The Special Shelf: 1986's Gothic

This summer, everything was still chaotic and strange. So I decided to explore one of history’s best pansexual freak-outs, as told by one of the greatest directors of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s? Gothic is the story of how society got both Frankenstein and the modern conception of the vampire out of wet hallucinating renegade aristocrats on the run from decency.


The year is 1816, and kinky rake/legendary poet Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne, haughty and horny and the withholding daddy of literature students for two centuries) is having an epic party at the Villa Diodati. On the guest list is poet Percy Shelley (Julian Sands, A Room With A View), his bride Mary Wollstonecraft (Natasha Richardson, from the OG Handmaid’s Tale), her sister/Byron’s ex-mistress Claire Clairmont (Miriam Cyr, Species II), and physician/drug dealer/closet case Dr. Polidori (Timothy Spall, the Harry Potter movies). And on deck is a weekend of torrential rain, keeping the quintet inside, where sex, drugs, and storytelling will keep them occupied. Everyone is horny and the borders between the real and the monstrous are especially thin.

Cover of 1986's 'Gothic'

Director Ken Russell was pretty extensively heterosexual, but his work is suffused with queer sensibility and characters and an energy that shook up complacent audiences for several decades. If you’ve never seen Women in LoveThe Rainbow, or The Music Lovers, I suggest you take a languorous dip in their sensual overload. 

This film is an exquisite nightmare of heaving bosoms, tight butts, body horror, and respectable society watching from the banks of the other side of Lake Geneva in titillated shock. Sands is a particular delight, finding a himbo take on Shelley that finds the mid-point between his Merchant Ivory collaborations and his presiding turn in the Warlock films. And Spall, always there with the deprecating remark or the refill of the required liquor or pills, finds the truth at the center of what could be a stereotype, groping at glory without a clue of the legacy his creation would find.

A fever dream of historical fanfic and literary history, Gothic is such a profoundly weird film that I can’t imagine how the straight world greeted it in 1986. Every aspect hits hard (especially Thomas Dolby’s deliberately anachronistic score), and it speaks to the lit goth in all of us. Russell’s instinct for blending the classy and the trashy is peerless (see also The Lair of The White Worm), and with the late Natasha Richardson’s exceptional performance, we’re allowed a window into one of the nineteenth century’s most intriguing and ardent feminist icons.

The Villa Diodati still stands, though it’s been converted into luxury housing, because there’s nothing so wild or sensually unhinged that can’t be acquired and commodified. Though Ken Russell and Natasha Richardson are no longer with us, Julian Sands, Gabriel Byrne, and Timothy Spall are all still acting regularly. Miriam Cyr has raised a family and is doing her own thing. Thomas Dolby helped develop polyphonic ringtone technology and made a killing by actually making the world a better place in the aughts. Gothic is available on Blu-ray from Lionsgate and streams on Tubi, Vudu, and Plex. And the legacies of Frankenstein and vampires endure, stronger than ever in a world enriched by that rainy weekend of psychedelics and sexual experimentation.

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