Decades after the fact, audiences are just beginning to appreciate the heart and humanity behind director James Whale's landmark horror films of the 1930s. Those expecting the same depth from "Gods and Monsters" -- the Whale biopic that director/screenwriter Bill Condon has assembled, mad-scientist-style, from the raw material of Christopher Bram's novel, "Father of Frankenstein" -- shouldn't get their hopes up. Even in its best moments, the film only hints at the emotional resonance of Whale's revolutionary work.
When we first see the now-retired Whale (Ian McKellen), he's become something of a horror himself. A virtual recluse in his California mansion, the rapidly aging visionary is tortured by a brain disorder that brings his painful memories flooding forth in uncontrollable bursts. As afflictions go, it's an ideal one to facilitate the numerous flashbacks on which a look-back-in-anger biography depends.
Such a story, however, demands an audience, and Whale's is Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), the hunky, dull-witted gardener after whom the openly gay director lusts. In the course of his clandestine courtship with his unwitting protégé, the older man uncorks the war stories -- set both on the battlefields of Europe and in the editing rooms of Hollywood -- that have left him a shell-shocked shadow of his former self.
The analogy is obvious: Whale is Dr. Frankenstein, and the malleable Clayton is the beloved monster he's obsessed with reassembling in his own image. But over the course of the story, the relationship between the two men successively mimics the dynamic of any number of Whale's own characters. One minute, Clayton is the idealistic Victor Frankenstein, acting as the dupe of Whale's manipulative Dr. Pretorius; the next, he's the horrified Bride, recoiling from the affections of his inhuman mate.
It's in these moments that Condon displays his deepest understanding of Whale's artistic brilliance. Amusingly, the parallels are there on the visual side as well, as Condon shoots the interiors at crazy angles that turn even the sunlit walls of a West Coast home into a chamber of terrors. As the coup de grace, the ailing Whale is given a European maid (Lynn Redgrave) whose comic-relief dialogue makes her a stand-in for the long-suffering Igors of the past.
McKellen is already beating the bushes for an Oscar nomination, and his performance is this film's obvious selling point. But Fraser should be credited for his turn as the underwritten Clayton; he manages to keep the character sympathetic, even as his already-thin motivation utterly vanishes in the film's final minutes.
Straight objects of homosexual desire don't seem to fare too well in films these days: Mostly mere functionaries, they have little to do but maintain a dumb-bunny posture as they find reasons to remove their shirts (a stereotype that was the sole flaw of Love and Death on Long Island, which earlier this year examined subject matter similar to that of "Gods and Monsters," but with a more deft touch).
Leave it to Hollywood to find a rich new vein of sexual objectification to exploit. The real Whale's work treaded much higher ground.