Gothic (DVD Review)

18 – 87mins – 1986


 

CARNIVAL OF CHAOS

“As long as you are a guest in my house, you will play my games…”

Embellished with his signature idiosyncratic fusion of grotesque surrealism and indulgent eroticism, acclaimed-but-controversial visionary British director Ken Russell (Altered States) turns his fevered eye toward the fateful night in 1816 upon which young Romantic artists Shelley (Julian Sands), Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson), her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Miriam Cyr) and the doctor Polidori (Timothy Spall) gathered at the menagerie-esque madhouse of Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) to tell ghost stories – with the future Mrs. Shelley’s classic horror novel Frankenstein being the enduring outcome.

Enhanced by the eerie tones of a pheramin-lead score, and with thunder and lightening clashing outside, the dark and largely empty rooms of Byron’s uninviting Swiss sanctuary is chock-full of eccentric ambiguities and stock genre tropes – from cobwebs, rats, candles and ornamental skulls to bell jars, clockwork mannequins, suits of armour and all the ingredients to conduct a séance! Its an eclectic cluster which in the wrong hands could have appeared too busy, but Russell successfully manages to juggle all the elements into an elusive and evocative almost poetic fever dream.

The hired help merely roll their eyes at the surreal circus parading around them, but there is a frightening heightened intensity to even the artist’s frivolity, with their virtuous tempers giving way to an almost rabid frothing obscenity the longer the night goes on. There is a fine line between genius and madness and I do believe that Gothic sits pretty atop that very line!

Sex, drugs and creativity clash violently with perverse and wanton abandon in this trippy and stirring madhouse. “I never plan anything” Byron cries – and never a truer word spoken as Gothic is often maddeningly confusing (a severed pig’s head lies on a bedroom floor, a goblin-like creature watches the girls as they sleep fraught dreams, and just what was that alien-like head in the barn?!), but never anything less than gripping and evocative.

As the night races towards day, the imagery takes on even deeper metaphoric meaning, the fears and anxieties of the decadent author’s each contributing to the jigsaw-like monster they have created (“our creature”). The elements which run through Frankenstein are cleverly planted throughout this uneasy viewing experience which often leaves you – like the characters – feeling like you are “trapped like a dream in human form.” But unlike the characters we know we can escape simply by pressing “pause” – except we are so enraptured by the lavishly grotesque delights dancing before our eyes that we don’t want to.

Gothic [DVD]Indecent, erotic and eerily surreal, Ken Russell’s historically inaccurate Gothic won’t be to everyone’s taste, but those looking for an orgasmic sensory overload need look no further. Come the end credits you’ll be sweating, shivering – more than likely confounded – but ultimately satisfied by this lavish macabre mindfuck.

CR@B’s Claw Score: 4 stars

Bride of Frankenstein (Blu-ray Review)

15 – 75mins – 1935 – B&W


 

THE MONSTER’S MATE

“Be fruitful and multiply!”

Despite some flagrant concessions to lazy sequel syndrome (both ‘dead’ leads from 1931’s adapted predecessor conveniently survived apparent deaths; the same ‘man thrown from precipice’ climax is recycled) and yet more awkward tonal shifts from Universal Studio’s go-to director, James The Invisible Man Whale (from inhumane horror to hysterical humour in the space of a poorly-delivered line), this universe-broadening follow-up is otherwise an all-together superior and more refined monster.

A remarkably post-modern framing device sets the quality bar sky-high from the off, with Bride introduced by Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) ‘herself’, niftily recanting the original tale and teasing her lofty literary circle of Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton) that more is to come…

“The monster lived right through the fire…”

By bringing back both human catalyst Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his lumbering creation (Boris The Mummy Karloff), and by using the controversial scientist’s flamboyant Peter Cushing-esque mentor, Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), to coerce a “supreme collaboration” in the unholy quest to make life in God’s own image, you could accuse screenwriter William Hurlbut of orchestrating a carbon rehash of the urtext’s plot. The third time you hear the iconic catchphrase, you might feel things are being played far too safe.

However, some truly gobsmacking FX (for its day) in bringing Pretorius’ “mini monarchs” to life, and some gravitas-delivering character development for Karloff’s shamed outcast-in-hiding truly elevates this envelope-pushing production. The scene is cribbed from the hiding in a shed subplot described in Shelley’s original text (“Alone, bad. Friend, good”), but such emotional depth was largely absent from the first film, much to its detriment.

Elsa Lanchester has an electrifying effect in the second of her dual roles. Despite a scandalous lack of screen time (all of 5 climatic minutes), her twitchy and erratic portrayal of the titular mate-order Bride is an iconic revelation, delivering a cruel and crushing judgement to the hopeful-yet-ignorant Monster which makes for a bravely downbeat last-gasp dénouement: “We belong dead.”

