A Gathering of Giants
From that notorious June 1816 gathering at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati off Lake Geneva came one of the most elaborate, incontrovertibly ground-breaking horror stories ever written, one that has stood the proverbial test of time.
A young and highly-educated girl named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the lover and future second wife of British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, channeled a lively imagination (and her own tragic childbirth experiences of loss and suffering) into the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published anonymously in 1818.
Just to be clear, the name Prometheus, in Greek mythology, refers to one of the Titans — that is, the children of Uranus, god of the heavens, and Gaia, goddess of the earth. Prometheus was also the only Titan to have fought on Zeus’ side in the ten-year battle against the gods and other Titans.
His name means “forethought” and, of all the Titans, Prometheus was by far the cleverest. So much so that he is credited with favoring man with thought and crafts and, most significantly, with stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man. In many accounts, Prometheus is also ascribed with having created man out of clay, thus his significance in Mary Shelley’s story of Victor Frankenstein and his obsession with creating life.
For stealing fire and allowing man to master its use, Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock (via a spear through his chest — ouch!), while each day an eagle would feast on his liver. But every night, the liver would grow back, only to have it eaten away again the next day. Eternal suffering and punishment for his “crime” was Prometheseus’ fate. In Frankenstein, God punished Victor Frankenstein for having taken lightning from the sky to give life to an artificial being by turning his creation against him and those he loved.
Besides the silver-tongued George Gordon Lord Byron, accompanying Mary Godwin and poet Shelley on their summer outing were Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, and Byron’s former lover and friend, Dr. John William Polidori (dubbed “Polly” by the bard). What with the dreadful rainy weather (due, we are told, to an overactive volcano that previous winter), the couples kept themselves entertained by engaging in the usual leisure-class pursuits: card playing, parlor games, and the reading of books and poetry were the order of the day. These were some of their activities, along with the imbibing of spirits and (ahem) related carryings on.
They were leading a typical upper-class, self-indulgent lifestyle, as many in their station were wont to participate in. And to pass the time, the young people turned to telling one another ghost stories. Ah, but what stories!
So much has been written about this remarkable literary and historical encounter that, surely, someone somewhere would have attempted to make a film about it. And indeed someone did: two full-length features, at that. However, the earliest cinematic representations of Byron with Shelley and wife Mary can be traced to Universal Studio’s The Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale’s masterful 1935 sequel to his original Frankenstein (1931).
In the witty prologue to the picture, which features a delightful opening minuet scored by composer Franz Waxman (and which, in many film historians’ opinions, takes place after that infamous Lake Geneva get-together), a powerful storm rages on. Trivia note: The servant girl leading the Russian wolf hounds off-camera is played by Una O’Connor, who appears in the movie proper as the strident-toned Minnie.
Inside a castle eerily similar to the one where Baron Henry von Frankenstein (Colin Clive) fashioned his creation from old dead bodies, a flowery Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), whose ornately aristocratic accent flows trippingly off his tongue, faces Mary (the enchanting Elsa Lanchester), busy at her needlework, and introduces himself as England’s greatest sinner. He praises Shelley as England’s greatest poet, to which Shelley inquires, “What of my Mary?” To which Byron replies: “She is an angel.”
“You think so?” is Mary Shelley’s sly retort.
Byron invites her to watch the storm, but she declines, claiming that lightning alarms her. “Astonishing creature,” he admonishes.
“I, Lord Byron?” Mary asks quizzically.
“Frightened of thunder, fearful of the dark,” declares Byron. Nevertheless, he expresses admiration for the story, as well as astonishment that she, Mary, a charming and frail young woman, could have fashioned such a frightful tale, one to chill the marrow of one’s bones. He admits that Murray, her publisher, would have a dreadful time releasing this fantastical tale to the public.
In defense of her work, Mary reminds Byron and her husband, Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), that her publishers did not see that the purpose of her story was to convey a “moral lesson of the punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God.” Against Mary’s wishes, Byron eagerly recaps for his friends, and for the viewing audience’s benefit, the most harrowing sequences from Frankenstein: how the obsessed Dr. Frankenstein created his hapless monster, who itself was “killed” for having murdered and terrorized a village — altogether forgetting that Universal had anachronistically updated the story for modern times. (Indeed, the studio had plans to resurrect the monster, so it behooved Universal to come up with a viable angle.)
