"Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn't be much more amusing if we were all devils, and no nonsense about angels and being good."—Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), Bride of Frankenstein
James Whale (Ian McKellen) sits in his house, alone save for his crotchety housekeeper (Lynn Redgrave). Once, he was celebrated as one of the most creative directors in Hollywood. The Invisible Man, Show Boat, The Old Dark House. He gave the world its most memorable horror icon: the looming face of the Frankenstein monster. He survived a rough, working class childhood and the trenches of World War I. He challenged propriety by living on his own terms in a society that considered him a dangerous and immoral monster. Now, it is 1957, and he is dying.
There is one thing that might spark Whale's heart once again: that new gardener, Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser). A jarhead, nearly a brute, he is wary of Whale's offers to paint his portraits, fearing that this leering old homosexual might overstep his boundaries. But each man changes the other, and in the end, they learn that the power of art and memory will outlast them both.
As David Skal points out quite correctly in his cultural history of American horror movies, The Monster Show, Hollywood's first generation of fright films were a direct descendant of World War I. Americans saw the newsreels and photographs of damaged bodies, read tales of shell-shocked soldiers, and faced the trauma of war in a way no national audience had ever done in human history. Prior to World War I, the casualties could be hidden away from the public, locked in the attic and ignored. Tales of glory and heroism could whitewash the horror.
But World War I was too horrible for any coat of glossy bravado. To compensate, Americans deferred their experience of war into the damaged bodies of screen monsters. Lon Chaney's limbless schemers resembled those amputees we wanted to forget but could not turn away from. His Phantom of the Opera looked like a gas-attack survivor. And the Frankenstein monster? A lumbering corpse made more frightening by the same science that gave us tanks and planes and machine guns.
No one in those days knew that Hollywood simulated death in order to distract us from real death better than James Whale. Himself a survivor of the trenches of World War I, Whale came to Hollywood riding on the success of anti-war plays. Of course, Hollywood rarely abides directly looking at our anxieties, so it put him to work making a monster movie.
Frankenstein was, as we all know, a huge hit, giving Whale a little power to pick his own projects. But Whale was not much of a team player. Distrustful of authority, Whale tweaked convention at every turn. He was openly gay (at least within Hollywood circles—certainly the public could never know) when other homosexuals, like his friends George Cukor and Charles Laughton, had to hide. He insisted on turning his films into black comedies, full of inside jokes and slippery double entendres, while his contemporaries did what the studio told them to do. Whale's 1935 masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein, is rightly hailed as the greatest classic horror movie ever made, because it skillfully operates as both a well-crafted Hollywood horror movie and a devastating satire of the gender politics behind the Hollywood horror movie. I have already taken some time to discuss this in my "Deep Focus" column on "queer theory," and others have written extensively (and more eloquently than I) on the film too. But any understanding of Gods and Monsters must go hand-in-hand with Bride of Frankenstein, as director Bill Condon continually links the two throughout his film.
Based on a fictionalized account of Whale's last days, Gods and Monsters is as much about the politics of American filmmaking (especially its gender role-playing) as it is a psychological portrait of James Whale. Two aspects of Whale's identity are crucial here. While I have seen some reviews pretend that Gods and Monsters is not a "gay film," perhaps in order to make the reviewers themselves more comfortable (as if praising a movie about a homosexual character makes you gay any more than liking a movie with farm animals in it makes you—well, you get the point), the truth is that Whale's sexuality is a key aspect of his identity. His openness, the assertion of his homosexuality even as the rest of America was trying desperately to cover up such things, is part of his ongoing challenge to all forms of authority. This is evident in Whale's anti-war films (Journey's End for instance), the sharp satire of his horror films, and even his portrait of racial prejudice (a risky subject at the time) in his 1936 version of Show Boat. Gods and Monsters picks up Whale's life in its twilight, long after his retirement from films in 1949, and suggests that his withdrawal, compounded by medical problems, had a terrible emotional impact on the director. Without a forum to challenge authority, Whale all but gave up on himself, eventually committing suicide in 1957.
