Gods and Monsters
*** 1/2 Stars
(US 1998)

Ian McKellen, Lynn Redgrave, Brendan Fraser

Director: Bill Condon

Writing credits: Christopher Bram (novel)* & Bill Condon

*Father of Frankenstein

Lion's Gate Films * 105 minutes

Sometimes I wish that Mel Brooks had never made YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, for it is such an effective spoof of James Whale's original films that it's not only ruined them forever, it's also affected the impact of certain scenes in Bill Condon's GODS AND MONSTERS.

This odd film, part comedy, part tragedy, all fascinating, tells of the last days of director James Whale (Ian McKellen), best known primarily as the creator of the classic horror films FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Long forgotten by the studios, Whale has retired to pursue painting and a life of leisure. Gardener Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser) is impressed when he learns that his new employer was once a successful Hollywood director and is flattered by Whale's desire to paint his portrait. Oblivious at first to Whale's sexual predilections, he's not sure exactly what the old man sees in him, but he's intrigued enough to agree to pose.

Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), is Whale's live-in housekeeper, who hired Clay but is now concerned about his growing relationship with their mutual employer.

The tragedy of James Whale is that while he is remembered for his Frankenstein films, he also put his stamp on other classic films, such as the original screen versions of SHOWBOAT, THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK, and THE INVISIBLE MAN. In fact, GODS AND MONSTERS contains an interesting vignette of how Whale manipulates to his own advantage a starstruck young student who cuts short his reminiscences about his youth with a blunt question: "When do we get to the monster movies?"

The film belongs first and foremost to McKellen. His fondness for this character shines through, and he imbues the ailing Whale with a dry, self-deprecating wit as well as pathos. Fey mannerisms just barely peek through, giving the audience just the barest hint of what James Whale is, but only because we are a savvy audience. It's a marvelously subtle performance, with not a wasted gesture. His portrayal of Whale's reminiscences about love in the trenches during WWI is both harrowing and genuinely touching, and he has a nice rapport with both his co-stars. With this performance, if you blink for more than a second, you'll miss something.

Against this powerhouse of a performance, Brendan Fraser (an actor I unfairly disliked for years, merely because he had the misfortune to be yet another Gentile actor portraying a Jew, this time in SCHOOL TIES) more than holds his own. His demeanor is that of a slacker Tom Hanks, and Clay Boone is a somewhat more intelligent rendition of the brand of affable hunky doofus that Fraser seems to be making a career of playing. Yet in the film's climactic scene (involving a WWI gas mask), Fraser finally shows his acting chops and definitively demonstrates that he can do more than stand around being charming and goofy.

The film has some terrific re-creations of the filming of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and a truly bizarre dream sequence in the same mode. And this is where the YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN factor comes in, as we remember the Mel Brooks spoofs of these scenes far more then we remember the originals. Complicating this problem is Lynn Redgrave's Hanna, who is almost a dead-on re-creation of Cloris Leachman's Frau Blucher, with a touch of the Mrs. Danvers-like German housekeeper Inga (Hanna Schygulla) from DEAD AGAIN thrown in just for variety. I kept waiting for Marty Feldman to appear. I'm not sure if this character is intentionally comical, but she is nonetheless. It's a performance that's goes way over-the-top, even if the Motion Picture Academy doesn't agree with me.

The film ends with a segment of the famous "blind man" scene from FRANKENSTEIN, and now that we know something about the film's monster's creator, it's doubly poignant. On the other hand, the Mel Brooks factor kicks in one last time, and I couldn't help but think of Peter Boyle dumping soup into Gene Hackman's lap.

GODS AND MONSTERS  official site

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