In the instant that Byron approaches Mary to take into his hand the “fragile white fingers that penned the nightmare,” she accidentally pricks her finger with a darning needle. As Mary rises to her feet to show Shelley the blood, the friends form a triad, with Mary in the middle — the image of which will be repeated near the end of the picture, as the eccentric Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), with exaggerated pomposity and rolling his “r’s,” introduces Henry Frankenstein to their new creation, the nameless hissing Bride (Ms. Lanchester again, only not so enchanting as before).
Taking her delicate hand in his, Shelley declares it a shame that Mary should have ended her story quite so abruptly. “That wasn’t the end at all,” she insists. Mary then goes on to further embellish the tale, picking up the thread where the earlier film had left off, i.e., at the burning mill tower.
The Literary Life, Literally
Author Jill Lepore, whose The New Yorker magazine article, “The Strange and Twisted Life of ‘Frankenstein’” (originally published under the title “It’s Still Alive!”), is a brilliant synthesis and summation of Mary Shelley’s life and work, refers to the novel as “no minor piece of genre fiction but a literary work of striking originality,” one that helped to establish “the origins of science fiction by way of the ‘female gothic.’”
The term “gothic” and its loose connection to the above-named Romantic-era writers and poets also happens to be the title of a film by that most daring and baroque of British “out-there” filmmakers, the flamboyant movie and television director Ken Russell. His 1986 Gothic, released by Vestron Pictures and produced by Al Clark and Robert Devereux (with a soundtrack by New Wave musician and performer Thomas Dolby), is a fictionalized and (let’s say it and be done with it) over-the-top recreation of that Villa Diodati gathering of imaginative minds.
Russell’s previous screen work, among them the critically-acclaimed Women in Love (1969), based on D.H. Lawrence’s ribald novel of the same name; The Music Lovers (1970), about the ill-fated sex life of Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky; The Devils (1971), adapted from Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, which concerned the sexual shenanigans of 17th-century nuns at a convent in France; Mahler (1974), probably Russell’s most sedate composer picture from this period; the rock-opera Tommy and another composer “biopic,” Lizstomania (both 1975), both starring The Who’s Roger Daltrey; the mind-bending science-fiction feature Altered States (1980), from the novel by playwright Paddy Chayefsky; and the sexually-themed thriller Crimes of Passion (1984), with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins, are worth noting for their offbeat nature and subject matter, as well as their uninhibited (and self-destructive) attitudes toward sex, free love, and religion.
All of these films served as mere lead-ups to Gothic, his most outlandish visual production on the timeless story of Mary Shelley (a sensational motion-picture debut by the fresh-faced Natasha Richardson) and her soon-to-be-betrothed Percy Shelley (Julian Sands, typecast as the troubled poet), traveling to Lake Geneva in order to spend time with the ravenous, neck-biting Lord Byron, marvelously portrayed in hangdog, rock-star-like fashion by Irish actor Gabriel Byrne. Byrne and Byron must have shared one of those out-of-time Vulcan mind melds: the two figures, actor and poet, complement each other’s ravings like a hand in a custom-made glove.
Canadian-born actress Myriam Cyr is well cast as Claire Clairmont, who is much too obsessed with Lord Byron; and rising character player Timothy Spall portrays a fey Dr. John Polidori — he, too, is obsessed with Byron, but in all the wrong ways. Still, history records that Polidori went on to write the first documented vampire story, entitled (quite naturally) The Vampyre, wherein he modeled his lead character, Lord Ruthven, after Byron himself. (See the following link to my previous entry: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/07/25/children-of-the-night-celluloid-creatures-and-other-movie-monsters/).
Needless to say, there are shocking images of spooks, skulls, and witches’ Sabbaths; devil worship, blood-letting, and after-births; leeches and body horror; nasty trolls and hallucinatory visions; naked heathens and heaving bosoms — anything and everything the viewer (or the director, for that matter) would likely associate with the gothic style and aesthetic. However, the actual encounter among these so-called literary types is treated as the result of drug-induced mind trips.
But nothing in the near-contemporary output of the Brontë Sisters (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre), or that of Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility), can equate to the perversity of Gothic’s “shock ending.”
After the evening’s horrors are over and done with, a semblance of normalcy returns to sleepy Villa Diodati, along with pleasant weather. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin serenely descends the long staircase, her face frozen in a steady gaze. But her mind has been set ablaze with inspiration from what she has learned and experienced.
She joins Lord Byron and Polidori at a picnic on the Villa’s grounds. Polidori offers her some tea. Byron, puffing on a fat cigar, reassures her, “There are no ghosts in daylight. You’ll get used to our nights in Diodati. A little indulgence to heighten our existence on this miserable earth. Nights of the mind, the imagination. Nothing more.”
