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Films
by Kathi Maio

The Soul (or Lack Thereof) of the New Monster

Emmerich and Devlin's Godzilla was a bomb.

Oh, it made plenty of money. (Although, it shows you how incredibly distorted things have become when a $55 million opening weekend is deemed "paltry" by show biz prognosticators!) When a flick ends up making over $375 million worldwide--before cable, video, and other secondary revenues--it's certainly a financial success. It's as film art, or simply as an afternoon's escapist entertainment, that 1998's Godzilla qualifies as the biggest bomb of recent memory.

"Size Matters" the movie's marketeers boasted. But it doesn't. Biggest has never equated best. (Not in the bedroom, nor in the movie house.) The ability to connect is what matters. A movie should captivate our minds and our emotions. It should delight, horrify, or, at the very least, surprise us. The best movies meet the old "I Laughed, I Cried" test of total engagement. With Godzilla, "I Cringed, I Fidgeted" was more the order of the day.

It goes without saying that, in any film, we need to care about the characters. And, for a movie like Godzilla, those characters must include the title monster. Therein lies the greatest failing of last Summer's heavily-hyped creature feature. Hollywood's Godzilla was devoid of personality. We didn't care what happened to that mega-lizard. Heck, we didn't even get a good look at him until three quarters of the way through the film. (Giant footprints and a swish of tail just don't do it.) And when we did get a good look at him, we didn't feel anything. His eyes were too small. And he was as cold and as impersonal as the computers who generated him.

The original Toho beastie was silly, but that was, at least, part of his charm. He was a rubber kiddie-toy, who bumped into buildings like a near-sighted drunk. And his toothy snarl almost looked like a giant grin. For most of us--unless we were extremely young when we first saw him--Japan's Godzilla wasn't particularly scary. But we did find him endearing and fun--which is more than can be said of the Devlin-Emmerich creature.

But in the best monster movies, we feel something more. We actually feel empathy for, and identification with, the cinematic demon. We become the monster. His persecution and fury resonates in our own experience of rejection, loneliness, and anger.

Perhaps no movie creature has captured our imagination more than Frankenstein. And the definitive movie Frankenstein--the one the scores of other movies have copied or countered-- is the one brought to the screen by director James Whale (in the person of Boris Karloff), first in 1931, and then again in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

That Mr. Whale identifies with his man-made grotesque seems certain. Just as clearly, the filmmaker wants us to do the same. And do we ever! Our sympathies are so engaged by this tottering ghoul that we love him even when he "murders" an innocent child. In that famous scene--censored when the film was first released--the monster makes friends with a small girl who shows him how to float daisies on a lake. Delighted, he decides to pop her in the water, too. Only she doesn't float. She drowns. And the monster can only stumble away in despair.

It's an amazing screen moment. Comical and deeply disturbing, it violates a dozen taboos all at once. And so it is with much of Whale's work. Especially Bride of Frankenstein, which stands as his masterwork, and (to my mind) the greatest horror film ever made.

Bride is a wicked and wonder-filled movie. It is frightening, poignant, macabre, satirical, and then some. You laugh. You cry. You are astounded by Whale's ability to graft Hollywood flash to European Expressionism. And in the devilishly arch performance of Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorious you realize that you are witnessing the genesis of cinematic high camp at its most deliciously perverse.

Whale takes us to an inverted world in which a murderous hulk implanted with an "abnormal" brain appears sweetly heroic (and even, as the film pointedly shows, Christlike), while regular folk appear ugly and violent. And noblemen scientists? Those guys are seriously deranged.

When you watch Bride of Frankenstein it's easy to speculate on the kind of imagination that could have envisioned such a film. And, since the 1970's, many people have done just that. The fact that James Whale was an uncloseted gay filmmaker is a matter of special attention. Is his aesthetic a homosexual one? And is homophobic repression the reason Whale walked away from Hollywood while he was still in his prime? And what later caused a 67 year-old Whale to dress in his favorite suit and drown himself in his backyard pool?

You could write entire books about such things. And several authors have. Among them, novelist Christopher Bram, who published a biographical novel called Father of Frankenstein back in 1995. The novel superimposed fictional situations (notably Whale's relationship with a make-believe yardman) onto the known facts of his life, career, and his final days leading up to his suicide.

The novel reads much like a movie. Which isn't surprising, since Bram had originally planned it as a screenplay. And although his book was no bestseller, it piqued immediate interest in the film community as a good candidate for screen adaptation. One of those interested was a minor filmmaker and screenwriter named Bill Condon.

