The birth of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein receives the Grand Guignol treatment it so sorely deserves in Gothic, Ken Russell’s histrionic reimagining of that notorious weekend at Villa Dodati which forever changed the course of English literature. Convening upon the Italian estate of original “edge” Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) for a little bohemian wife-swapping and laudanum-swilling, heroine Mary (Natasha Richardson), fiance Percy (Julian Sands), and Byron-devotee Claire Clairmont (Myram Cir, with big Kate Bush energy) endure frightening trial after trial in their collective exploration of the sensuous and supernatural.
With a menacing storm on the horizon, Byron and his opium-addled guests wile way the small hours trading ghost stories and mind games, bracing against the boundaries of their fellow housemates and probing ever-deeper into their shared penchant for the macabre. Paens to necrophilia, insinuated incest, and the guests’ recalled childhood traumas are passed around like cartes-de-viste, as their devilish host keeps the wine flowing and stirs the proverbial cauldron. Like some nightmare memory house, each chamber in Byron’s foreboding estate holds a new terrifying sensation, further testing the mettle of the gathered as the long night wanes.
After the one-two punch of Stateside productions Altered States and Crimes of Passion, Russell returned to his native land in full, blooming corpse flower, unleashing every hallmark of his signature style on his harried playthings – rigor-mortis expressions and animalistic outbursts, tasteless asides, and overwrought interiors photographed with curious composition and an over-reliance on Dutch angles. Challenging though they may be, these are the methods of a true madman – of whom one could easily ascribe Lady Caroline Lamb’s succinct description of Byron himself: “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”