Gothic is a bizarre film. Directed by the man who cast Tina Turner as a psychedelic gypsy and Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt and centering around the antics of a man whose depravity would make the Red Hot Chili Peppers look like boy scouts, it’s also one of the strangest horror flicks ever conceived. There’s no Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees on a faceless chopping spree or a cowled Romanian gent sinking his teeth into young ladies. The monster is an unseen, possibly even nonexistent entity, tied in with the psychological flaws of the five depraved main characters. This element of reflection, creepiness, and paralyzing uncertainty combines to make for a film steeped in the uncanny.
It is a stormy evening in 1816 Switzerland, at the island mansion residence of poet, lover, soldier and debauchee Lord Byron. Three people arrive by boat: poet Percy Shelley, his lover and collaborator Mary Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont, who is dementively infatuated with Byron. Aside from the servants, the mansion only houses Byron and his autobiographer-physician, John Polidori. After an evening of liquor, laudanum, and innuendo, they have a seance around the skull of a monk, as you do. The result is stormy weather, hallucinations, and the brooding fear that their machinations have spawned an eldritch monster.
Percy and Claire spend most of the film in laudanum-induced spells of lunacy, and the majority of the action centers around Mary, Byron, or the good Doctor. Each one experiences some kind of themed torment. Byron plays unaffected for most of the flick, disregarding Claire’s obsession and Percy friendship to hit on Mary and freely abusing Polidori, and takes until the end to fall prey to the lunacy around him. Mary’s gruesome recollections of her miscarriage and desire to resurrect her child form the genesis of Frankenstein, and she remains the only (questionably) sane person in the film. Polidori, on the other hand, is a Freudian bundle of Catholic guilt, repressed homosexuality (the closet’s fairly see-through) and leech-collecting blood-obsessiveness (I did not make a word of that up), which leads to him fleeing in the middle of the night and eventually writing The Vampyre.
Gothic has a share of jump scares and weird images (if you’re not good with pretty people covered in leeches, this is not the movie for you), but there is never any clarification as to the monster’s actual presence. The feeling of fear could owe as much to being stuck in a mansion with a handful of unhinged Europeans during a lightning storm as the predations of an abhuman entity. Retrospectively, the horror could have been entirely within the characters’ own minds. Coming face to face with the skeletons in your closet isn’t a pleasant experience by any means, and the reason Gothic can be so frightening is because, despite the paranormal pretense around the seance, the monster comes from within us. The sense of the uncanny is identification where it consciously shouldn’t occur, the image of ones own depraved doppelganger leering from the mirror. The fear you carry at the core of your being is the fear you can’t escape, and that sense of the uncanny is at the root of the Gothic (The Castle of Otranto), the culmination of Gothic (Frankenstein, the works of Poe and Lovecraft) and the film that ties it all together, in a meta-example too viscerally creepy to be ignored.