Gods And Monsters
Rating -

Drama (US); 1998; Not Rated; 105 Minutes

Ian McKellen: James Whale
Brendan Frasier: Clayton Boone
Lynn Redgrave: Hanna
Lolita Davidovich: Betty
Kevin J. O'Connor: Harry
David Pukes: David Lewis

Produced by Clive Barker, Paul Colichman, Greeg Fienberg, Mark R. Harris, Sam Irvin, Stephen P. Jarchow and Valorie Massalas; Directed and screenwritten by Bill Condon; Based on "Father Of Frankenstein" by Christopher Bram

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Written by DAVID KEYES

It's hard to appreciate darkness. What's even more hard is appreciating it at a movie which you pay to see. The viewer gets the feeling that they are being tormented, or exploited, for profit, and that in the literal sense is a notion that can drive away any type of audience. Ponder to yourself for a few seconds about whether or not you'd rather see the obsessive impulses of an Orson Welles movie, or if you'd rather see the uplifting and cheerful messages of a children's cartoon. At least with the latter choice, we don't feel like we need to confront the basis of fear, and shrink down to our seats as we are attacked with images and concepts of the bloodcurdling obscurities of real life. We feel like they are realistic and fantasy-based at the same time. They may seem fabled, or fiction, but sometimes the themes are more lifelike than you imagine. We need to be exposed to them to truly live with ourselves.

Some of the greatest movies are made with the intention of attacking the viewers, but more brutal are the psychological attacks of the characters associated with filmmaking in biographical pictures. A movie about someone like Alfred Hitchcock or Roman Polanski would in themselves be harrowing to the senses. These were, after all, people who were incorporating all the doom and aggression in film that they can. The layers of human darkness come from the people who make it. Often do we envision people like these as sadistic creatures whose urges to assault our response to movie material are more dark in real life than they are on screen.

In ways, bio-pics, like the new "Gods And Monsters," are more creepy and sovereign than the movies based from the minds of the film's characters. It tells the story of director James Whale (he did the original "Frankenstein" movies), who seems like a nice person but has memories and feelings that allow us to appreciate him more and more. He was, of course, one of the only openly-gay men during Hollywood's best era of moviemaking, but that's beside the point. Tales and feelings emerge from his perspective like deep memories we've kept hidden in the perils of our mind. The recollections of love and romance during a time like World War I are shot in mysterious black-and-white, while the modern-day synopsis takes place in color (a la "American History X"). These sequences stand together like a whole new movie, and that's not counting the fact that, in the present, James Whale is close to his deathbed. The only question is, is he a god or a monster? I'm not even sure.

The role of James Whale is played stunningly by Ian McKellen, whose previous picture, "Apt. Pupil," was just a start at giving us a peak into his door of potential. On screen, he resurrects James Whale as if they were related; you'd swear, if not bet your life, that this is the infamous director, who created two of the most frightening movies of all time. The performance is deserving of the elusive Oscar.

The film opens in 1957, after a stroke leaves him weak and near the end of life. From there, the movie transcends from flashbacks and a current situation; in the present, he wants his gardener (Brendan Frasier) to kill him. He sees no need to go on living. At his house, as a backdrop, skinny-dipping parties with all men continue as if Whale has no signs of dying, yet secretly, he remembers, and ponders, whether life should go on much longer. The gardener, named Clayton, at first has no idea of what a homosexual is, but once he learns, the script gives him the credibility of no instant violent reaction. A man as charming and handsome as this would find a sexuality like this inconclusive and disgusting, but not Clayton. In truth, he actually feels sorry for the dying director. We all do to extents.

During some of the visually provocative memories of Whale's mind, he takes us to the secret memories of infamous skinny-dipping parties, heterosexual relationships, and then to the benchmark of his film success (the 1930s in this case). Since black and white permits us to be overwhelmed immensely in the material, our attention never leaves the screen. From the first shot until the closing credits, we are gripped, held in position. To do that for every second of screen time is a concept all on its own.

What scares us is the fact that this man is dying. We don't want him to, for many different reasons. He gave us a great movie like "Bride Of Frankenstein," and as he fears the afterlife and what exists beyond death, so do we. He takes us to the deathbed with him. One of his servants (Lynn Redgrave) in one scene announces to him, "Your servants are beginning to feel like they're married to you." Translated, it means that they don't want him to die, because they've known him for so long.

Whale's "Frankenstein" movies discuss the human soul and the antics of controlling it, but here, in "Gods And Monsters" his perspective treats the human soul as if it were a rag doll torn to pieces with a smile still intact. At this point, nothing could save him, withered and decaying and near death. He even knew that. It sometimes even scared him. But he accepted it, and did not allow it to consume his need to enjoy life and its pleasures. He's obviously smitten with his lifestyle (and with his gardener, for that matter), and he wishes for nothing more during the course of his life.

Are the skinny dipping parties necessary? Maybe, if you examine them from the right perspective. Ian McKellen doesn't portray James Whale with the essence that we vision as being 'gay,' but in an age as different as this one, maybe the proof is demonstrated to make us believe it. "Gods And Monsters" is truly a marvel; an emotional story of a man driven to his deathbed, and how he fears his final days. It's like one of those Ingmar Bergman pictures that leaves thoughts on your mind for many a moon.

1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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