Back in the day, as Hollywood is wont to do (over and over), there were two movies about the exact same thing that came out almost at the same time. In this case, the subject was the summer of decadence, drugs, and storytelling that spawned Mary Shelley’s classic tale of horror, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The two movies were weirdo Ken Russell’s Gothic (which has more name-cred, with Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Natasha Richardson involved), and Haunted Summer (which, on the surface, came across as historical-lit-for-teens, with Eric Stoltz, Laura Dern, and Bill and Ted’s Alex Winter in the cast). Per a challenge, I watched both back to back, and came away liking Haunted Summer better. Now, revisiting the film some 20+ years later, I find that despite its 80s-friendly dreamy cast, it still stands up well as a period piece.
It’s 1816, and dreamy hippie-like poet Percy Shelley (Eric Stoltz) and his lovely lady Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Alice Krige) are thundering by coach across the countryside with their female companion, Mary’s step-sister Claire (Laura Dern), who is a pile of fun inside and outside the bedroom. For these artsy fartsy literary types, it is basically a summer of love, and they are on their way to spend it with brooding, sexy poet Lord Byron (Philip Anglim) at his estate on Lake Geneva.
The foursome, along with Byron’s social-gathering whipping boy Dr. John William Polidori (Alex Winter), sit around the mansion, sipping wine and eating bon-bons (or the 19th century equivalent) and speak of all things philosophical, political, and social, as those of the leisure class like to do. Byron is a bit of a sadist, so he also likes to shock and humiliate others, especially poor, simple Claire, whom is pregnant by him. Though it is a summer of “do what you will” Byron is incensed that the alluring Mary, who is so smart (unlike other women-kind apparently) wants nothing to do with the egoist, which makes him want her more.
Throw in lots of drugs, lots of crappy, rainy, story weather, and you also have a lot of ghost stories to be told and lots of opium-induced hallucinations to be had. This “haunted summer” of freaking each other out prompted Mary (who later married Percy Shelley) to pen the horror story Frankenstein.
Polidori, Byron’s personal physician and lover (which is hinted in a hush-hush way only by silhouettes in a curtain, rather than any blatant love scene), is given a bit of the short shrift here. Polidori pouts and simpers like a jilted schoolyard BFF, and there is no hint in this film that he himself went on to write the short story The Vampyre, the first vampire story written in English, and is considered by some as the creator of the vampire genre of horror.
Alas, not all movies can be all things to all people. However, the summer-long love triangle between the sweet and dreamy Percy Shelley, the fiercely intelligent and sexy Mary, and the brooding, handsome, and egotistical Lord Byron makes for an intriguing tale—and Haunted Summer is the better bet of the two Shelley/Byron films of the late 80s.