Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson, Timothy Spall
In the summer of 1816, the great English poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, Byron’s biographer Dr. John Polidori and Shelley’s then-fiancé, Mary Godwin gathered at a villa in Switzerland. One night, they challenged each other to create a ghost story. The result was Mary Shelley’s ’Frankenstein,’ one of the seminal works of horror fiction. (Dr. Polidori’s ’Vampyre,’ also born out of the competition, served as one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s ’Dracula.’) ’Gothic’ is British director Ken Russell’s lurid hypothesis about the events of that fateful night.
Featuring Gabriel Byrne as Byron, Julian Sands as Shelley and Natasha Richardson as Mary Godwin, ’Gothic’ feverishly depicts a frenzied night of laudanum-induced hallucinations, allowing free reign for Russell’s trademark excessive imagery. The characters (and the viewer) witness all manner of visual grotesquerie, including ghost knights with giant phalluses, breasts with blinking eyes and bodies covered in leeches. While the topic is rife with potential, Russell’s and screenwriter Stephen Volk’s dissertation ultimately crushes under the weight of the director’s bloated imagination.
The video transfer displays numerous problems. For starters, the full-frame image looks as if it was mastered from a much worn print. Speckles appear throughout, starting at the credits. The garish colors of the film, for the most part, are well represented, but the transfer lacks sharpness and detail. Compression artifacts are present, as is quite a bit of film grain. The film was released theatrically, yet there is no explanation as to why the DVD is presented full-frame.
The DVD’s 2.0 Dolby Digital audio appears to be in stereo, but the packaging does not identify it as such. In Pro-Logic mode, faint activity occurs in the front and rear channels. Most of the time, the soundtrack collapses into the center channel, decoding as an ’embellished’ mono track. The audio serves Thomas Dolby’s bombastic music score well enough, but dialogue at times seems overly produced and not at all naturally integrated within the environment. Two trailers are included, but again are not identified on the packaging.
’Gothic’ may not merit a features-packed special edition, but producing a shoddy DVD should not be considered an acceptable compromise.