Why do we respond to some filmmakers and not others?
I’m a pretty film literate guy, so I’ve seen my share of both classics and avant-garde movies and understand both the films that influenced them and those on which they had a big influence. I don’t mind being challenged or taken outside of my comfort zone. But the older I get and the more movies I see, the more I resign myself to the notion that I like what I like and that I shouldn’t try to fight those feelings in the interest of appearing “highbrow.” If it comes down to a classy mess or good trash, I’ll take the good trash any day.
This brings me to the two newest Blu-ray releases from Vestron Video’s Collector’s Series line: Ken Russell’s 1986 effort Gothic and the 1990 sci-fi actioner Class of 1999, written and directed by Mark L. Lester. Gothic is, on paper, the kind of film for which I have a major soft spot: a complete fiction that reimagines a real-life event. In this case, it’s the fateful holiday in which Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) and his future wife, Mary (Natasha Richardson), visited Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and competed to write a horror story, ultimately leading to the writing of both The Vampyre by John Polidori (Timothy Spall) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Russell’s film, of course, extrapolates the gathering into all kinds of sensual and abstract weirdness, because Ken Russell gotta Ken Russell.
Ken Russell is a filmmaker with whom I have never quite clicked, and I recognize it’s because I am the problem, not him. (Also, I have never seen The Devils.) Gothic is a good representation of that disconnect. It’s beautifully designed, lushly photographed, cast with first-rate actors, and wildly eccentric. I should really respond to all of it, and yet the movie leaves me cold. It’s not just because the movie is weird; I like weird. It’s because the movie is Ken Russell’s unique brand of weird, and that’s a kind of weird with which I have not yet connected. I admire how overheated Gothic becomes, with actors like Byrne and (especially) Sands practically climbing the walls as the movie goes on and succumbs more and more to madness. As is so often the case with Russell’s work, there’s also a kind of perverse sexuality coursing through Gothic—sexuality which, the movie suggests, partly inspired the famous works of horror fiction the events produced. Yet despite the heat, despite histrionics, the movie never quite cooks for me. I can admire Russell’s skills as a filmmaker and his vision for this story—I far prefer a take like his than I would some dry historical drama on the same subject—but I’m unable to do more than admire Gothic. Ken Russell remains a filmmaker whose work I remain outside looking in.
Vestron’s Blu-ray of Gothic contains a commentary track with Russell’s widow, Lili, and film historian Matthew Melia, and while it may not be as illuminating or satisfying as if Russell himself had recorded a commentary before his death in 2011 (like, say, for the DVD release), I appreciate Vestron’s attempt to include new content for their disc. A second commentary contains remarks from Thomas Dolby, presented as an audio interview interspersed with the composer’s isolated score. Additionally, there are new interviews with star Julian Sands, cinematographer Mike Southon, and screenwriter Stephen Volk (who would go on to write horror films such as The Guardian and The Awakening), as well as the standard collection of stills, a trailer, and a TV commercial for the movie’s release.
Gothic Movie score: 2.5/5, Disc Score: 3/5
On the other side of the equation is Mark L. Lester, a filmmaker I’ve learned to love a great deal over the years. Known best as the director of Commando, Lester is a guy who has been making incredibly entertaining, incredibly satisfying genre and drive-in fare since the 1970s: Truck Stop Women, Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Stunts, Class of 1984, Firestarter, Showdown in Little Tokyo, Extreme Justice—the list just goes on. If pressed, I’d probably rather watch one of Lester’s movies than most other filmmakers of greater popularity and critical acclaim; he knows exactly how to deliver the goods and loves all the things that make genre movies great. Class of 1999 is the sequel to his own Class of 1984, a movie about a high school in which punk students took over and caused anarchy, leading to violence and bloodshed. For the futuristic follow-up, Lester inverts his earlier premise and focuses on a dystopian future in which a high school is overrun with punks, so a mad scientist (Stacy Keach in one of cinema’s craziest wigs, a white-blonde spike with a tail) introduces a set of three robot teachers (among them Pam Grier!) to restore order by any means necessary, leading, once again, to violence and bloodshed.
I first saw Class of 1999 when it hit VHS in the early ’90s, when I found it a fine but forgettable genre exercise. Seeing it again over 20 years later on Vestron’s Blu-ray, I was much more able to appreciate what an incredibly entertaining and well-made genre exercise it actually is. Lester throws everything at the wall: explosions, killer robots (achieved with cool practical effects), gun battles, genre favorites like Grier, Keach, and Malcolm McDowell (whose brother Roddy, funny enough, was one of the stars of Class of 1984), and, of course, childhood crush Traci Lind. Like Gothic, Class of 1999 goes crazy by the end, but it’s a totally different kind of crazy. Lester stages massive shootouts and stunts and violent anarchy the likes of which we hardly ever see anymore because the movies that want to do it can’t afford it and the ones that can afford it would rather present overscaled CG-created mayhem in which cities are leveled and blue beams are shot into the sky. Class of 1999 is the product of a bygone era.
While I’m not totally sold on the performance of lead delinquent Bradley Gregg, a kind of JV Stephen Dorff best known by horror fans as the first troubled teen-turned-puppet dispatched in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, nearly everything about Class of 1999 hums along on exactly the level of B-grade schlock that the film sets out to achieve. Here’s a movie that knows exactly what it is and exactly how to satisfy its audience. While I won’t argue that it’s a superior movie to Lester’s own fantastic Class of 1984, it’s a sequel that’s bigger and more ambitious—Terminator 2 to the original’s Terminator.
The Vestron Collector’s Series Blu-ray carries a new commentary from Lester, who is always chatty and engaging about his work, plus new interviews with Lester and co-producer Eugene Mazzola, screenwriter Courtney Joyner (who knows his way around this kind of material, having cut his teeth for Charles Band at both Empire Pictures and Full Moon), effects designers Rick Stratton and Eric Allard, and cinematographer Mark Irwin. Rounding out the supplements are the movie’s trailer, some TV spots, a gallery of production and promotional stills, and a brief video promotional piece.
I’m grateful to Vestron for giving both Gothic and Class of 1999 a Blu-ray release because it will give modern audiences a chance to reassess a pair of films that never quite got their due upon release. One continues to not work for me, while the other works better than it ever did. Maybe it just comes down to the age-old debate between the Beatles and the Stones: there are Ken Russell people and there are Mark Lester people. (And, yes, I know there are lots of you out there who like both, but just afford me the conceit for the purposes of concluding this review.) I’m a Lester person. And proud of it.
Class of 1999 Movie score: 3.5/5, Disc score: 3.5/5