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Ken Russell budget films

Ken Russell Gothic

"I remember putting on Gothic in 1986 as the finale of the London film festival... When it was over, I went with Russell towards the final-night party. We were instantly refused entrance by the heavies at the door. 'But I'm the director of the festival,' I said, 'and this is Ken Russell.' Ken was much amused when one of them said: 'Go on, tell us another one. I'll let you in, but not him' (Derek Malcolm, The Guardian,  28 Nov 2011,  click here)

Gothic from 1986.  Ken Russell made a series of very low budget films. They demonstrate the depth of his imagery and vision, and also the desperation of making money by sensation. At times the best and the worst are side by side, as in Gothic. This period includes a short film, Aria, which is a classic.

Ken Russell Gothic 

Ken Russell was attracted to the Shelley and Byron story of incest and debauchery. It starts with tourists paying to look through telescopes to the Byron residence across the water. Just as Russell did with Liszt, Shelley and Byron are treated as pop stars with adoring groupies.  Under the effect of drugs, nightmares start to take over as each character searches for an illusory gratification. Natasha however does not need drugs to confront her nightmares.

Ken Russell Gothic

The poster was banned by London Transport, despite the image being based on a classical painting, Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare.

Ken Russell - Gothic - lakeside

Ken Russell Gothic 

The film is enjoyable and the first half is vintage Russell but it does deteriorate a bit towards the end.  Ken Russell says "I'd fallen into the trap which has been the undoing of many a... pop-video director- punchy, roller-coaster cutting, short sequences and non-stop action... well nigh unbearable over a hundred minutes or so".

"The long night that ensues- a bedroom farce played for screams- is scored by a lot of old-fashioned thunder and lightning, plus Thomas Dolby's exceptionally evocative soundtrack music.  It makes no more sense than most rock videos, but it's only boring when, every now and then, Mr. Russell and Mr. Volk feel that they have to touch base with the known facts of history" (Vincent Canby, New York Times, 10 April 1987).

Ken Russell Gothic in 3D

Amazingly there is a 3D version of Gothic, not by Ken but digitally created afterwards.  "The original story of Lord Byron and Mary Shelley's crazy supernatural experience" says  the blurb.  It is crudely done and not worth the bother.


Ken Russell Gothic

Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron and Julian Sands as Percy Bysshe Shelley. Natasha Richardson, daughter of The Devil's Vanessa Redgrave, plays Mary Shelley.

"itís worth noting that this was the late Natasha Richardsonís first theatrical film, though youíd never guess that from her assured performance as Mary Shelley. How assured is that performance? Well, it was the film Richardsonís mother, Vanessa Redgrave, requested be shown at her daughterís memorial. Thatís a pretty good endorsement" (Ken Hanke in Mountain Xpress, 1 Jul 2014 click here).

Timothy Spall plays Polidori who wrote The Vampyre.  Spall says "I had almost forgotten how crazy, crazy and creative the Gothic of 1986 isÖ Ken Russell were very combined and organized, given that he had a reputation for being an extremely wild man. [Russell said] ďThis is where we track you dead. Hereís the art director to talk about the cockroaches coming out of your mouthĒ. I said, ďExcuse me, do I get cockroaches out of my mouth?Ē It is beyond doubt that cockroaches come out of my mouth. They ended up wearing a cast on my face. We also had a leech fighter with this huge leech bucket. Ken panicked and stuffed his jeans into his socks because he thought ofÖ one of them was going to move slowly up to his leg. One minute you have cockroaches coming out of your mouth, the next youíre painting with a bucket of bloodsuckers. Thatís when you knew you were in a Ken Russell movie" (Cockroaches in your mouth, Movie News, no date, click here).

Ken Russell Gothic

Music by Thomas Dolby which does not enhance the film- here he is shown above composing the music for the film (from Ken Russell's film ABC of Music).

The Director of Photography was Mike Southon and the Editor was Michael Bradsell.  Russell's daughter Victoria was costume designer.

Novel Gothic by Stephen Volk based on Ken Russel's film

The screenplay was by Stephen Volk, he also wrote a novelisation of the film.  The novel does get a bit pretentious, for example on the creature in Fuseli's painting "The artist's name was Fuseli.  Cantankerous, twisted, he was a frequent visitor to my father and mother, before my birth.  We were born together then, I and it.  That was our bond.  We were twins, born of the same Time.  And how was it born? Like me, of pain, greedily clinging to the life shed by another?  In semen of a retort?  Of electrical apparati?  Did the grim satyr of the bed emerge from opium eating- or indigestion?  Fuseli used to eat raw pork and his imagination which (if as Blake says, he was a Jew) explains perhaps his God's anger inspired such a composition" (Stephen Volk, Gothic, 1987, pages 108-109).

On the script Volk says "Lots of things came into the script during filming, though.  It was as if Russellís rewrites were done with the camera.  I had the robot mannequin at the harpsichord, but he introduced the belly-dancer mannequin.  I had the Henry Fuseli painting of the nightmare, which was my nod to this whole story being a nightmare, and Ken got stuck in and wanted to actually recreate the painting in real time, which is now one of my favourite scenes in the film. " (Stephen Volk interviewed by Adam Scovell, British Film Institute, 1 Seot 2023, click here).

 Ken Russell Gothic

Best Image

Ken Russell Gothic 

The breasts as eyes.   Scriptwriter Stephen Volk says "Things such as the eyes in the breasts, for example, actually go back to Shelley himself and his diary rather than Russell, as that absolutely happened to him and he wrote about it.  Itís surprising to some that the parts that people did or didnít like were taken from the real diaries of Byron and Shelley.  Those things crept in from the real sources" (Stephen Volk interviewed by Adam Scovell, British Film Institute, 1 Seot 2023, click here).

Ken Russell Gothic 

The fish drowning in a bowl-  Mary feels she is a fish out of water.

The girl sleeping as the shadow moves by.

Best Scene

The girl in the room surrounded by the doors.


The scene on the roof in the lightning is similar to Roger Daltry on the roof in Tommy.

Ken Russell Gothic

Ken's use of mirrors.

Ken Russell Gothic

The mechanical doll above and a scene from The Devils below.

Ken Russell The Devils

Snakes on skulls, phallic symbols, leeches abound. First from Gothic, second from Tommy.

Ken Russell Gothic

The moving doll sequence is very similar to Fellini in Casanova.
The knight in armour is similar to the Tina Turner hypodermic knight in Tommy.
The dead baby in the water.


Other films released in the same year include Children of a Lesser God, Aliens, Platoon and Pretty in Pink.

Children of a Lesser God  Aliens  Platoon  Pretty in Pink


More films

Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore


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