Review: Gods and Monsters

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, November 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

In Bill Condon’s God and Monsters the ghost of Frankenstein’s monster haunts James Whale (Ian McKellan) even in retirement. Whale, the debonair, openly gay British director who came to Hollywood from the London stage to make “art” and had his greatest success with a string of “monster movies,” maintained a love-hate relationship with Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein almost all his life. Condon weaves the lumbering image of the misunderstood monster into the fabric of the film like a haunting memory that won’t go away.

Adapted from Christopher Bram’s novel “Father of Frankenstein,” God and Monsters is a speculation on James Whale’s final days, a work of fiction grounded in fact. The setting is Santa Barbara 1957, over a decade after his retirement. McKellan’s Whale is a silver haired, effete gentleman with a mellifluous, lilting, upper-class English voice simultaneously seductive and sarcastic. A stroke has left him with a degenerative disease of the mind manifest in shards of memory which stab through his consciousness like flashes of monster movie lightning. Between his failing health and the “electrical storms in his head,” as he describes it, Whale is more terrified of losing control than of dying.

Rattling around his villa cared for by his Hungarian maid Hannah (Lynn Redgrave clucking and growling through her severe accent) he perks up at the sight of his shirtless young gardener Clay (Brendan Fraser), who he invites into his studio for a drink and cajoles into posing for him (“I have no interest in your body, Mr. Boone, I assure you,” he pleads with mock sincerity). Whale and Clay couldn’t be more opposite, a British sophisticate with a theatrical flair and a guileless working class American kid, but against all odds the two become friends.

McKellan delivers an Oscar caliber performance, suggesting Whale’s pain and fear behind a facade of easy charm and barbed conversation, and Fraser’s easy, natural performance as Clay is a perfect contrast to McKellan’s theatricality and an open invitation to Whale to let his guard down. As Whale comes to terms with those fragments of memories (the trenches of World War I, his stifling working class childhood, directing in Hollywood) Condon weaves them into a moving conclusion that mixes metaphor and memory. God and Monsters is Condon’s labor of love and he remakes his otherwise unremarkable career with this richly realized evocation on a man struggling with the inner monster he’s denied all his life. 


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