Back in my teenage days of haunting Prime Time Video, the case to this movie would call out to me. It featured a photo inspired by Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, with a near-nude Natascha Richardson being menaced by a goblin who has decided to squat on her chest. And while this is an arty film directed by noted director Ken Russell, it was known in my high school as the movie where “a lady has eyeballs for nipples.”
The film is a semi-fictionalized retelling of the Shelleys (Julian Sands and a debuting Richardson) visiting Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) at Switzerland’s Villa Diodati to do opium and the horror stories that resulted, with Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein and John Polidori creating The Vampyre.
You may be wondering: Why is an arty film about Lord Byron and the Shelleys on a box set of mostly kitschy horror films? Because Mill Creek is either awesome, insane or takes whatever public domain films they can get. Actually, the right answer is all three.
After a reading of the book Phantasmagoria, the party guests conduct a séance around a human skull, during which Claire, Mary Shelley’s stepsister has a seizure. These happened throughout their childhoods whenever the supernatural reared its head. Here’s a real otherworldy event: Lord Byron goes down on Claire and she has a miscarriage during his ministrations. And oh yeah, Polidori claims a vampire has bitten him. He also tries to poison and hang himself because he can’t deal with his homosexuality.
What follows are a series of visions in which, yes, breasts do grow eyeballs, a shadowy figure rides on horseback, Claire disappears and Mary sees her future son William in a coffin and visions of her miscarriage. She tries to throw herself off the balcony but is saved by Percy.
As we fast forward to modern times, we learn the truth via voiceover: Mary’s son, William, did die just three years later, followed by Percy’s drowning in 1822. Byron would die two years after Percy, and Polidori would kill himself in London. Mary wanted to raise her child from the dead, so she created Frankenstein and The Vampyre came from Polidori’s homosexuality and suicidal thoughts.
Your willingness to enjoy this film will depend on how much you enjoy Victorian writers and Russell’s visual style. It’s always amazed me that this was stocked in the horror section of most video stores. Chilling Classics continues that tradition by putting it into this set.
Want to watch it? The newly reminted Vestron Video released it earlier this year and you can find it at Diabolik DVD.
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