John Bruni reviews GODS AND MONSTERS

Gods and Monsters105 min., 1998
Directed by Bill Condon
My rating: ★★★★
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“Take your shirt off, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

* * *

[WARNING: This movie is kinda-sorta based on the real life of James Whale, director of FRANKENSTEIN and SHOW BOAT. If you don’t know how things worked out for him in real life, you might want to watch this film before continuing with this review.]

First of all, it should be mentioned that this is not based on a completely true story. Some of the characters were real people, but this is a fictionalized account of what the last days of James Whale’s life might have been like. Adapted fairly faithfully from Christopher Bram’s novel, FATHER OF FRANKENSTEIN, GODS AND MONSTERS takes a look at the life of FRANKENSTEIN director Whale and his state of mind before he died under mysterious circumstances.

In a film like this, everything rests on the actor who plays Whale, and luckily, director Bill Condon chose Sir Ian McKellan for the role. Not only does he look remarkably like Whale, but he brings everything he’s got to the role, and that’s a lot. Gandalf and Magneto are great, but McKellan should really be remembered for his amazing performance in this film.

Whale has just suffered a stroke, and because of this, he sometimes time-travels in his mind back to his youth in industrial London and to his time serving in World War I. This is odd, considering how he’s spent almost all of his life trying to get away from these events. His parents were very strict, and every time he showed his creative, artistic side, he was told to stop doing that. His mother thinks he’s putting on airs, and his father is afraid his son will turn into a “poofta.” After seeing the horrors of the war, he went to Hollywood to become a director. And here’s the interesting thing: he finally escapes the oppression of his relatives and his own country, and in his time as a director, he finally gets to cut loose and let his real self out. But when Hollywood finds out that he likes having sex with men, then he finds himself right back in that oppression he experienced as a youth. He’s immediately isolated. His only contact is with his overbearing, uber-religious housekeeper Hanna (Lynn Redgrave) and his ex-lover, David (played with tender nervousness by David Dukes).

And then Mr. Kay comes for a visit. He’s a young man who wants to interview Whale because he’s a huge fan of the first two Frankenstein pictures. Whale, who is incredibly lonely, grants Kay’s wish but with a catch: for every question he asks, Kay has to take off one item of clothing. Skittish, Kay agrees to this, unable to believe what he’s willing to do for an interview with one of his heroes.

The key to understanding Whale’s character in this film is the loneliness. Yet at the same time, he’s almost a predator in the way that he goes after young men, desperate for any attention he might get.

And that’s where Clayton Boone comes in. Boone, played by Brendan Fraser, is a loner, living in a trailer where he has to wade through empty bottles of beer to get to the bathroom. He doesn’t have many friends, but he does have a long line of one-night stands behind him. He just can’t connect with other people, and it’s not very clear that he wants to. In some odd way, he enjoys his solitude.

He’s a landscaper, and it just so happens that he works for Whale. One day, his employer notices him for the first time and is very taken with him. It’s easy to see why. Boone is a very handsome man . . . with a flat-top hairdo, making him look exactly, in silhouette, like Frankenstein’s monster.

Whale is no longer interested in Boone doing his lawn. He wants to now hang out with Boone, and before long, he suggests that Boone model for him as Whale does his portrait. Boone is kind of nervous about that, but when he finds out that Whale is actually famous, he agrees to it, provided that Whale doesn’t want a nude, like one of the other portraits in his drawing room. Whale assures him that he’s not interested in his body. Right.

Boone does a bit of research on the old man and discovers that BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is playing on TV that night. He sits down in a bar and watches it with acquaintances of his, including the waitress, Betty, he used to fuck (Lolita Davidovich). Everyone in the bar thinks its hokey bullshit. Betty even goes so far as to say that everyone back then thought they were being scary, but they really weren’t. Boone is the only one in the bar who understands not just the idea that Whale had a certain degree of black humor in the movie, but also that he got the monster, that he understood what the monster was all about.

Later, when he tells Whale about the experience, Whale asks if anyone laughed. When he’s told no, he thinks it’s a pity. It seems like this is the beginning of a great friendship.

But when Hanna informs Boone that Whale has a sexual interest in men, it bothers him. He tries to pretend it doesn’t, but now he’s nervous in Whale’s company. When Whale starts talking about his war experiences, in which he makes love to one of his fellow soldiers, it gets under Boone’s skin. When Whale talks about how there used to be so many naked young men around this very house and in the swimming pool, it breaks Boone. It’s a scene too uncomfortable to watch as Boone explodes with rage at Whale. It’s so fucked up that Boone feels the need to cleanse his palate with immediate, heterosexual sex with a complete stranger.

