Gods & Monsters
directed by Bill Condon
(Universal, 1998)

As a director, James Whale was a monster if not a god.

His Frankenstein helped kick off the highly successful horror film cycle that kept Universal Studios afloat during the Depression, and his Bride of Frankenstein is possibly the only film sequel ever regarded as better than the original. He went on to direct what's still considered the definitive version of Show Boat and brought The Man in the Iron Mask to talking pictures for the first time.

So why did this great man die alone, unhappy and in relative obscurity less than two decades later? That's the stuff Gods & Monsters is made of.

If we're to believe Bill Condon's screenplay, which is based on Christopher Bram's novel, which is in turn based on actual events, Whale (Ian McKellen) was not in the best shape when he returned home from the hospital in 1957 after suffering a slight stroke. His mind was racing in a hundred directions at once -- to his impoverished boyhood in England, to the trenches he fought in during the Great War and to his days as one of Hollywood's most original talents.

Yet his condition didn't prevent him from playing strip interview with a university student or ogling the young man his housekeeper (Lynn Redgrave) had hired to take care of the yard work while Whale was hospitalized. Nor did it prevent that initial lust from growing into an odd kinship between Whale and yard man Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser).

It's a testy relationship at first. The two don't have much in common: One is an intellectual and artist, the other is not; one is up in years and wasting away, the other is not; one is decidedly straight, his admirer is not.

Yet the two find common ground -- familial rejection -- and Condon spares no mental anguish in getting there. That's what makes Gods & Monsters work despite its flaws.

McKellen is brilliant as a man suffering from too much past, too little present and even less future. He's quick with the one-liner, imbuing Whale with the same sardonic wit Whale had imbued his films with 25 years earlier.

Fraser offers him the perfect antidote: unintellectual, unassuming and, with his rippling muscles and James Deanish 'do, a suitable stand-in for Whale's own Frankenstein monster. But both are outdone by Redgrave's tisk-tisking housekeeper, who spends more time worrying about Whale's soul than his dinner. It's Redgrave at her best, which is indeed a good thing.

Alas, not everything in Gods & Monsters works as well as McKellen's and Redgrave's performances -- most notably the black-and-white fantasy sequences which draw on Frankenstein iconography. They're either alienating or cutesy or both, especially when Whale dreams that Boone is giving him a new brain. Better Condon had found another way to cover this material -- one not so inclined to draw attention to technique and away from substance.

On the whole, however, Gods & Monsters stands up well, a tribute to its subject and an offbeat commentary on nobility in the 20th century. I can't help but think Whale would have approved. Most likely you will, too.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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