Where Christopher Bram's novel Father of Frankenstein and Bill Condon's screenplay adaptation embellish on this notion is in adding the character of Clay Boone, whose presence reminds Whale that his legacy is his art and its ability to communicate his identity to the outside (straight) world.
The second aspect of his identity explored in the film is Whale's memories of war. This continues to haunt him, to inform everything he does. This, the film seems to argue, is central to shaping Whale's distrust of authority and his biting wit. After all, as he proves in Bride of Frankenstein, sometimes the only sane response to horror is to laugh. And especially to laugh at the fools responsible for creating that horror. Part of Whale's personal mission in the film is to teach Boone, whose awareness of the world rarely seems to extend beyond his thirst for beer or his groin, to embrace beauty and reject stupidity. At times, the film suggests that Boone is Whale's "monster," but their relationship is hardly this one-sided. Director Condon does play off scenes from Bride of Frankenstein, Whale's signature film—the cigar-smoking scene, the monster seeing his reflection in the water—but unlike Colin Clive's Frankenstein, who never learns a damn thing in either of Whale's films (which is, indeed, part of the joke, since he gets away at the end of Bride solely because Hollywood convention says he must), Whale does change.
Ian McKellen, in a performance that should have won him an Oscar (Condon did win for best adapted screenplay), handles Whale with grace and humor, as a man whose love of beauty compensates for a lingering trauma, a terror of man's innate brutality. The film would be merely a showpiece however, a star turn for its lead actor, if the script did not successfully balance Whale's story with those of Clay Boone and Hannah. Brendan Fraser ably handles Boone's growing realization, like Frankenstein's monster, that he has a soul. Lynn Redgrave undergoes a remarkable transformation as the repressed Hannah, the flip-side of the hysterical housekeeper Minnie (the incomparable Una O'Connor) in Bride.
Lions Gate has re-released Gods and Monsters on DVD in a virtual double-dip of the previous Universal release. Anamorphic transfer, Dolby 2.0—nothing has changed. Neither the picture nor the soundtrack are flashy: this was a modestly budgeted project (only $3 million) driven by dialogue and character. Only Whale's black and white dream sequences (in which he puts himself and Boone into parodies of scenes from the Frankenstein films) seem to give the audio any sort of workout, and then only modestly so.
The two most important supplements from the prior release are included here. Bill Condon offers a commentary track that includes some interesting stories about the making of the film and his difficulties selling it to an audience after it was completed. Curiously, while he knows that McKellen's performance in the film requires no defense, he seems to feel Fraser's work here is underrated and spends a lot of time praising him.
"The World of Gods and Monsters" is a 30 minute documentary (written and co-directed by David Skal) hosted by Clive Barker, the film's producer and a kindred spirit of Whale (both openly homosexual, idiosyncratic artists, and possessed of a wicked sense of black humor). The cast and crew run through Whale's biography in order to provide background for the film, then comment on the production itself. Solid stuff, but I wish Lions Gate had added something for this re-release, although in all likelihood they are just filling out their back catalog as some of their film rights revert from other studios. In spite of his awards and critical praise, Gods and Monsters has been largely overlooked by the mainstream audience, probably because it is so difficult to categorize.
If you already picked up Gods and Monsters on its last go-around, there is no need to get it from Lions Gate. It is the same disc, only less expensive. But if you have yet to see this fascinating portrait of the secret life of Hollywood, this film has plenty to recommend it. Sure, the reverie is sentimental at times, but a winning script, excellent performances, and discrete direction all lift Gods and Monsters above most biopics. Your appreciation of this film would benefit even more from a double feature with Universal's disc of Bride of Frankenstein and the excellent documentary (also by David Skal) included therein. But while Gods and Monsters may be a film that does not fit comfortably in Hollywood's usual niches, it is a rewarding experience on its own terms.
Lions Gate is given a slap on the wrist for re-releasing this disc with no additional material, albeit at a lower price. History has vindicated James Whale, and this court sees no reason to argue against that verdict. Case dismissed.
[Editor's Note: This review replaces the one previously published on the site, written by former Chief Justice Sean McGinnis.]
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• "The World of Gods and Monsters"
Review content copyright © 2003 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.