Collins’ Crypt: There Aren’t Enough Movies Like GOTHIC

The creation of your favorite horror stories isn't usually this exciting.

There are roughly 15 million horror movies that tout being based on or inspired by a true story, and for the most part, it's a load of crap. The Strangers, for example, is said to be inspired by the Keddie Cabin killings, in which a mother, two of her children, and her son's friend were killed by two assailants - it's a very creepy and still unsolved case, notable for the fact that two of the children were left unharmed and the cabin itself continued to be rented out after (the murders occurred in 1981, but the cabin was only torn down in 2004). But the film, as most of you know, is about an adult couple being menaced by a trio of masked strangers (no masks were ever mentioned in the Keddie case, which had witnesses of the likely murderers), with no children, no sleeping would-be victims, etc. Apart from the fact that some unidentified murderers killed some people in a house, there's no relation at all (the upcoming Strangers sequel looks to be a bit closer to the original story, which has also been turned into an allegedly more faithful film titled Cabin 28), yet the allure of its "true story" origins helped make the film a hit.

I could name dozens of examples, but the point would largely remain unchanged: real life tragedies have a way of inspiring horror movies, but they rarely have much or anything to do with one another. However, every now and then we get a horror movie that was not really based on a murder or disappearance, but just a historical event of sorts, such as Ken Russell's batshit 1986 film Gothic. As the legend goes, Mary Shelley and her fiance Percy, along with her half-sister Claire, visited Lord Byron (and his doctor, Polidori) at his Lake Geneva mansion, named Villa Diodati, and got stuck there for three days due to heavy rains. To pass the time, they came up with scary stories to tell one another, with Shelley coming up with Frankenstein and Polidori developing The Vampyre, which marked the first time the vampire concept was used for a fictional story (as opposed to poetry and the like). I can't be entirely sure since I wasn't there, but from what I understand nothing particularly terrifying or violent happened during this three day marathon session - the quintet indulged in drugs (specifically laudanum) and sex, but a filmed account of what really happened would not likely be placed in the horror genre.

Enter Ken Russell and screenwriter Stephen Volk. Using the basic premise (five real life people who were stuck in a house during a storm in the early 19th century), they turned this historic event into a film that gets nutty even by Russell's standards, featuring a suit of armor with a giant metal phallus, disembodied pig heads, breasts with eyes where the nipples should be, and even a couple of creatures for good measure. The idea of them telling stories is still present, but no one gets any writing done - they just keep taking drugs, hallucinating, having sex (some of that is hallucinated too, I think?), and seeing the sort of things that you'd find on the cover of Fangoria. At the very end of the movie Mary (Natasha Richardson) wakes up after the insane night of horror to a beautiful normal day, at which point she pitches her story to Byron and the others ("a creature who haunts his mad creator and his family and his friends..."), and that's about as close as it gets to showing her writing process.

(Polidori doesn't even get that much; he talks about vampires once or twice but while a present day tour guide (voiced by Russell) tells us that 170 years later that night's events live on thanks to Frankenstein, he doesn't mention The Vampyre.)

That said, the film does dive into biographical detail in its own confusing and hallucinatory way. Near the end of the film, Mary is plagued by a series of visions that are not explained in the film, but will make sense to those who know the life stories of its subjects. We see a shot of Percey (Julian Sands) falling off a boat, which has no connection to anything in the film, however the man did indeed drown a few years later in a boating accident, and Polidori's death (possible suicide) by acid is invoked as well, without any clear explanation for what we are seeing. Likewise, horrifying imagery of dead children (babies, really) correspond to the various miscarriages and early deaths of the children of both Mary and Claire - the film suggests that everyone involved in that evening was cursed as a result. It's funny; you kind of need to know your history a bit in order to understand the film, but the more of the real story you know the more you'll realize the film deviates from those actual events. Not that any intelligent viewer would believe that monsters showed up that weekend, but the characters spend most of the film shouting and running around the house (or on top of it, as Sands does at one point, stark naked for good measure) in a panic, and I truly doubt anyone who happened to peek through a window during that period would have seen anything even that exciting.

And that is perhaps why there are relatively few films that are inspired by the actual creation of our favorite horror stories, as they tend to be just as boring as the writing of any other genre. Sure, there is always some interesting trivia, such as the fact that Stephen King threw his first attempt at Carrie in the trash only for his wife Tabitha to rescue it and encourage him to finish it (good call!), but that would not make a particularly exciting or interesting film, and we can be sure that King didn't actually know a telekinetic girl that he based his story on. While the "story behind the story" concept can work well for dramas like Shakespeare in Love (depicting the process of creating Romeo & Juliet, via another forbidden love story) or comedies like The Disaster Artist, there is seemingly an unwritten rule that insists the film fits within the genre of its source material - a comedy about making a comedy, a drama about making a drama, etc. So with a shortage of insane filmmakers like Ken Russell, it stands to reason that there would not be a large selection of horror movies about the creation of horror stories, as it would just get too absurd.

