Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Russell, Ken

(1927-2011) UK movie director and screenwriter whose compulsion to shock has led to some very bad movies (> Cinema) but also to a restless experimentation that has affected both written and movie fantasy at a quite profound level: he has shown that imaginative fictions should not be restricted by self-imposed boundaries, should tread where angels fear to. His early work was for the BBC arts documentary series Monitor (1958-1965), for which he directed and sometimes wrote or co-wrote a series of near-movie-length dramatized biographies, notably of composers; these included Elgar (1962 tvm) and The Debussy Film (1965 tvm). The musical connection continued with Isadora (1966 tvm), a much less "realistic" movie, this time about the dancer Isadora Duncan (1878-1927). His Dante's Inferno (1967 tvm) for the BBC's Omnibus series is likewise well remembered, but thereafter KR has done little tv work, with the notable exception of William and Dorothy (1978) and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1978), respectively about the Wordsworths and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Most of this time KR had been working also for the big screen. French Dressing (1964), his first feature, is a parochial UK screwball comedy; his next, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), was based on the technothriller Billion-Dollar Brain (1966) by Len Deighton (1920-    ). These were comparatively straightforward, but thereafter KR's directoral style altered radically, so that he became a kind of poet of excess. Women in Love (1970), based on D H Lawrence's Women in Love (1921), was a shocker in its day because of its sexual content and nudity (mainstream cinema had already accepted female pudenda, but penises had been largely taboo). This was followed by The Music Lovers (1970), based on the life of P I Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and seemingly trying to be more outrageous than its predecessor, with grandiloquent fantasy imagery blending into the fabulated biography. In The Devils (1971), based largely on The Devils of Loudon (1952) by Aldous Huxley, KR – while continuing to try to shock with sex and violence – explored issues of Perception: the main characters' perceptions of each other, either contrived (the state hates the priest, so the priest must be allied to Satan) or unwitting (an abbess hates the priest because of her frustrated sexuality), are of great fantasy interest, but so too is KR's depiction of the past as, in L P Hartley's phrase, "a foreign country", one that we cannot correctly perceive through 20th-century eyes. Several flops followed – indeed, KR's career is one largely of flops – but his Tommy (1975), based on the "rock Opera" Tommy (1969) by The Who (largely by Peter Townshend [1945-    ]), was a major success. Gothic (1986; > Frankenstein Movies) presents an orgiastic version of that famous time at the Villa Diodati when Mary Shelley dreamt up Frankenstein (1818). The Lair of the White Worm (1988), based on Bram Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm (1911), has some pleasingly disgusting moments but is a mess. The conceit of Salome's Last Dance (1988) is that Oscar Wilde watches prostitutes enact a performance of his banned play Salomé (1894). [JG]

other works: The Boy Friend (1971), based on the musical by Sandy Wilson; Savage Messiah (1972), about the artists Henri Gaudier and Sophie Brzeska; Mahler (1974) and Lisztomania (1975), fabulated versions of the composers' lives; Valentino (1977), fabulation based on the life of Rudolf Valentino; Altered States (1980), horror/sf based on Altered States (1978) by Paddy Chayefsky (real name Sidney Aaron Chayefsky; 1923-1981); Crimes of Passion (1984), a Psychological Thriller; The Rainbow (1989), based on D H Lawrence's The Rainbow (1915); Whore (1991). KR was one of the 10 directors involved in Aria (1988).

Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.