Haunted Summer is a masterpiece. It is delicate and unassuming considering the historical context. Unfortunately, this movie has been marketed too lowly for the considerable talent spotlighted in making it. The director, actors, actresses, set designer, makeup artist, and costume designer come together seamlessly. While the music department leaves much to be desired, the featured art compensates.
Set in the fabled summer of 1816, Haunted Summer (1988) is a historical drama. It chronicles the exploits of two established poets who lead controversial lives: Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Feminist and budding literary talent Mary Godwin (later Shelley) is featured rightfully. Claire Clairmont—Mary’s step sister and lover to both Shelley and Bryon—would have it no other way than to be there. Dr. John William Polidori sidekicks; he is Byron’s physician and lover, an aspiring author himself. Ivan Passer directs. Haunted Summer is Lewis John Carlino’s adaptation of a novel by Anne Edwards. It is filmed in Lake Como, Lambardia, Italy.
Haunted Summer is the second out of three movies made about the foursome’s creative processes, philosophies, and sexuality. All three movies—Gothic, Haunted Summer, and Rowing with the Wind—have been released within four years of each other.
The process of creativity; the radical ideas about politics, philosophy, and feminism; and the spark of light that makes the historical characters memorable two hundred years postmortem are not lost in a sea of sensationalism. In Haunted Summer the principle and practice of free love along with medicinal and recreational drug use is proportionate and not over emphasized. Therefore, the memories of vibrant historical personages are not degraded to spectacles. That is contrary to what the blurb on the video box. “Depravity”—a word used in the summary—casts a moral judgment on the lives of the Byron-Shelley circle that is (thankfully) not evident in the movie. Even talented and famous people from the 1800s are still human; some cannot be pigeonholed into conventional intimate relationships and may even want to play mind games with each other.
Highly erotic, Haunted Summer pays more attention to atmosphere and mystery than flashes of flesh. The sexual situations are often shown in silhouette. There is the perfunctory naked appearance of any actor playing real life nudist Percy Bysshe Shelley. Some viewers might find it refreshing that there is full frontal male nudity and no significant female nudity, especially in a movie about a liberated feminist like Mary Shelley.
There is a considerable amount of drug use: laudanum—a solution of opium in alcohol thought to have some medicinal purposes—and recreational opium smoking. However, recovering addicts and perhaps parents will be pleased to read that the drug use is not gratuitous. It is part of the storyline, one that is not quite as hedonistic as one might imagine. Arguably, Haunted Summer does not leave one with the urge to use drugs for creative enhancement or giggles.
Next, all of the actors in the four leading roles have genuine acting ability even though they are appropriately young. Viewing this movie is like watching people interact in real life. Alice Krige plays Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin wonderfully… especially in comparison to Rowing with the Wind. Eric Stoltz (Percy Shelley) looks very comfortable in front of the camera. Mr. Stoltz’s realistic facial expressions and mannerisms convey almost as much as his speaking parts. Laura Dern (as Claire Clairmont) is fully in character; she captures the mischievous and excitable spirit of Claire. Philip Anglim plays Lord Byron and delivers a flawed performance in part due to the script. Mr. Anglim over-delivers a few of his lines. This over-enthusiasm in so brooding of a character is a little irritating. However, this does not take away from the quality of interaction. The cast mates feed off of it successfully. Philip Anglim’s showmanship slips do not significantly diminish the quality of his role as Lord Byron.
Strong suits of Haunted Summer are the setting and use of natural lighting. The outdoor scenes of the mountain, lake and the well-manicured hedges in the yard are breathtaking. The house is more realistic—although much less grand—than the ones in Rowing with the Wind or even Gothic (where parts look too modern). The furnishings are appropriate and actually look functional, just enough class without being showy. The use of lighting is excellent in this movie, wonderful in Rowing with the Wind, and pitiful in Gothic. All throughout this movie the lighting as it hits the faces of the cast is superb, regardless of if the scene is shot indoors or outdoors.
Other selling point is the costume design—courtesy of Gabiella Pescucci—and makeup. The clothes are well tailored and understated, without ridiculous excessive ruffles. All of the main characters are realistically made up to where they do not look like they are wearing makeup at all. Manlio Rocchetti provides the special effects makeup and presumably the general makeup.
By far the weakest aspect of the movie is the music: original pieces by Christopher Young. It does not seem like an actual song is ever played. There is this monstrosity at the beginning of the movie that is a repetitive tune with no harmony that falls short of song status. To offset this there is a scene when Laura Dern (as Claire) sings on a boat. Although the singing is not entirely successful, that is an acceptable attempt at accommodation by the director.
However disappointing the music might be, the art work makes up for it. The paintings in the opening credits are exquisite. The painting discussed in the movie is very impressive in color, texture, symbolism, and execution. That painting far surpasses the rendition of the same painting that appears on the video cover of Gothic. It is that of a demon atop of a sleeping woman.
For voyeuristic seekers of hedonistic wild parties in the traditional sense, Haunted Summer is not recommended. (Check out Gothic.) However, Haunted Summer HHais highly recommended for anyone interested in historical dramas or period pieces. It is most likely suitable for recovering addicts who fear being triggered by glorified drug use. Haunted Summer is entertaining enough to be recommended for any adult who enjoys artsy and psychologically deep movies. Do not just rent the movie free from the library, buy a copy!