Condon had directed TV movies and couple of dubious horror features (including Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, 1995), but SF fans will remember him best as co-writer of the 1983 "cult classic," Strange Invaders. Not being particularly high on the Hollywood food chain, Condon had little chance of acquiring the Bram property. That is, until Tim Burton's brilliant flop Ed Wood was released. The failure of that movie made the major studios back right away from Whale's story. But not Mr. Condon.

Enlisting the help of modern horrormeister, Clive Barker (who, like Whale before him, is an artistically- inclined, out gay British filmmaker working in Hollywood), as executive producer, Condon secured a tiny budget of $3 million, the massive acting talents of Sir Ian McKellen, and set about filming his own screenplay of Bram's novel during a feverish 24 day shoot.

The resulting Gods and Monsters is almost as astounding as Bride of Frankenstein (which is fleetingly reproduced in dream and memory sequences throughout Condon's film). Like Bram, Condon focuses on the final days of Whale, during the spring of 1957.

Long-retired from Hollywood, Whale had recently suffered a stroke ("an electrical storm inside his head") that altered his senses, and distorted his thoughts. Present experience, real-life memories, film scenes, and hallucinations all interweave in Whale's troubled mind. And it is through these delusions and nightmares that the viewer gets a glimpse of the experiential subtext of Whale's groundbreaking work in the horror film.

Yes, being gay heightened his sense of otherness, as he ran from a brutal, working-class background and a father who believed that being labeled a "nancy boy" was the ultimate shame. And the horror of dismembered bodies and broken lives was something Whale knew first-hand, as well. Flashbacks of World War I foxholes, and the lover he lost to the carnage, also colored his work.

If Gods and Monsters did nothing more than show us the source material of one filmmaker's brilliance, it would be worth the price of admission. Especially when the filmmaker is played by Ian McKellen, and the melding of fantasy and reality and so hauntingly reproduced through Mr. Condon's hallucinatory vignettes. But this movie doesn't stop there. It plays out within the most amazing little parlor drama, as Whale develops a relationship with his yardman, Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser, very good in the role).

At first, it seems as though Whale is interested in the much younger Boone merely as a possible sexual conquest. (And, stripped to the waist for his mowing, the hunky Mr. Fraser does look like someone any rational human might want to seduce.) But as Whale cajoles Boone into posing for some sketches, and the two talk, a more complex friendship evolves.

Boone is very much Whale's "other." He is young, vital, macho, and, yes, heterosexual. a loner who seems closed off from his own experiences and feelings, you might call him a completely normal American male. But is he really the monster? He appears as such in some of Whale's flights of fantasy. And when we see flashes of Boone's anger towards his sometime girlfriend, Betty (Lolita Davidovich, in a woefully underwritten role), and towards his employer when he fears a possible seduction, we begin to wonder what kind of dangerous end-game James Whale might be playing.

But the growing symbiotic relationship between these two very different men flirts with, but never degrades into, cheap drama or even cheaper sex farce. What Gods and Monsters presents is a short, intense alliance that allows both men to transition their lives to the next level: Whale to death, and Boone to getting on with his life.

It's fascinating stuff. And so are mot of the side-lights and secondary roles Mr Condon creates to fill out his story even further. Lynn Redgrave does a wonderful turn as Whale's devout and dowdy housekeeper, Hanna. It's a character role that Redgrave plays to the hilt (rather like Whale's ensemble players Colin Clive and Una O'Connor do in Bride).

And no movie fan should miss Condon's staging of a garden party for Princess Margaret thrown by (closeted gay) director George Cukor. Star lookalikes abound, and young Boone gets to meet his first royalty. ("He's never met a princess," Whale confides to a clueless Margaret, to the evident vexation of Cukor. "Only queens.")

Gods and Monsters is one of the best films of the year, which means, of course, that it won't get widely distributed. If you don't live in a major city or a university town, there's a good chance you didn't get a chance to see it at theaters. That's what video is for. Do what you need to do to see this film. It's that good. (And just plain entertaining, to boot.)

It also provides glorious insights into where movie horror comes from. It comes from the experiential jumble in the minds of the artists who create it. And it comes from what we bring to the screen as viewers. In a small but important scene, several of the film's characters watch a TV showing of Bride, and see much different films. The religious Hanna finds it a fearful morality tale in which the bad must be punished. Betty, who considers herself a modern sophisticate, can't get past the film's evident age, and rejects it as dated trash. And Boone delights in its humor, and its lyrical sadness. He feels the magic.

He is the monster. And, as Bill Condon knows, so are we all.

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