Gods and Monsters (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Frankenstein. The Old Dark House. The Invisible Man. The Bride of Frankenstein. Show Boat. Although this may sound like one of those "which doesn't belong" games, there is a common element to all five '30s motion pictures - they are the enduring legacy of director James Whale. Whale, an Englishman who started on the British stage, came to Hollywood in 1930, and, with the release of Frankenstein in 1931, established himself as a premiere horror film maker. Whale's career spanned the '30s, but, after the spectacular failure of 1937's The Road Back (a picture on which he claims to have lost creative control), his star dimmed. By the mid-'40s, he was out of the motion picture industry and had turned his attention to painting. In 1957, following a stroke that left him in a state of constant mental deterioration, he drowned himself in a swimming pool. Gods and Monsters presents a fictionalized account of the last month of Whale's life, and is replete with flashbacks to his boyhood, his time in the trenches during World War One, and his movie-making heyday.

The force behind bringing Whale's story to the screen is executive producer Clive Barker, the creator of the Hellraiser series. Barker has a great deal in common with Whale - their nationalities, preferred genres, and sexual preferences are the same - so it comes as no surprise that he would champion this motion picture. The director, Bill Condon, shows the kind of skill behind the camera that one might not associate with a film maker whose most impressive previous credit was Candyman II. But Condon has a fine screenplay and a superlative cast, and, with those two elements in place, he creates an engaging and effective movie.

The "fictionalized" aspect of the script postulates a father/son relationship between Whale (Ian McKellen) and his lawn cutter, Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser). Although Whale is homosexual, Clay is not, so their connection is strictly platonic. In Clay, Whale finds a willing audience for his stories, and a means to work through a painful event from his past. In Whale, Clay finds a sympathetic figure to replace the cold, harsh father who never understood him.

While the primary focus of Gods and Monsters is the central relationship, the movie also has a great deal to say about the process of film making. We see a flashback to the creation of a classic scene from The Bride of Frankenstein (with actress Rosalind Ayres bearing a striking resemblance to Elsa Lanchaster), experience a lavish Hollywood party given by George Cukor (the director of The Philadelphia Story and A Star Is Born), and listen with rapt attention as Whale tells stories of his triumphs and tragedies behind the camera. The "gods and monsters" of the title can have many meanings within the context of this story, but the most apparent is the one relating to the film maker and his creations. Throughout this movie, we wonder whether Whale is shaping Clay into his final monster.

Ian McKellen, who, like Barker and Whale, is a homosexual thespian hailing from England, uses this performance to give the audience a sampling of cinematic magic. McKellen, who is the only worthwhile thing in Bryan Singer's Apt Pupil, here reconfirms why many consider him to be the best Shakespearean actor of his generation. McKellen brings Whale to life, infusing him with a powerful combination of energy and uncertainty, and capably conveying the virtues and vices expected by the script.

For the first time since School Ties, Brendan Fraser is given a chance to show that he can act, and he doesn't waste the opportunity (although those who were enraptured by his pecs in George of the Jungle get another shot at viewing them). He portrays Clay believably as a rootless young man who is both fascinated and repelled by the strange old director whose lawn he cuts. Lynn Redgrave is almost unrecognizable in her largely- comedic role as Whale's faithful housekeeper. And Lolita Davidovich has a small part as one of Clay's old flames.

Gods and Monsters keeps us interested in the life of James Whale for its full 105-minute running time. Most of us know his monsters - the stiff Karloff creature (whose appearance was suggested by Whale), the bizarrely beautiful Bride of Frankenstein, and Claude Rains' Invisible Man - but we know little of the individual who gave them life, and faced his own private demons on a daily basis. Condon's film helps to remedy that. Gods and Monsters is a rich, multi- layered portrait of a director from Hollywood's Golden Age whose own life was as interesting as any of his movies.

Gods and Monsters (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1998-11-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1