Ken Russell's Gothic

Now here's a Ken Russell film you don't have to be a completist to enjoy. Though from his later, and most would say lesser, period, Gothic actually holds up quite well. I think it would probably be better appreciated by audiences today, in fact, than it was originally received in the 80s. It's certainly one of his wilder movies, so there's no risk of being bored at the very least. Russell lets loose with extreme, over the top imagery, this time specifically within the realm of - as its title implies - classic gothic literature and art, oftentimes replicating famous paintings of the 18th and 19th century. Imagine Northanger Abbey on acid, with a orchestral score by Thomas Dolby. It's had a tortured history on DVD though, with only a late-coming import version even being in the correct aspect ratio. Allow me to point you in its direction.
Gothic tells the story of the famous, real summer of 1816, when Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson), Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) and Claire Clairmont (Miriam Cyr) visited Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and his physician (Timothy Spall) at his villa in Switzerland, and two classic novels, Frankenstein and Dracula, were conceived. If this premise sounds familiar, it's because two different films: Rowing With the Wind, starring Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley and Haunted Summer, starring Eric Stoltz, Laura Dern and Alex Winter, both remade the same story in 1988. But 1986's Gothic came first and remains infinitely more memorable. Not a lot of detail is known for sure about what went on in that villa, so of course Russell is left to speculate and extrapolate; and he of course came up with the most colorful and feverish supposition of the three films. But on the other hand, the film is largely interior, showing us the visions they concocted in their minds, and strictly in terms of plot events, very little happens besides "they got inebriated and held a seance." It's a story of mass hallucination and collective imagination, depicting the birth of only fictional characters and artistic inspiration. And there aren't many filmmakers as suited to that sort of ambitious task as Ken Russell.
This is one of those films I picked up a couple of times over the years. I first had the original 2000 DVD from Artisan, which was full frame and barebones, so I was immediately on the look out for an upgrade. I optimistically and naively bought the 2001 DVD from Front Row, hoping for something better, but it was possibly even worse. In 2002, Artisan reissued the film with a slightly improved, but still fullscreen and barebones disc. Then word finally came in 2003 of an upcoming import that was widescreen and anamorphic from MGM itself, which was free to release it overseas where it hadn't already been licensed by these cheaper companies. Now, I've long since sold off my 2000 Artisan and Front Row discs, but in addition to the Artisan re-release and MGM, I just so happen to have a 2005 Mill Creek DVD from their Chilling Classics collection [right], which is as at least ugly as any that came before it.
2002 Artisan DVD on top; 2003 2005 Mill Creek DVD middle; 2003 MGM DVD bottom.
Wow, now that is a huge difference. To be fair, while fullscreen, Artisan's 2002 re-release is clearly better than Mill Creek's transfer here, but it still pales in comparison to MGM's lovely widescreen (slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1) picture. Sure, the fullscreen version is largely open matte - and Artisan's fullscreen is slightly superior to Mill Creek's with a little extra info on all four sides - so it has more picture.  But look at it; it's just a sea of empty head-space. "Oh look, 20% more blank ceiling... but it's so dark, you can't make it out anyway!" The film looks far, far superior in its proper framing, and this is a film where image is hugely important. Plus, despite having less picture on the top and bottom, MGM's disc still manages to find a good chunk of horizontal information unique to their transfer. It's just so much better in every way. As you can see, Mill Creek's DVD is also plagued with interlacing and some kind of awful edge enhancement, which Artisan's and MGM's discs are not.  But both Mill Creek and Artisan appear drained of color and so dark and murky, with Mill Creek apparently cranking some sort of clarify tool just so you can make out what's going on in the picture.
MGM's European DVD also comes with a host of language options, including the original English plus German, French, Spanish and Italian dubs, as well as English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish and Greek subtitles. Mill Creek's DVD of course has none of that, and neither did Artisan's or Front Row's. To their slight credit, Artisan's older disc at least had the trailer, which none of the other editions do, including MGM's or Artisan's own reissue. The reissue does have an amusing animated menu, though, I must say.  But we have yet to get beyond the barebones Gothic release, and unfortunately we've wasted so much time now, it's no longer possible to secure a Ken Russell commentary.
MGM's Gothic was top of the line in 2003, and it's still vastly superior to all its competitors. But looking at it today, up close, I can't help but notice how much better it could look now in HD. This film would make for a stunning blu-ray release, and even though Russell's no longer with us, there's still plenty of people who worked on and appeared in this film to create a nice special edition. This would look perfectly at home in the Criterion Collection, or as a classy yet horrifying title from Scream Factory. People need to just get past the unfortunate stigma of Ken Russell's 80's direct-to-video period and see this film for the dark vision it is. Guys, this is not Dog Boys; let's get our priorities back in order and get this out in high definition. And if you need to convince anybody, show them this MGM DVD from the UK.

3 comments:

  1. It's been available OnDemand in HD, but I checked the quality yet.

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    1. *Haven't* checked the quality yet, I should say...

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    2. I'd guess it'll be taken from the same master they used for this DVD. But in HD, that would still probably be a pretty nice improvement.

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