Ken Creates the Creator of the Creature
James Whale's marvelous, partly Expressionistic The Bride of Frankenstein has more of whatever truth may be known in its little finger of an abbreviated prologue where Byron (the aptly surnamed Gavin Gordon) famously limps over to ask Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester, also the Bride), than all eighty-seven minutes of Ken Russell’s Gothic. The latter 1986 film is framed, too, by a dandy who explains as tittering titillated ladies gawk through his spyglass, and by a present-day guide’s exposition of the future while a drowned baby floats unnoticed off the tourist boat.
But what goes between, in the flamboyant controversial ex-BBC fictionalized documentarist’s vision, is purely imagined post-mortem psychoanalysis, sprinkled with lazy symbolism and mannerisms, conjecturing on what might have occurred in that fecund ménage-a-many at Villa Diodati. Spuriously suggesting the inner workings of mind and spirit, with occasional blatant spellings-out, and hampered by slapdash sets and hokey period costume by Kay Gallwey, the result is talky without saying anything, unconvincing, and even lacking the self-indulgent filmmaker’s usual energy.
Atmosphere came, not from the film, but from the scratchy soundtrack and circle-blotched 16mm print and pauses to change projector reels at the New York Public Library Donnell Center showing, part of its October “In Frankenstein’s Footsteps” tribute to Whale’s Frankenstein and Hallowe’en. Losing in the macabre mayhem department to the fourteen-minute claymation gore of Jan Svankmajer’s accompanying 1988 Czech soccer parody, Manly Games aka the Male Game/Muzué hry, Stephen Volk’s screenplay is at fault, a limp attempt to cover bi- and homosexuality, miscarriage and incest, fleshed over a rickety Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? skeleton. Besides nasty characters, it boils down to George’s revelation in the Albee work mangled into Mary Godwin Shelley’s (Natasha Richardson) mourning for her dead child as the eventual genesis for her novel about parents’ responsibility to their creation-offspring.
Such amateur oversimplification is not in and of itself absolutely deadly, but the cinematic realization on top of it spells doom, as poet Shelley (Julian Sands), “fiancée” Mary and her pregnant-with-Byron’s-Allegra step-sister Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr) join the scandalous self-exiled Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and his jealous physician and plaything-suitor John Polidori (Timothy Spall) on the shores of most conveniently tempest-tost Lake Geneva.
Dime-store cobwebs, unanimated rats but animated suits of armor, a forlorn flaming tree and repeated shots up a tight square stairwell--back to someone’s womb?--complement the costume-store Victorian outfits, and a miscast cast flounders in what only extreme kindness could interpret as camp. As George Gordon Lord Byron, heartthrob of the day, Byrne beetles his brows and paws skirts in an anything but sexy performance, especially sans shirt; the often pantless Polidori--who actually finished the Lord’s The Vampyre as his own and modeled the bloodsucker on Byron--leers and nails himself, Claire rolls in slime and rounds her blue impossible doll’s eyes, and feckless blond Shelley is unintelligible.
Through it all, as the quartet play mindgames and mouth stuff like “Alas! I have no virtues” and “They only suck blood, my lord,” straight-arrow Mary sticks it out because she loves her poet, is jealous (maybe) of her sister and, it will out, is ever-mindful of her own baby’s death -- two more would also die -- and of guilt over the mother who died giving birth to her.
Before they can all sit down to gestate the literature being conceived here, they must first exorcise the individual and collective demons they talk about having conjured but which the plot doesn’t bear out. The cinematic Night on Bald Mountain over, they play lawn tennis in the following day’s sunlight, but scars remain which will bear fruit. Not thrown in are Mary’s half-sister Fanny’s suicide, Shelley’s pregnant wife Harriet’s drowning herself and his own death by water six years later; or, thank goodness, modern gas about Dr. Frankenstein’s male postpartum depression.
Had Gothic set out to exemplify Mary’s 1839 Notes to her husband’s Prometheus Unbound -- “man could be so perfectionized as to be able to expel evil from his own nature” -- it might have proved worthwhile; or if it were at least conscious spoof in the Abbott-and-Costello vein, it could have served. But, tossed off on the cheap, and simply tasteless instead of Russell’s sometimes brio excessive, it can be taken neither seriously nor with a saving pinch of salt.
(Released by Vestron Pictures Ltd. and rated "R.")