Gods And Monsters

Gods And Monsters (1998)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Trailer, Production Notes and Biographies

With "Gods and Monsters" director Bill Condon and his cast have created a film that has wowed audiences and critics alike. When I was talking to the director a few days ago, he mentioned the beauty of this DVD release and I was very excited to give it a look. I wasn’t disappointed at all.

This DVD is one of the best and most natural looking discs I’ve seen in a while, and on top if it, the feature film itself is more powerful than you’d ever expect from the box copy or the pictures on the back. In his Academy Award winning screenplay, write/director Bill Condon tried to show us the fictional events surrounding James Whale’s death. James Whale, a horror icon of the 30s, who has created unforgettable, classic horror films like "Frankenstein", "Bride Of Frankenstein" and "The Old Dark House" among others, had become an eccentric and frail old man. Suddenly he is confronted with his own past, when memories rush back to his mind after a minor stroke. Condon tired to make Whale tangible, and the result that can be seen in this film is a true monument and tribute to James Whale the artist and man.

It is 1957 when former Hollywood director James Whale (Ian McKellen) returns home from hospital after a minor stroke. Long gone are his heydays and many people only remember his infamous movies, but not them man behind them. As a result of the debilitating stroke, memories are rushing in on the frail old man and he has problems dealing with those dark rememberances he had left behind him for so long. One day his housekeeper Hannah (Lynn Redgrave) hires a handsome young gardener, Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser) to maintain the property, and the young man immediately sparks Whale’s attention. The director approaches the simple yardman and they develop an unlikely friendship that is based on a fascination for each other.

While Boone is mostly interested in the Whale’s stories that pour out of the old man, as he suddenly remembers them, the director on the other hand sees something in the young man that he can’t figure out at first. Something fatalistic lies in the air when in Whale’s mind Boone starts to take on the shape of the Frankenstein creature. Strong, untamed and powerful, the director sees something glorious in him, something that could help him tie all the loose ends in his life together.

What makes "Gods And Monsters" so powerful is its honesty and intimacy. It shows us Whale as a very lonely man who is seeking companionship to share his memories, his pain. It is a very personal story, intimately told in beautiful pictures and beautifully acted by an incredible cast. The film creates an atmosphere that pulls the viewer in from the very beginning. The narrative flows easily, making the viewer part of the events. It is as if we were sitting right next to them, watching the events unfold in reality, as if we were truly part of what is going on, listening to Whale’s anecdotes in anticipation. There is not a single distraction in the film that will take your focus from the plot. All the way to the end, we witness how this graceful old man, who had fallen from Hollywood’s grace, is struggling with his loneliness, and stages his own departure from this world.

"Gods And Monsters" is not a ‘gay-film’ although the fact that James Whale was homosexual is an issue discussed in the movie. I feel this film clearly transcends any such stereotype. It is evidently the story of a man who happened to be gay, and as such it becomes an intrinsic part of the story itself. It is never obtrusive although it clearly determined much of Whale’s behavior and attitude. It is actually an important part of the way the – completely non-sexual – relationship between Boone and Whale develops over the course of the film. Two worlds collide and Whale uses the boy’s aversion to homosexuality to make himself feel better. It helps him to know that he is still an aberration, as he calls it. Different than the rest of the world, and most importantly different from the uniform Hollywood society that he despises so much.

There is a very powerful scene in the film when Whale decides to visit a social event with Boone only to play pranks on the hosts and to shock them. Before he knows it, the shock is on him, when all of a sudden his former stars Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff appear, throwing the director back in a sea of memories of the good old days.

Accomplished actor Ian McKellen is mesmerizing in his portrayal of James Whale, both old and young, and his lissome and flamboyant performance creates a real human being with emotions and fears. He shows us the struggle when he defeats his inner demons, and we feel the relief that becomes part of him when he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Much more surprising is Brendan Fraser in the part of Whale’s yardman Clay Boone. This staggering performance by Fraser proves that there is a depth to his acting that has been completely overlooked for the longest time. While McKellen drives the story forward with his somewhat elevated play, it is Fraser who roots the story in the real world and adds importance to the emotions. Only through him do we really see how escaped Whale has become, how isolated he is and how much he longs for company. The range of emotions Fraser is going through in his play and the subtle nuances he adds throughout the film is making "Gods and Monsters" more than a biographic picture of a forgotten icon. Unlike Tim Burton’s "Ed Wood", another biographic picture about a Hollywood icon, "Gods And Monsters" is a taking itself very seriously – and deservedly so.

When Bill Condon won the Academy Award for this movie’s screenplay adaption earlier this year, Universal Home Video decided to release "Gods And Monsters" as one of their acclaimed Collector’s Edition. The film is presented in a splendid transfer that is immaculately clean and rich. It features an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer in the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with an image quality that is simply breathtaking. Rich in detail and absolutely faithful in its color reproduction, this disc stands out as one of the best video transfers of recent memory. The image is razor sharp without overemphasis of the edges. The level of detail is astounding, and most of all the color balance is absolutely natural. The shadows are black but still shadows contain enough definition to see through them. Highlights are bright but always warm and balanced, bringing out the best in the elaborate set decorations. The film makes use of some remarkable visual techniques which director Bill Condon lent directly from Whale’s work itself. Combined with original footage of Whale’s black & white films, he manages to create a very organic feel that blurs the line between present and past with ease, all of which is perfectly reproduced in this transfer. The compression on this release is flawless without any hint of artifacting or noise.

The same is true for the audio transfer, although there was one climactic scene in which I seemed to notice very slight distortion. Never mind though, because the overall audio transfer on this disc is as intimate, delicate and atmospheric as you could possibly wish for. Presented in a <$DS,Dolby Surround> mix, the soundtrack is not aggressive, apart from a few visceral flashback scenes, and always creates a very leveled ambiance for the story and the images. Carter Burwell’s score masterfully embellishes the images, but also manages to emphasize the emotions and the inner battle of the characters. Because "Gods And Monsters" is a day & date release from Universal, you can only find an English language track and English subtitles on this disc.

Director Bill Condon added a very good and informative <$commentary,commentary track> to this disc that sheds some light on the way he works, on the way the actors helped him bring this film to life and how he dealt with the material in general. It is a very good <$commentary,commentary track>, so don’t miss it. The disc also contains a 30 minute documentary that explores James Whale, his life and his work to a degree, while also keeping on eye on the movie at hand. You can also find the film’s theatrical trailer and biographies on this disc, but for a Collector’s Edition, unfortunately it feels a little thin on the extras. Luckily all the extras supplied are of outstanding quality.

"Gods And Monsters" left me almost speechless with amazement, and I am very thankful that despite all the problems this project had to get off the ground, Condon and novelist Clive Barker had the persistence to see this film made. Not only did it give me the chance to learn more about the person behind the classic horror films that I loved since I was a child, it also gave me the chance to put character to the name I had read about so many times. After all, Whale’s films are unforgotten and I believe so should be the man who created them. No matter how fictional the accounts may be, this film deserves to stand right next to Whale’s own work. You have to see this movie!