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Monster Show

By Coury Turczyn

JULY 19, 1999:  Despite the recent resurgence (and consequent condemnation) of the Gothic lifestyle—pale faces, black hair, fixation with looking moody—Gothic horror movies are mostly nonexistent. That's because modern attention spans demand jolts and chase scenes from horror flicks, not atmospheric settings populated with monsters who symbolize our innermost yearnings. Nope—monsters today just pretty much kill people as quickly and disgustingly as they can, and that's that.

To get a sense of the creative impulses behind some classic Gothic horror films, ponder Gods and Monsters (1998, R). It dramatizes the last days of James Whale, the English director who found fame in the '30s making Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. As masterfully played by Ian McKellen, Whale is a lonely, frail, but still wickedly smart gay man who opted out of the Hollywood system when he found his artistic freedoms curtailed. Now, in the '50s and suffering from a stroke, he fears he's losing his faculties. Although biographical in nature, this isn't the story of Whale's life per se; the flashbacks are few, and we only get to see him at the height of his powers once, directing a scene from Bride. Instead, Gods and Monsters attempts to make the connections between Whale's persona and his creations verbally in long conversations between Whale and his newly befriended lawn boy (a surprisingly complex Brendan Fraser). This is both a strength and a weakness—McKellen has a mesmerizing voice which gives us a sense of Whale's strength despite his weak body and tortured upbringing. But on the whole, I kept wishing I could be seeing Whale's story rather than being told it. Gods and Monsters has the feel of a remarkable stage play (though it isn't—it's based on the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram); and though it informs us of how Whale's internal demons helped create The Monster, it doesn't often bring them to life cinematically.

According to Gods and Monsters and other books, Whale purposely directed much of the Frankensteins with tongue in cheek—though the heapings of melodrama are much more apparent to audiences today. Taking that Gothic melodrama many steps further is Mel Brook's best movie, Young Frankenstein (1974, PG), a parody that is nevertheless so true to its source material that it's just as worthy of the Goth title. Shot in black and white—and using many of Whale's own set-ups—it posits Gene Wilder as a brain surgeon who inherits a castle in Transylvania...and can't resist going back into the family trade. Exuberantly silly, it exhibits an affection for the very conventions it lampoons—and Peter Boyle's Monster is darn near lovable.

Finally, for a more visual treatment of a horror filmmaker's life, there's Tim Burton's superlative Ed Wood (1994, R), which we've written about before but stands as one of the great movies about Hollywood and its monsters.

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