Last year in my vampire literature class we started with the origin of the vampire story, which begins with a fragment by Lord Byron, whose story was later taken over by John Polidori and published in 1819. These vampire stories all come from a rainy weekend in Geneva in 1816 when Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, John Polidori, and Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont were all cooped up, reading gothic horror stories to one another. Lord Byron proposed that they each write a horror story that weekend, and one of the theories for this is that he wanted there to be a duel of the poets.
Percy Shelley wasn’t interested and abandoned the project, but Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori went at it. The most famous work to come out of this weekend was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lord Byron began a tale (and most likely told the rest of it to his peers) about the vampire as the noble cosmopolitan we are now familiar with, and John Polidori told a perfectly awful tale, according to Mary Shelley, about a scary woman who had a skull for a head.
John Polidori was a physician employed by Lord Byron to travel with him, and they argued often during their summer travels, until Polidori was dismissed by Lord Byron. A few years later, Polidori adapted Lord Byron’s fragment and published it as his own story called “The Vampyre.” A few years after that, Polidori committed suicide.
Ken Russell’s Gothic attempts to dramatize this evening in Geneva, which has all the makings of a great story, and the movie starts out well. The Shelleys arrive with the Byron-infatuated stepsister in tow, and we get a strong sense of Lord Byron (played by Gabriel Byrne) as manipulator and hedonist. All of Lord Byron’s scandals are touched on within the first twenty minutes of the movie: his homosexuality, his rumored incest with his sister, and his womanizing ways. We also see his gift with words; parts of the actual fragment he wrote are quoted in the dinner scene.
Timothy Spall as John Polidori is effective at portraying the corrosive relationship between the doctor and Byron, playing the man as a foolish Polonius so bedazzled by his employer that he becomes crushed when he’s not recognized as a fellow genius. Based on Spall’s performance, it’s easy to see how Polidori went on to betray Byron by taking over his work, then entered the ministry, and then committed suicide.
Those are the only good things about this movie really. After the five indulge in laudanum and perform a little spell, the movie turns into a mishmash of drug-fueled nightmares, with the emphasis on drugs. Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley is the moral center of this movie, if there could be such a thing, but we never get a clear picture of what inspired Byron’s vampire tale or her Frankenstein. Instead, there’s lots of couplings with almost every combination imaginable and an “it was all a dream” epilogue to the movie with historical facts tacked on in scrolling text at the end.
The absolute rock bottom is Myriam Cyr as Claire Clairmont, naked and smeared with mud as she swings to and fro on an iron gate crazed out of her mind. I feel sorry for the actress having to do such a scene, and it’s easy to see why she didn’t get much work after Gothic. The movie mostly plays as a commercial for why not to do drugs. No genius here.