The story of one of the most famous literary friendships in the world is almost too good to make a good film. There’s something preposterous about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s and Lord Byron’s meeting in Switzerland at the Villa Diodati in 1816, like one of those imaginary dinner parties where you get to choose the guests from history; like Fantasy Island. Add to that the delicious irony that the literary outcome of the ghost story writing competition that ensued should be won hands down not by either of the two poets, but by the overshadowed 18-year-old wife Mary Shelley, who wrote… oh come on really? and Byron’s doctor, whose Vampyre would directly inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Ken Russell doesn’t give a monkey’s about historical or biographical accuracy and is much more interested in the flamboyant silliness of the whole thing. Julian Sands is a Shelley who might have stepped out of a Blackadder episode: ‘There’s nothing intellectual about wandering about Italy in a big shirt and trying to get laid, Mrs Miggins. The vegetarian and abstemious poet becomes a laudanum addict and boozer, channelling Coleridge presumably. Gabriel Byrne looks perfect as a clomping Byron, who is first seen standing in front of an enormous portrait of himself. Natasha Richardson is a rather arch, prudish Mary, with a vague Scottish lilt, and Miriam Cyr is Claire Clairmont, Mary’s half-sister and Byron’s lover. Timothy Spall rounds off the cast as a suitably repellent Polidori.
There is a lot of dashing about and what Nicholas Cage has recently called ‘mega-acting’, a sense of dynamic improvisation, possibly to try and enliven what otherwise is a one-location film. In fact, the structure begins to resemble a kind of phantasmagoria, a punkish Dead of Night, as the collected fruitcakes try to outdo each other in lurid scenes of nightmarish fantasy, play hide-and-seek and shriek quite a lot. Taking the title as a starting point, the film crams in a lot of the furniture and paraphernalia of the Gothic: skulls, snakes, armoured men, rats, creepy-crawlies, incest, ghosts, tilted stairways, thunder and lightning, endless corridors. It never once stops to actually build any tension, and it isn’t transgressive in any way because in this universe there’s no normality to transgress from. In an opening section, we get a glimpse of the outside world in the form of a bunch of upper-class tourists leering through telescopes trying to catch a glimpse of the famous occupants of the Villa. Likewise, the servants are happy enough to participate or peer through the keyhole and get their jollies that way. The music by Thomas Dolby is noisily in keeping with the general tone of the film.
These are by no means criticisms. The film is not a horror film as such. Odd to say, Russell lacks the discipline for horror: he refuses to confine himself to its grammar even as he’s willing to adopt its vocabulary. What you get instead is a wonderfully enjoyable carnival of daftness rounded off in the concluding quarter of the film by a strangely moving and in fact terrifying few minutes. Mary is gifted with a vision of the future, and for once the film quietly and unexpectedly begins to take its characters seriously. We see Shelley’s drowning and the subsequent burning of the body; the death of Byron in Greece, bled to death by his doctors. The next day all is well, but an audacious jump-shot brings us to the present day and the leering tourists are back. All that life and creativity long dead. It is one of Ken Russell’s best tricks. In the midst of all that craziness, there is a moment of clarity.