Vestron Recovers Ken Russell's Gothic (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

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.

Update 8/26/15 - 1/31/18: The new blu-ray is here, the new blu-ray is here!  After all the junk DVDs (and the one admittedly decent import), it took until 2018, but thanks to Vestron, we finally have a worthy home video release of this mad-cap masterpiece of demented gothic horror.
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, which is as at least ugly as any that came before it.  Anyway, it's all obsolete now, thanks to Vestron's new 2018 blu-ray special edition!
1) 2002 Artisan DVD; 2) 2003 MGM DVD; 3) 2005 Mill Creek DVD; 4) 2018 Vestron blu-ray
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 newer here, but it still pales in comparison to MGM's lovely widescreen (slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1) picture. And that in turns, pales in comparison to Vestron's much more vivid (also 1.85), distinctly detailed blu.  Sure, the fullscreen versions are largely open matte - and Artisan's fullscreen is slightly superior to Mill Creek's with a little extra info on all four sides - so they have more picture.  But look at 'em; 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 the painterly image and its composition are 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.  And then Vestron tops that, by unveiling even more from all four sides.
1) 2002 Artisan DVD; 2) 2003 MGM DVD; 3) 2005 Mill Creek DVD; 4) 2018 Vestron blu-ray
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.  And even MGM's DVD is covered in compression artifacts.  But that's all irrelevant now, as all of those problems are happily done away with on the blu.  Vestron's known for relying on HD masters already in their library rather than striking up fancy, new ones, and they seem to have done that again here.  This isn't the fresh, 4k scan Arrow would've given it.  But how can you look at this film's history on disc and not be grateful for how far its come.  And even strictly by the latest standards, the colors are beautiful and it's quite an attractive picture to look at even on a very large screen.

MGM's European DVD also came 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 had none of that, and neither did Artisan's or Front Row's.  Now, Vestron gives us the original mono track in 2.0 in lossless DTS-HD, and includes optional English and Spanish (a first for Vestron?) subtitles.
To their slight credit, Artisan's older disc at least had the trailer, which none of the other DVDs do, including MGM's or Artisan's own reissue. The reissue does have an amusing animated menu, though, I must say.  But until Vestron came along, we never got beyond the barebones Gothic release.  However, we're well beyond it now.  Let's start with the commentary.  I stated in my 2015 write-up of the DVDs that unfortunately we'd wasted so much time giving this film a special edition it was no longer possible to secure a Ken Russell commentary.  And that was a real shame, because he'd made great ones for so many of his films and Gothic really cried out for one.  Well, obviously Vestron couldn't perform a miracle, but they did the next best thing, pairing up his wife Lisi Russell with film historian Matthew Melia.  Between the pair of them, they bring the combination of expertise and personal insight that you'd hope for from an actual director commentary.  And thankfully, Lisi seems to have had a genuine interest in Ken's films, so she really brings something to the table.

So that's a great, insightful listen, but almost as essential is the interview with screenwriter, Stephen Volk, who tells us this film depicts the world just as he sees it.  He also has a lot of critical insight into this film from its origins to why this film is the way it is, including some details you'd never have guessed really did originate from Shelly's account of the real events.  Fans will probably be drawn more to the Julian Sands interview, which of course is good fun as well, and there's another on-camera interview with the DoP Mike Southon, who has some great anecdotes about working with Russell's temper and bringing to life his off-beat vision.  Vestron also includes their usual separate soundtrack audio which concludes with an interview with the composer.  And in this case, it's Thomas Dolby, so even fans who typically skip these might check this one out.  Additionally, yes, the trailer's back, as well as a TV spot and an image gallery.  And like all Vestron titles, it comes in a slipcover.
MGM's disc was essential in 2003, a must import.  But looking at it today, it's not even a very good DVD. Vestron's blu is the film's first special edition, and the extras are great.  But even if it were barebones, it would be the only serious option for this film.  Is it going to win blu-ray of the year and stand-up against Arrow's 4k remasters or the latest Transformers movie?  No, it's a little soft and there's room for technical improvement.  But for an 80s catalog title, this is well above satisfactory already, and then when you take into account the serious deficit that is this movie's home video situation, especially in the states, this is massive.  Finally, Gothic is nice to look at.  ...Except maybe, you know, for the scenes where the characters are all smeared in blood, sweat and feces.


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

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

    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.