To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?---"
Milton, Paradise Lost
"You have the most architectural skull," James Whale tells his gardener in Gods and Monsters. The square-shaped noggin calls to mind certain movie monsters whose heads were flat. Frankenstein's monster had such a skull. You could open it "like a tin of beef," according to Mr. Whale, the openly gay movie director who designed 1931’s horror classic. Two decades later, he still dreams about gods and monsters and the meager difference between them.
Until the lawnmower man popped up, there wasn’t much fuel for Mr. Whale’s fantasies—except for the occasional fawning film history grad, staking out a tabloid-level interview (which so bore Mr. Whale that during one interview he amuses himself with a game of strip poker: one question per item of clothing). Then Boone barges onto the estate, sweaty and shirtless, swinging hedge clippers and hacking weeds with an almost existential fervor. For a while, Mr. Whale perches by the window and watches. He wants to sketch that skull and anything else he can coax the arrow-straight ex-Marine into exposing. It’s wry Mr. Whale who finds himself on display.
The film begins with Mr. Whale’s jumbled memories, mostly of World War I and the love he lost. As the picture progresses, we piece together these clues to Mr. Whale’s post-stroke psyche. Writer-director Bill Condon (whose previous credits include the sequel to producer Clive Barker’s Candyman) has deftly adapted Christopher Bram’s book Father of Frankenstein into a character- driven ode to mortality. Not unlike Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the erotic tug between boy and man becomes something nobler than mere libido; rather it’s youth and all its flimsy trappings that whet Whale’s appetite.
Golden Globe nominee, Ian McKellen, plays the Hollywood has-been, a charming misanthrope, in a role that’s landed him on many year's-best lists. Lynn Redgrave is barely recognizable, donning curlers and a sauerkraut accent as Mr. White’s housekeeper (monster movies "aren’t her teacup") and teenbeat lunk, Brendan Fraser, makes a suitable Adonis in Levis.
Fraser’s character is bracketed in question marks. He’s curious about Mr. Whale’s illustrious legacy and blameless enough to believe in it. Boone flaunts the pretty skin every man-made miracle was meant to possess. He’s the archetypal "demon," an innocent sired without a mother in defiance of nature, the giant infant rejected by his progenitor. According to Mary Shelley’s moral parable, the most notorious Gothic "ghost story," the monster craves a domestic life. The same is true of Boone, who makes poor "marriage material" at this stage in life. Throughout the film, flashbacks to the original Frankenstein movies substitute Boone, the unsophisticated lawnmower man, as Frankenstein's monster. (At one point, Mr. Whale slips an antiquated gas mask over Boone’s beautiful face, transforming him into a "monster," the sort war makes of us).
Dr. Frankenstein is a parody of God, the creator who abandons mankind because He has lost authority. Mr. Whale’s mission, like the idealistic doctor’s, is good-intentioned. He wants to bring the dead back to life. His thoughts drift back to his long lost beloved, the soldier who died in his prime. He imagines joining him in his grave, perhaps guilt-ridden that he lived longer. The scene suggests a kind of rejoicing—not a somber funeral pyre—and when Whale freely passes, peace smooths his tired face. His arms spread into a cross, another Christ sinned against by man.
The monster reminds us of our human frailties; therefore, we must punish him. We’re too embarrassed to ask the sort of things that children ponder everyday: Who am I? Where did I come from? What happens when I die? Dr. Frankenstein builds a being who shares his need for company and a pure sense of guilelessness. It’s the self-serving modern world that makes him a "monster." His shadow-double is Mr. Whale, the quintessential mad doctor locked away in his lonely castle, longing for companionship in the guise of an alter-ego. His gayness sets him apart from others, much like a monster whose great brain goes unnoticed because it’s housed in a geometrically-perfect skull.