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Frankenstein's Frankenstein

[whitespace] Gods and Monsters
Bride Pride: James Whale (Ian McKellen) directs Elsa Lanchester (Rosalind Ayres) in the famous 'meet the monster' sequence from 'The Bride of Frankenstein.'

'Gods and Monsters' looks at the last years of horror-film great James Whale

By Richard von Busack

THE CONTINUING PROBLEM in modern horror films is how to top history. Not movie history, but human history, as described by James Joyce: "The nightmare from which I am trying to awake." That sort of nightmare is always so much worse than celluloid nightmares. Once you've heard of Dr. Mengele, how can you shiver at Dr. Frankenstein?

The cornball theatricality of director James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) may leave today's audiences underwhelmed, accustomed as they are to slasher films, but the introduction of Elsa Lanchester's monster in The Bride of Frankenstein still has its undiminished power. The scene is excerpted both in the low-budget Bride of Chucky and in the first-rate Gods and Monsters.

The prelude to this famous moment is a series of silent close-ups: the Bride is seen with her face cast heavenward, with gleaming highlights on her eyes and on her ripe lower lip. Her many scars are displayed--Whale takes in the incisions as dispassionately as an insurance photographer

The wedding bells Franz Waxman uses on the soundtrack make the moment all the more horrible. As Dr. Frankenstein's bad angel, Dr. Praetorius, Ernest Thesiger deliberately cultivates snickers throughout the movie, but these giggles stop cold inside the theater as Karloff's Monster tries clumsily to reach for this new creature, and Lanchester's Bride replies with a wordless avian shriek.

The title of Gods and Monsters comes from Praetorius' toast: "To a new world of gods and monsters." Bill Condon's film (based on the novel Father of Frankenstein, by Christopher Bram) conceives of Whale (Ian McKellen) as a delayed-stress case who submerged his terrible memories of the true-life monstrosities of WWI.

In Whale's The Old Dark House (1932), Melvyn Douglas' character, Penderell, is identified as a survivor of the trenches simply by his twisted smile--the sardonic attitude of the man who has been through hell. There's certainly a similar twisted smile on McKellen's face; his version of Whale is a portrait of the gay artist as a great coaster.

It's 1957. The 71-year-old Whale is enjoying a genteel retirement in a fine Pacific Palisades house complete with swimming pool, hydrangeas and lilies-of-the-Nile. In these pleasant surroundings, he's tended by a dialect-comedy maid named Hannah, played by Lynn Redgrave with blood red lipstick and a Hungarian accent. It's as if Whale has kept a little bit of Transylvania around with him in sunny Southern California.

In a bright, if maybe overdone, early scene, a fey young man named Edmond Kay, (Jack Plotnik) has come to interview Whale, hoping to ferret out old scandal. He's ignorant of any of Whale's films other than the Frankenstein duo.

The encounter also serves to provide us with an overview of Whale's other works. Whale directed the first version of Show Boat, starring Paul Robeson himself; he also made The Invisible Man, with Claude Rains. Whale's career declined after The Road Back (1937), a failed sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front.

Whale is at his most devilish parrying Kay's questions. (He turns the interview into a bout of strip poker: "Take off your shirt, and I'll tell you all about it," he growls around his cigar.) But then Whale falls victim to a minor stroke. Recovering, he's hit with olfactory hallucinations and flashbacks of his early life.

Whale is distracted from his maladies by the presence of a new gardener, a gorgeously muscled and very straight ex-GI named Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser). As a Sunday painter, Whale has an excuse for talking Clayton into posing for him. So begins a long and slow seduction of Boone, whom Whale plans to use for a more serious purpose than just a fling.

CONDON'S FILM is informed by Whale's gayness, which was as little ado to his Hollywood career as it was to the career of the more successful director George Cukor (pitilessly satirized here). Gods and Monsters restores a touch of sulfur and brimstone to being gay through Hannah's comic foreboding. Hannah has seen the pentagram on Whale's palm, and she reveals to Clayton the truth: Her master is a sodomite, guilty of the "deed no man can name without shame."

Condon, through flashbacks to the set of The Bride of Frankenstein, exposes the implicit homosexual meaning of that horror classic. (Parents always knew there was something suspect about the Frankenstein movies.) In The Bride, the newly married and rehabilitated Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive, a guilt-ridden homosexual in real life) is blackmailed by the very queer mad doctor Praetorius into creating a new monster.

Praetorius is like an unwanted specter of Dr. Frankenstein's old way of life, tempting him away from his marital bed into more midnight frolics. Doctor F., trying to distance himself from his sinful past, anticipates the "rehabilitated homosexuals" who have made the national news of late. (A scene in Gods and Monsters underscores this theme: McKellen's Whale comments to Matt McKenzie's Clive that "Praetorius is a little in love with Dr. Frankenstein.")

Except for the visit to the set of Bride, however, the flashbacks in Gods and Monsters are so underproduced as to be a liability. The unimaginable horror of the trenches, for instance, is enacted under blue light on a set. The old convention of black-and-white flashbacks should have been heeded in Gods and Monsters; one of the functions of shadowy black-and-white is that it conceals the holes in a budget. Also, the sitcom happy ending seems as unlikely as the positive ending Universal grafted onto the end of the original Bride.

But what's above criticism is the exemplary acting of the team of McKellen and Fraser. The differences between the old-world Whale and the new-world Boone, with his pioneer's name, harmonize beautifully. Fraser seems to be the lone actor in Hollywood whose acting has been improved by buffing up with muscle. (Fraser's flat-top haircut is a clever reference to the flat-headed monster.)

PERHAPS THE best-known fact of McKellen's career is that he was the first openly gay theatrical knight--he came out at a time (the late 1980s) when England was as busy waging war on supposed homosexual culture as certain politicians are today. McKellen, like Whale, is the grandson of a minister and grew up in the north of England.

McKellen was a child in the Lancashire coal town of Wigan a few years after George Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, his report on the impoverished city. (Gods and Monsters mentions Whale's own poverty-stricken past and how he rose from bread with beef drippings to cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off.) From his own humble beginnings, McKellen grew into a flamboyant actor: a scene-stealer. Even in an attempted suicide scene in Gods and Monsters, McKellen has one eye cocked toward the audience.

According to Joy Leslie Gibson's 1988 biography, McKellen was the first Edgar to go nude for the Tom O'Bedlam scene in King Lear. This stunt has become something of a trend since. Ten years ago, some critics referred to McKellen as the new Olivier because of the remarkable number of Shakespearian roles he'd assayed on stage. The English title "The New Olivier" is decided only in America, however, and Kenneth Branagh made his Shakespeare movies first. McKellen has come late to the moviegoer's notice, but he's making up for lost time.

Commonly, McKellen, a hale 60, plays even older characters. He's especially good at menaces who hide behind shows of aged harmlessness, such as his beaten-down Nazi in the underrated Apt Pupil (which is, like Gods and Monsters, a morbid comedy about the unimaginable distance in time and space between bleeding Europe and basking California.)

Even Vincent Price--even Chuck Jones' Grinch--could envy McKellen's stagy put-uponness, his whipped-dog pout, the wolfishness of his tongue--which flickers out to delivering a ring to Kristin Scott Thomas in his 1995 film version of Richard III. Early in McKellen's theatrical career, he played First Weasel in Toad of Toad Hall. Certainly, he's becoming First Weasel on our screens.

As Whale, an old man transfixed with a sort of love, McKellen has his richest screen part--the most comic and the most poignant. He keeps us rapt. Maybe it takes the theatricality of an old Shakespearean to give grandeur to modern horror. Shakespeare's Henry V has a speech to the citizens of Harfleur ("Look to see the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand ..." ) that says something more about the essence of war than is contained in the graphic Saving Private Ryan.

Except in a few talented hands, like those of directors Henri-Georges Clouzot, David Lynch, George Romero and David Cronenberg, excessive horror almost always ends up as gory slapstick. More mystery can be found in the horror of imaginary worlds, described in rich syllables, set in the Ruritanian countries where the wolf bane blooms.

Horror sticks in the mind when we can see a part of it so we can imagine the rest. Whale conjured up the horror in the unsaid--and the unseen. If his mannerisms have aged, the horror of his Frankenstein--the scarred, dead-faced stranger ready to do violence--is more intimidating than the legions of masked killers who came after him.

Gods and Monsters (Unrated; 105min.), directed and written by Bill Condon, based on the novel by Christopher Bram, photographed by Stephan M. Katz and starring Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser, opens Friday at the Camera 3 in San Jose and at the Guild in Menlo Park.

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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