There aren’t a lot of films about horror movies that themselves aren’t horror movies, but it’s consistently been one of the best and most subversive subgenres. From Shadow of the Vampire to Ed Wood, semi-biographical movies about those who worked in the genre fringes of filmmaking often manage to seamlessly balance prestige film trappings and the pure joy of schlock with charm to spare. While Ed Wood will always rank highly among my favorite films of all time, Gods and Monsters haunts and seduces me in a way very few movies do.
Like most cool kids, I decided to learn HTML and basic web design by myself when I was 12 so I could start making fansites. I made an endless amount of them: A few I was passionate about, and a lot I just made to try out a new design idea. One of the big passion projects was for Bride of Frankenstein. I became obsessed with how hilarious it was while still managing to be chilling and completely heartbreaking. Along with the book The Monster Show by David J. Skal (still a favorite) and Elsa Lanchester’s autobiography, I became fully enchanted by the entire gang behind this film.
titular movie, also directed by Whale, was entertaining, stylish, quick-witted and daring in the face of the danger from a slow-witted village and its police force speaks volumes. Sure, he was the bad guy, but who wasn’t rooting for him, really?
Gods and Monsters, directed by Bill Condon in 1998, is based on the book Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram. It finds James Whale, played to perfection by near-doppelganger Ian McKellen, retired from directing and ill in his sunny Hollywood home. His life is mostly painting, sparring with his housekeeper, Hannah, (played by Lynn Redgrave wonderfully channeling a more naturalistic Una O'Connor, a favorite of Whale’s) and holding court by granting wry interviews with naive young men from fan magazines. The daily pattern shifts when a new gardener, ex-Marine Clayton Boone, arrives. Played by Brendan Fraser at the height of his powers, it sent a gentle shock wave through audiences and critics who were paying attention. Earlier the same year he played George of the Jungle, and his biggest hit (of course, a Universal monster property) The Mummy would come the following year. (For the record, Kevin J. O’Connor appears in both this and The Mummy, so destiny is real.) Fraser’s much-deserved comeback laid tracks this year, but anyone who caught Gods and Monsters isn’t surprised that he’s a sensitive person and an actor with more depth than he really ever got credit for.
There’s no sexual or romantic chemistry between James and Clayton, just as there was no deep fatherly relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and his creation. Their relationships both circumvent the expected roles: Wouldn’t it be just like a film for the homophobic gardener to secretly be gay? Wouldn’t it be traditionally cinematic if Dr. Frankenstein deeply loved his creation despite his monstrosities? Instead, all the characters are doomed to live on different wavelengths that pass each other constantly, star-crossed with instances of empathy, but they’ll never find purchase there. It’s romantic and poetic in the most tragic and ancient sense. There are hints of mentorship, tenderness, sadism and desperation that neither of them fully understand. The uncertainty is intoxicating. The more intelligent men assume they can easily mold the simple, strong men, but they can’t: There’s more depth there than they anticipated, and the power play will be lifelong.
My favorite scenes in the movie aren't complex, though. One is a recreation of the resurrection scene from Bride of Frankenstein where we see a glimpse of Whale’s directing style behind the scenes, and in color! Based on interviews with him and the actors who worked with him, it shows a young, spirited man making a masterpiece out of a masterpiece. (There’s a great poetry in these acknowledged works of popular art being first written by a woman, then most famously adapted by a gay man, both working in a derided genre. Generations later, it’s important to remember that quick money was the most that was expected out of either of them at the time.) The other is Fraser, as Dr. Frankenstein, who has McKellen strapped to the famous operating table from Frankenstein in a dream sequence, where he’s about to bring him back to life with electricity.