“What about your ghost story, Mary?” Polidori cheerfully quizzes.
“My story … my story is a story of creation,” she calmly muses, “of a creature who’s wracked with pain and sorrow and hunger for revenge, who haunts his mad creator, and his family and his friends … to the grave.”
Suddenly, we are transported to the present day. A guide, discoursing through a loudspeaker on board an offshore vessel, takes the viewer on a tour of Lake Geneva and the Diodati estate. As he speaks, the guide announces that eight years after their time at the Villa only Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont remained alive. Byron died of a fever in the Greek war, Shelley drowned in a boating accident, and Polidori, Byron’s biographer, took his own short life in London.
“But something created that night, 170 years ago, lives on,” the tour guide informs his audience, “still haunting us to this day: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”
The camera turns away from the vessel and pulls back down to reveal an object in the water, which comes floating up to the surface. It is the naked body of a stillborn creature — a horrid, ugly, misshapen creature. A creature wracked with pain and sorrow. An ungodly child!
Less is More, More or Less
Two years after Gothic bowed in movie theaters (or bowed out, as the case may be) the same theme was taken up again and filmed as Haunted Summer (1988). Directed by Czech movie-maker and screenwriter Ivan Passer (a longtime U.S. resident), and scripted by noted director Lewis John Carlino, Haunted Summer presented a more sedate (and, ergo, less memorable) reading of the story behind the mixed couples’ 1816 mid-June foray.
Unlike the tempestuous Ken Russell, Messrs. Passer and Carlino wanted nothing better than to present the Shelleys, Byron, and Polidori as, yes, hot-blooded Brits, but also as young people in their passionate “summer of love.” Where both Russell and Passer emphasized their connection to 1970s flower children, screenwriter Carlino dwelled on the Shelley’s concern for the poor and downtrodden (they were also die-hard abolitionists, as were Mary’s parents) — historically accurate, if truth be told, but hardly digestible screen fare.
Still, the cast was promising: Eric Stoltz (Mask, Lionheart) as Percy Shelley, Philip Anglim (The Elephant Man on Broadway, The Thorn Birds on television) as Lord Byron, Alice Krige (Chariots of Fire, Ghost Story) as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Laura Dern (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) as Claire Clairmont, and Alex Winter (The Lost Boys, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) as John Polidori. Good actors all, with plenty of stage and film experience between them.
Where the story lets them down and unfortunately veers off course is in its emphasis on the men — Byron, Shelley, and “Polly” — instead of on the women. It is Mary Godwin’s association with Shelley and the pleasure-seeking Lord Byron, along with the classic output they produced as a result, that fascinates us, not the foreplay and sex drives of Claire for Byron (and Shelley, if we may be so bold), or Shelley for both Mary and Claire.
In our opinion, Anglim’s stiffly-acted Byron lacks presence and charm, if not sheer sexiness. He’s not nearly as threatening (or as positively dashing) in these departments as what Gabriel Byrne brought to the part. As for Eric Stoltz, his Shelley speaks in a high-pitched squeal, which grows more and more irritating as the story (and his temper) progresses. On another trivia note, both Byrne and Stoltz were reunited earlier for the low-budget epic Lionheart (1987). In that vehicle, Byrne played a malevolent character known as the Black Prince (perfect typecasting, to say the least).
While we’re on the subject of biopics, I have two other features in mind to share with readers: the recent Mary Shelley (2018) with Elle Fanning in the title part and first-time screenwriter Emma Jensen, directed by Saudi-Arabian filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour (so far unseen by yours truly); and an earlier one, Gods and Monsters, released in 1998 by director-screenwriter Bill Condon, about the last days of James Whale, the openly gay British auteur of Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man (1933), and other movie classics. Whale was wonderfully portrayed by Ian McKellen, himself a gay actor. He is best known to today’s audiences as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbitt film series, and as Magneto in The X-Men flicks.
That intriguing title, Gods and Monsters, derives from a scene in The Bride of Frankenstein, whereby the pseudo-scientist and mad necromancer, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, an old theater colleague of Whale’s), proposes that he and Baron Frankenstein drink a toast to their new-found partnership.
“To a new world of gods and monsters!” Pretorius chuckles, as he downs a glass of gin, his only weakness. “The creation of life is enthralling,” he boasts afterwards, “distinctly enthralling, is it not?”
Indeed, it is — especially when it leads to the creation of memorable horror stories such as these.
End of Part Two
(To be continued…..)
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes