Although most critics perceive Ken Russell’s career as having declined irretrievably by the 1980s, the latter half of the decade saw him produce three extraordinary films. All three works are inspired by 19th-century authors, and marry their taste for the ornate and Gothic with Russell’s bathetic, sometimes anachronistic touches of broad humour. The films are linked thematically too, by the trinity of woman protagonists that they present. I call this trilogy the female fugue; It’s a fugue in the musical as well as psychological sense, intertwining variations on the theme of female subjectivity seen from a man’s point of view, and an amnesiac discarding of Russell’s Romantic conception of the male anti-hero so prevalent in his 1970s work, now replaced by an errant voyage through three new female identities.
While Gothic (1986) deals with Mary Shelley and the laudanum-drenched night in 1816 when she conceived the idea for her novel Frankenstein, Salome’s Last Dance (1988) is an inventive re-working of Wilde’s controversial play about the biblical seductress, staged as a private performance for Wilde himself by the denizens of a brothel. Finally, The Lair of the White Worm (1988) takes the figure of the femme fatale to inhumanly new heights in a joint celebration of Donald McGill sauciness and Hammer Horror stately-home stodge.
Watch the trailer for Gothic:
The browbeating morality of the Hollywood production code demanded a monster far more terrifying to Russell than any animated cadaver; a simpering Mary Shelley who reprimands her hero Baron Frankenstein for daring ‘to play God’. In Gothic Russell attempts an escape from the moralistic cul-de-sac created by films like Bride of Frankenstein, instead focusing on the raw creativity and the carnal debauchery of the Romantic poets. Byron, Shelley and Polidori are raving, drooling scenery-chewing fanatics, and inarticulate for all their verbosity, and Mary’s step-sister Claire seems content merely to be Byron’s plaything.
While Byron postures, proud of his Promethean literary creations, and Shelley celebrates the elemental power of lightning with a naked rooftop ritual, Mary is quietly preoccupied with a genesis of her own. She wants to escape her situation; to flee the drug-addled squalor but also to avoid the domestic drudgery of motherhood. This is also the wish of her creation, Frankenstein, who wants to transcend mortality but recoils in existential terror at the fact that he has created and is responsible for another life.
Salome is, like Mary Shelley, a female in an unwelcoming man’s world. Although she’s the subject of only a handful of verses in the Bible, religious and secular figures alike have zoomed in on the dance of the seven veils, and turned the young princess into an archetype of dangerous female sexuality, who uses her allure to ensure the death of the chaste and principled John the Baptist. Despite Russell’s use of buxom page three girls as Roman concubines, Salome herself is a far less conventional object of male lust. The actress Imogen Millais-Scott was half-blind and recovering from a rare illness, giving Salome the consumptive air of a tragic 19th-century heroine. Her velvet-voiced declamation of Wilde’s sublime lines is undeniably beguiling, certainly irresistible to Stratford Johns’s chubby, ineffectual Herod.
Watch the trailer for Salome’s Last Dance:
Just as Gothic has a modern-day epilogue, so the framing device of the play’s staging allows Russell to develop his theme. Arrested by the police as the play ends, Wilde laments that he should have played John the Baptist himself. However, Russell adds a further touch that blurs the lines as to who the victim is here. We find out that the fate of the chambermaid playing Salome mirrors that of her character; she was killed for real by the brothel owners to create a realistic climax to their performance.
Russell seems horrified by the exploitative callousness of Victorian society, but at the same time he retreats from this theme, making the death seem even more callous because it appears to be tacked on as an afterthought by Russell. ‘Maidservants in Victorian London were two a penny; she’d never be missed,’ is Russell’s only statement about the matter. As Wilde is hauled away by the police for sexual indecency, we are left with the feeling that little has changed since Roman times.
The Lair of the White Worm takes up the themes of gender and class conflict found in the first two films but treats them less seriously. It also makes a link between the savagery of Rome and the 19th-century literary tradition, beginning with archaeologist Angus Flint uncovering a Roman-era temple in the Peak District.
Rugged Angus and Hugh Grant’s lord of the manor are the typical male heroes who have to protect two local girls, with the virginal names Eve and Mary, from the torments inflicted by Lady Sylvia Marsh, the monstrous, vampiric snake-worshipping villain, and clearly Russell’s choice for the real hero of the piece. The heroes are good-natured but unmistakably the sort of naive dullards that populated the quota quickies of Russell’s childhood. The male-dominated Victorian patriarchy threatens her exuberant sexuality (although the film is ostensibly set contemporaneously, it’s a curious time-warp hybrid of past and present that bears little resemblance to 1980s Britain) much like Salome’s, but she is also the closest female character to Russell’s own persona.
Watch the trailer for The Lair of the White Worm:
The film has a tense, coiled atmosphere, in which Russell imbues almost everything with eerie foreboding or sexual potential; a game of snakes and ladders hosepipe becomes both phallic and serpentine, the mouth of a cave becomes vaginal. Lady Marsh has a venomous bite that turns her victims into her slaves, and even momentarily touching the venom has hallucinogenic effects. Although four people come into contact with the stuff, only the Trent girls are given visions; psychotropic and campy visions of Roman soldiers attacking a convent of nuns while a massive rubber snake coils around a crucifix. In an eerie foreshadowing of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, released three years later, Eve is revealed through one of these visions to be the reincarnation of one of these early Christians, adding a further layer of counterpoint to this fugue of interlocking female identities.
It’s an original rendering of an old stereotype; the women then have emotive, empathic powers (here taken to the extreme) while the men, although divided by class, have the common-sense practicality needed to outwit the enemy and restore order. The moralistic formula of Hammer-style horror dictates that good must finally triumph over evil, which it does – but only temporarily. Russell permits Lady Sylvia a last mocking laugh, and one that suggests our dashing male heroes are more than just friends.
Priapic, prurient and politically incorrect, Russell’s female fugue is as ambitious as it is irreverent. In each film Russell presents an increasingly complex portrayal of female subjectivities in a patriarchal environment. But changing critical fashions and truncated budgets ensured that the passionate cult followings these films developed would never be matched by critical attention. They stand as Russell’s last burst of frantic, thematically coherent creativity before the wilderness years of the 1990s, a decade Russell later claimed to barely even remember.
John A. Riley