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To kick off this season of scary films at the Dukes, I’ll admit I was sceptical about the choice of Ken Russell’s Gothic. It has a reputation for a being an awfully trashy film, that follows the lives of the Byron-Shelley circle and the famous night in 1816 at the Villa Diodati where the group of writers told ghost stories. And while the film is trashy to an extraordinary degree, it surpasses a point of being unwatchable so that you can barely take your eyes of the screen. The film has a plethora of random moments, from the reoccurring goat that occasionally pops up to the hallucinogenic dream sequences that create the film’s strange narrative.
I don’t think I could have enjoyed the film as much if Professor Catherine Spooner had not introduced it. Her short introductory talk perfectly framed the film within its context and allowed you to watch those cringe-worthy moments with a sense of intrigue. This film reads the Romantic period in two ways. Firstly, through the gaze of the tourist, as at both the beginning and end of the film you see tourists looking at the Villa Diodati with interest as they see where the famous Mary Shelley and Lord Byron spent a summer. This in turn almost allows for the sensationalism and sexualisation of the Romantics, we see Byron and his friends as we want to see them fictionally, as figures in Gothic novels themselves. This film is a very literary one, it makes that many references to other Gothic texts to the point where it’s so embedded in Gothic culture that it becomes inescapable. If you were to play a game of ‘Spot the Gothic Trope’ with this film, I doubt there would be a silent moment between each person shouting out a new spot. In framing the film’s narrative through the tourist gaze, we see the group as we want to see them. Secondly, the film is framed through drug culture, specifically that of the 1960’s. It uses hallucinatory visuals and psychedelic settings, and while this in many ways devalues the intellectual achievements of the film’s subjects, it also allows for some of the more eccentric aspects of the film.
This film is not one of historical appreciation for literary figures of the past but one that sensationalises the literary figures theme-less in the context of what they created. Lord Byron says in this film ‘We see to call ourselves creators’, and Mary Shelley’s response to this is ‘And this is out punishment, what have we created?’. In a sense, this film is a product of the writers’ own creations, and in creating some of the greatest works in literary history they in turn created themselves. Maybe not quite in the same hyper sexualised way Russell’s film portrays it, but certainly as a result of the Gothic.
There are more great scary films to come this season at the Dukes, including some special screenings taking place in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle. If you fancy a good scare this Halloween, head to dukes-lancaster.org for more information.