Gods and Monsters on DVD

Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave. Directed by Bill Condon. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital. 106 minutes. 1999. Universal Collectors Edition 20584. R. $34.90.

Gods and Monsters is based on Christopher Bram's novel, Father of Frankenstein, a speculative look at the final days of James Whale (McKellen), director of Journey's End, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, and Bride of Frankenstein. ("Those other Frankenstein films were done by hacks," McKellen explains.) Whale, openly gay at a time when most Hollywood gays were closeted, develops an infatuation with the angry Marine veteran (Fraser) who does his yardwork. Over the course of several days, and despite the young man's homophobia, they form a tentative friendship as Whale experiences a series of debilitating strokes that cause him to swing in and out of consciousness, reverie, and fantasy. What emerges is a fascinating glimpse of one of the most distinctive architects of early cinematic style, interwoven with the story of a complex and touching relationship.

McKellen, Fraser, and Lynn Redgrave (who portrays Whale's Hungarian housekeeper) all deliver intensely compelling performances, but Fraser's is astonishingly effective—especially since he spends most of the movie listening to McKellen. But then, it takes a skilled actor to inhabit a character even when he is silent.

Like Whale's films, Gods and Monsters is filled with subtle visual jokes—such as the fact that Fraser's character is introduced to the audience as a series of body parts. There's even a set piece, a re-creation of the soundstage during the filming of Bride of Frankenstein, that is as spectacular as it is witty.

The DVD transfer is remarkably crisp and effective—the colors are spectacularly vivid, and the B&W flashbacks to Whale's films (and fantasies) play up the startling contrasts between light and shadow that were so much a part of his visual vocabulary. The surround effects are subtle, but perfectly integrated into the film, heightening its sense of place and scene.

Universal has included some truly interesting extras. First, there's a fascinating 30-minute documentary, The World of Gods and Monsters: A Journey with James Whale, that offers a lot of information about Whale and the making of Gods and Monsters—a nice contrast to the thinly veiled advertisements that typically masquerade as "The Making of . . . " documentaries. And Bill Condon's director's commentary is a hoot! He starts out by saying, "I have a really large collection of DVDs with director's commentaries, so it's really exciting to do this . . . "—and then proceeds to gossip, inform, explain, and excitedly interrupt himself to do all three as the film unfolds behind his dialogue track. The theatrical trailer is also included.

Gods and Monsters is a thoughtful, moving character study brilliantly illuminated by superb performances. If you're looking for something truly special for your next video night, you couldn't make a better choice.