

That said, one cannot help but be drawn into the characters’ self (and drug) induced melodrama and this is thanks to the ensemble cast’s performance. First amongst equals is Byrne who delivers so much as Byron. The discordantly electronic Thomas Dolby soundtrack only adds to the atmosphere, where it would be so easy for it to detract.

The film certainly will not be everybody’s cup of tea. However, if you like your Ken Russell films it is a treat and it does bear witness to the creative birth of two of horror’s consistent icons.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

Mmmm Natasha Richardson.

Taliesin_ttlg said...