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

Frankenstein (Blu-ray Review)

18 – 89mins – 2015


 

NOVEL INTENTIONS

The sum of husband and wife Viktor (Danny Huston) and Marie Frankenstein’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) unorthodox endeavours to find “the formula for life,” Adam (Xavier Twilight Samuel) is ‘born’ perfect: handsome, healthy and endowed with the strength of ten men. However, his mental state is far behind his physical stature, and a number of “cell replication errors” bring about body deformities which prove to Adam’s creators that he is not the revolutionary breakthrough they first believed him to be.

“Are you a man or are you an animal?!”

Detached and distressed, Adam breaks out of his laboratory isolation following a bloody bone saw tussle with a technician, and he escapes into the big, wild world, where this naïve soul learns of the darker side of humanity…

A potent miscellany of twenty-first century idioms, technologies, social issues and scientific ponderings are infused with the base elements of Mary Shelley’s oft-adapted Victorian horror novel, transplanted to the modern day by Candyman director Bernard Rose. While some of the augmentations work well, others feel incidental and superfluous in this uneven update – sometimes awkwardly stylised as FRANK3N5T31N – which is sold with the slightly misleading USP of being told from the monster’s perspective.

While Adam does narrate his journey of discovery, there is a bizarre (but no doubt purposeful) disassociation between his overly philosophical and often grandly poetic internalised musings, and the childlike ignorance he displays on-screen with his “capacity of a one year old”. Such is his infantile mindset that Adam is frequently the victim of savage abuse, until he is befriended by blind busker Eddie (Tony Todd), who mentors him in how to survive when living rough.

The unbridled brutality (which often feels affected to uncomfortable overkill just to achieve the apex age rating) goes hand-in-hand with a frankly maladroit approach to lighting. As the film opens everything is overlit and gives the picture a rather graceless, unsubtle quality – at one point the saturation is so high a cabbage looks neon!

Echoing the evolution of the monster and the (thankful) variation in lighting direction, Frankenstein’s more nuanced second half is a vast improvement on the one note, in-your-face opening act, bringing shade and sentiment to the sadistic slaughter. Adam’s homecoming goes so far as to add parental poignancy with such painful insights as:

“You made me… you hate me… I am I… I am you… I am… alone.”

It isn’t perfect, but Rose’s gleefully bold and shamelessly grisly update does have a brain beneath its bloodstained body – it just needed time to grow into it.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Frankenstein – The Restored Version (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 70mins – 1931 – B&W


MAKING A MONSTER

Released to cinemas just nine short months after Dracula’s Valentine’s day bow, Universal soon realised they had another monster hit on their hands with this loose adaptation of Mary Shelley’s iconic morality tale about “The Modern Prometheus”, which would go on to produce a further seven direct sequels – and influence a whole lot more.

For all of Frankenstein’s variations from the gothic source material, this film has become just as culturally significant in its own right. Many of the striking make-up, lighting and cinematography choices director James Whale’s film conjures up (from the creation of a hunchbacked assistant to Boris Karloff’s flat-headed, bolt-necked Monster and his lightning-powered rebirth) have become stock horror tropes to this day, synonymous with the legend.

Opening with a fourth wall shattering “friendly word of warning” to the audience from Von Helsing himself, Edward Van Sloan, we are then transported to an unspecified European village to find controversial scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his obedient assistant, Fritz (Dwight “Renfield” Frye) robbing the graves of the recently deceased to help in their creation of life from death.

Aesthetically resplendent are the many diverse set changes, from medical lecture halls to hill-top laboratories racked with storms so to embrace “all the electrical secrets of heaven”. However, a number of dialogue-heavy and overtly-expository scenes delivered with grave sternness to reiterate “Herr Frankenstein’s mad dream” slow the pace to a crawl before we’ve even reached those two most crucial words… “It’s Aliiiiive!”

The same diminishing effect is also brought about by later scenes of the eponymous scientist’s exuberant wedding festivities. As smart as it is to inter-cut joy with the escaped Monster’s tragic drowning of an innocent child, too much filler does zap any flow from the narrative, dampening the cumulative effect of the horror and leading to a thoroughly lacklustre and uneven plot.

The townsfolk converging into a pitchfork rabble to hunt the dangerous creature to a fiery windmill crescendo is effectively tense and climatic, particularly the Monster’s throwing of his (ragdoll) master onto the spinning blades, however I never felt like Karloff’s lumbering undead oaf was ever successfully established as a tender or misunderstood naïve, rather as a snarling, heavy-handed mute brute with an “abnormal brain”.

I accept that he did not ask to be brought into existence, or to have the brain of a criminal, however you never really pity the tormented individual like you should. Furthermore, the epilogue baiting an heir to continue on Frankenstein’s work feels horrendously tacked on and disappointingly commercialised, leaving me with the overall opinion that for all of its undoubtedly iconic imagery, Frankenstein is a flawed and uneven early creation – ironically much like its monster.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars