Marvelous Movie Mondays: Haunted Summer

EPFC | June 14th, 2019

guest curator: Lindsay Denniberg
Theme: The Haunted Summer
Film: Haunted Summer (1988)

I plan on curating admittedly through the lens of a selfish filmmaker who needs existential guidance in preparation for writing their next script. When post is done on my next film Killer Makeover, my passions will be funneled into manifesting my forever burning obsession with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Following my own path through creative obsession, I’m trying to interpret Mary Shelley’s life for my own film. While researching her life and works, I’m inextricably drawn to the moment when her own creature began to manifest, during the Haunted Summer. There is a small pool of films out there that explore the life of Mary Shelley, and they all have their own unique take on this pivotal chapter that would eventually lead to Frankenstein. For those who don’t know the romantic horror legend, the Haunted Summer took place in June 1816 at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati. There Percy Shelley, Mary and her step sister Claire joined Byron and his physician Polidori for a dreary rain filled indoor summer. Bored and drugged up on laudanum, they read romantic ghost stories to each other, eventually leading to the famous writing contest of who could write the scariest story. The beginnings of Frankenstein were born from Mary’s nightmares during this time. So for the month of June, we celebrate the spark of creation that ignites in the dark abyss of a woman’s soul.

Something I neglected to admit in my last review, is that with every one of these films I did not like them on the first watch. My love of the subject matter still ignites a primal obsession in me to create a version of this story that is completely my own. Through this surgical fixation of dissecting these existing Mary Shelley films, I can’t help but find charms in these creatures that I previously overlooked.

Haunted Summer is the most gentle, realistic and optimistic of the Mary Shelley centered films. Jane Austen’s version of Dawson’s Creek is a quick way to sum up the made for TV mood it radiates. Eric Stoltz plays by far the most likable and believable Percy Shelley, while Mary is presented as a strong, silent and matriarchal type with cool coyness by Alice Krige. Laura Dern’s Claire Clairemont often steals the show with a doomed joyousness. Lord Byron is not too memorable, and Polidori could arguably be Bill of Bill and Ted, time traveling in cognito (at least that’s what I like to think any time Alex Winter pops up in a period piece).

The film meanders slowly from scene to scene, dropping casually into heated moments of conversation between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. The reveal of Byron’s painting The Nightmare becomes Mary’s focus, as she struggles with muddled writers block, haunted by images of the incubus from the painting. Ken Russell’s use of this same painting in last week’s Gothic is also symbolized as a gateway into the abyss of imagination.

Percy spirals into the abyss of a laudanum fueled Francis Bacon looking head trip. Mary mutates into a jokeresque monster through the hallucination. Byron openly lusts after Mary, yet somehow puts a gentlemanly spin on it with restrained consent. The film explores a possible fling between Mary and Byron that is not surprisingly supported by Percy, as these were the pop star free love romantics of their time. Percy and Mary’s relationship carries an other worldly, old souls quality that I find to be the most interesting part of the film. Unfortunately it barely scratches the surface of what it means to be a struggling artist.