While everyone does a great job in this film (“a good cast is worth repeating,” after all), the best scenes are between McKellen and Fraser. There isn’t a single person in the world who would say McKellen is a bad actor, but there are quite a few who dislike Fraser. This is understandable, because he doesn’t always make the best career choices. Often, he relies on his good looks to get by. However, that isn’t always the case. He is capable of greatness, and his turn as Boone is proof of this. He comes on so strong in this film that he gives McKellen a run for his money. A damn fine run. They’re neck and neck here.

One of the best scenes is when they go to a party being thrown by Princess Margaret and George Cukor. (During Whale’s interview with Kay, he said that Cukor was one of the most homosexual men he’d known, but he still got to direct movies because he managed to keep it out of the papers.) Cukor pretends to not recognize Whale, and Whale does his best to make Cukor jealous by using Boone as an unwitting weapon. Boone’s cluelessness is perfect in this scene. He doesn’t even care about being here, surrounded by Hollywood’s greatest stars, including Liz Taylor. He just wants to drink a few beers and drive Whale home when it’s all over.

It turns out that Kay set this whole thing up, because Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester were going to be there. Rosalind Ayres, who plays Lanchester, is good, but Jack Betts, who plays Karloff is INCREDIBLE. He looks EXACTLY like Karloff, and he sounds perfect. It’s almost as if it really is Karloff.

Kay wanted to see Whale reunited with his monsters, and he makes sure to get pictures of it. The flash from the camera sends Whale back to WWI, to when he saw his lover’s body hooked up on the barbed wire of no man’s land.

As Whale walks away, Boone, trying to play along with the whole party, asks Whale what it was like to see his monsters again like that. Whale, exhausted, taps his head and says, “The only monsters are here.”

Whale and Boone are so out of place in this scene that it’s wonderful to see them play off of one another.

Condon, who also adapted the book to screenplay (and won an Academy Award for it), has really put together a wonderful, fucked up film with these two actors. The dream sequence when Boone takes Whale’s brain out of his head is perfect. The flashback to a behind-the-scenes moment with Lanchester, Colin Clive and Ernest Thesiger (the latter two played perfectly by Matt McKenzie and Arthur Dignam) is astonishing to behold, especially as Whale reminds Thesiger that Dr. Pretorius is supposed to be in love with Dr. Frankenstein.

And then, of course, is the most chilling image in horror film history. Boone, in a moment of lonely weakness, shows himself nakedly to Whale and asks if this is how he really wants to draw him. No, Whale has a better idea. He goes to his closet and comes back with a gas mask for Boone to wear. Whale is driven mad by this very image, and Boone tries to be helpful, even though he can’t really breathe in the thing. Whale is so overcome by this image that he starts kissing Boone’s neck and grabbing for his dick. Boone, who didn’t sign on for this, goes feral, trying to fend off Whale’s urges.

This film is beautiful. It is stark. It is chilling. Condon might not have pulled it off if not for the very talented Carter Burwell, who supplies one of the best scores in Hollywood history. It is the perfect accompaniment to the destruction of one lonely old man who only wanted people to accept him the way he was.

You can’t get out of this film without it affecting you emotionally. It will probably haunt you for a long time to come. Sure, real life probably didn’t happen this way. Boone probably didn’t even exist. But it sounds plausible. You will definitely leave this movie hoping it was true, and then feeling bad about it.

Because James Whale deserved better than his deteriorating mental health and a swimming pool he never used, except for that one last time.

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About John Bruni

John Bruni is the author of DONG OF FRANKENSTEIN (New Kink), POOR BASTARDS AND RICH FUCKS and TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE (StrangeHouse) and STRIP (Riot Forge). His short work has appeared in anthologies like A HACKED-UP HOLIDAY MASSACRE (Pill Hill), ZOMBIE! ZOMBIE! BRAIN BANG! (StrangeHouse) and the critically acclaimed VILE THINGS (Comet). He edited STRANGE SEX 3 for StrangeHouse, and he was the editor and publisher of TABARD INN: TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE. Find out more at www.talesofquestionabletaste.com and www.talesofunspeakabletaste.blogspot.com.
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