Indeed, a couple years ago, a script titled Maximum King was floating around and even landed on the Black List, depicting Stephen King as he directed his one and only film: Maximum Overdrive. King has admitted he was "coked out of his mind" while he made this notoriously awful film (one I like, for the record), and writer Shay Hatten seemingly ran with this fact and created 115 pages of insanity that kicks off with a two page monologue by a very lit King, pitching the movie to his agent. The joke wears thin, and some of its crazier elements do not work (such as a character who can see into the future for seemingly no reason than to refer to Emilio Estevez as "Mighty Ducks", referring to a film he made six years *after* Overdrive), but it's in that same vein as Gothic, and Maximum Overdrive is perhaps an even more fitting subject for a story about how drugs and debauchery can produce memorable works of fiction. I'm sure lots of horror writers wish they could come up with a story as memorable as Frankenstein, which might encourage them to ingest dangerous amounts of opium - but if snorting infinitesimal lines of coke every day means you'll be responsible for Maximum Overdrive, that could be a more effective "don't do drugs" PSA than the likes of Nancy Reagan could ever dream up.

But to Hatten's credit, he never turns King's many hallucinations into a source of terror - it's a comedy script, going against that aformentioned "rule" with a decent hit/miss ratio for the gags. I could do without King's other characters showing up (Jack Torrance is OK, but the Man in Black fares just as badly here as he did in the actual Dark Tower movie), but the stuff with his actual family (Tabitha, Joe, etc) is usually comic gold. I also like how Hatten had fun with the cliches of these "downfall of the artist" movies, with King being too stoned to take young Joe to see Jaws 3 on time, forcing the lad to walk to the theater and watch the film in 2D because the theater ran out of 3D glasses by the time he got there, as opposed to the usual "you missed my soccer game/dance recital/etc." kind of stuff that these (straight) stories always offer. Then again, since Maximum Overdrive itself works better as unintentional comedy than genuine horror movie, perhaps the rule wasn't broken after all - you couldn't do this to The Dead Zone or Pet Sematary, but the killer truck movie? Sure, go nuts. It's a shame Hatten's script will likely never be made into a film, just to enjoy that kind of insanity on the big screen (and to see what lucky bastard got to play King), but we can continue to hold out hope, if for no other reason than to see this bit of brilliance on the big screen (#5 still makes me laugh out loud to read it). 

Sadly, we're far more likely to see other things like Hitchcock, which despite the title was not a traditional biopic but mainly focused on the production of Psycho and how it affected the master's relationship with his wife, Alma. What could have been a very lovely romantic drama with an unusual backdrop dipped into nonsensical "psychological horror" territory, with Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) being repeatedly "visited" by Ed Gein (!), who gives him advice and taunts him about his suspicions that Alma (Helen Mirren) is having an affair. Again, we see an attempt to give the film a taste of the genre it's portraying, and in this case it didn't work in the slightest - the Gein stuff crippled the otherwise decent film, and probably killed its chances at the kind of awards success it seemed primed for. Hopkins didn't earn a single major nomination, though Mirren got a few including a Golden Globe nom (she lost to Jessica Chastain); its sole Oscar nomination was for its makeup. 

So let's give Russell a little credit for diving right into the madness; while Hitchcock and Maximum King do/would not belong in the horror section, Gothic is every bit as horrific as the novels its events inspired. But even though it was a mild success (Vestron offered Russell a three picture deal after its release; we got Lair of the White Worm out of it!) it did not bring on a wave of similar films about the likes of Bram Stoker or Edgar Allan Poe coming up with their iconic tales, so unless my memory is failing me (strong possibility) there's nothing else quite like Gothic in the world. This Blu-ray debut rescues the film from budget pack hell (that's how I first saw it back in 2007), and comes with the commentaries and interviews these Vestron releases are known for, though it's a shame they couldn't land more of the actors (only Sands) to talk about playing fictionalized - or at least, very exaggerated - versions of these people. However, Volk does offer an interview about his work on the film, admitting that his original script was less horrific but when Ken Russell signed on to direct it became, well, a Ken Russell film. Apparently he wasn't thrilled at the time but has come to grips with it. And he should; it's a one of a kind movie in several ways, and the kind of thing I wouldn't mind seeing more often. Any chance Dean Koontz shot copious amounts of heroin before writing Intensity?