After the failure of his “masterpiece” film The Road Back based on a novel by Eric Maria Remarque, James Whale (Sir. Ian McKellan) lost favor with the studio heads at Paramount, and retired. Gods and Monsters traces the last few days of Whale’s life and the, I believe, fictional relationship between he and a burly gardener named Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser). Set almost exclusively in Whale’s modest home, Gods and Monsters is a character study in loneliness.
Following one in a series of increasingly damaging strokes Whale spies Boone cutting the grass and invites him to sit for modeling sessions. These sessions form the basis of most of the movie where Whale recounts the ever increasingly intrusive events of his past for Boone. The effects of the stroke are not the sort that paralyze parts of his body, but the kind that open a floodgate of memories.
Whale is tortured by his experiences in a family that failed to understand either his homosexuality or his artistic talent and his terrible experiences in The Great War.
Boone has memories too, his failure to graduate from Marine Corps basic training and fight in Korea (due to a ruptured appendix) and his past in a poor family.
It is within these painful experiences that the two men find common ground.
Gods and Monsters took home a whole slew of awards in 1998 and I am not at all surprised, an Oscar for best screenplay from based on another medium (the book of the same name), a BAFTA for best picture, the Bram Stoker Award, The American Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Award for best picture... The list is far too numerous to mention here.
Does it deserve it? Well, I guess that’s a matter of opinion, but I can certainly say that I very much enjoyed the film. McKellan, Redgrave, and Fraser are superb in their roles of frail and failing homosexual recluse, devoted German housemaid and substitute mother, and lonely landscaper respectively.
The biopic is sort of a funny animal, obviously the script has to adhere to the known history of the characters featured, but the script also has to find those defining moments in a person’s life and make them worth watching. Atop that creative license, a biopic script also has to compress or edit actual events to fit the pacing of the film. Gods and Monsters accomplishes this by focusing on only a very short time in Whale’s life, three or four days, and filling them with what may have occurred as opposed to squeezing several events together to keep the film moving.
I like to think of Ed Wood as the greatest biopic ever filmed, but even that takes some rather glaring liberties (if you know your horror history). Ed Wood, notable not so much for Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Ed Wood the man, but for Martin Landau’s eerily perfect portrayal of Bela Lugosi. What Ed Wood loses is all of Lugosi’s relationship with Hope Liniger, Lugosi’s wife right up to his death. That whole part of Lugosi’s life is simply not there in the film.
In both examples we in the know can spot the inconsistencies, and as good as Gods and Monsters is, I spotted two. James Whale retired from film making in 1949 after completing “Hello Out There” not “The Road Back” as the script suggests, and Bill Condon sets up a meeting between Whale, Karloff, and Elsa Lanchester where the character playing Karloff is at least 30 years too old. He looks like Karloff in Targets (1971) and not Karloff in something from 1959 like Grip of the Strangler.
Minor complaints I know, and nothing I can’t get over. Gods and Monsters is a character study with one toe in the pool of horror films, but don’t let that dissuade you. Gods and Monsters is a fascinating character study of loneliness and desperation with an all too familiar and tragic end.
Lions Gate offers the DVD of Gods and Monsters with a directors commentary, the original trailer, choice of subtitles and in widescreen (letterboxed).