Although he directed four classic films of the 1930s-Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein-the late James Whale is something of a cult figure today, treasured by cineastes and horror buffs, if otherwise sadly forgotten. But Gods and Monsters, a new film starring the great British actor Ian McKellen as Whale, shines a belated spotlight on this gay, troubled artist, who drowned in his Hollywood swimming pool in 1957 under mysterious circumstances.

Bill Condon's film, based on Christopher Bram's novel Father of Frankenstein, introduces us to Whale in the final days of his life, following a mild stroke which has left the retired filmmaker highly medicated and somewhat impaired. Although he is zealously looked after by his Hungarian mother-hen of a housekeeper, Hannah (Lynn Redgrave in a shrewd performance), Whale is still a bit frail for gardening on the grounds of his Pacific Palisades home. Help arrives in the person of Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), a handsome young ex-Marine, who signs on as a gardener despite some reservations about Whale's apparent homosexuality.

What follows is a seduction-not necessarily the kind that one might expect-with Whale in the Doctor Frankenstein role and Boone as his somewhat bemused creation. Whale stirs the young man's interest with tales of World War I, in which he went 'straight to the trenches,' and memories of old Hollywood, both on and off the set. The veteran director calls Frankenstein 'a picture about makeup-I had to make it fun for myself.' He also confides wryly, for the record: 'I just directed the first two, the others were done by hacks.'

Whale's gentlemanly courtship of the working-class gardener reaches a dazzling pinnacle when he escorts him to a lavish Beverly Hills reception for a visiting Princess Margaret. There, Boone is suitably impressed as Whale, clearly in his element, mingles with the likes of Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, George Cukor and the ingenue Elizabeth Taylor. This is a lovely set-piece for Gods and Monsters' production designer Richard Sherman and costume designer Bruce Finlayson, as is a detailed flashback, circa 1935, in which Whale directs The Bride of Frankenstein on a Universal Pictures soundstage.

But, however commanding he can be for a special occasion, Whale is obsessed by long-ago romance, professionally 'out of fashion' and devolving into a shadow by 1957. 'Touch of stroke, nothing serious,' Whale says of his medical condition, but the devoted Hannah, who, with a nod to Frankenstein, continues to call him 'the master,' knows otherwise. For Boone, the realization that death is near is slow in coming, but the two men reach an understanding which acknowledges a bond between them.

Long recognized as one of the world's foremost actors, McKellen is magnificent as Whale, subtly conveying every facet of the faded director's rueful charm, elegant pride and needy melancholy. Happily, Fraser-best known for his title role in George of the Jungle-delivers a solid performance here as the wary gardener who, for all his hesitation, winds up modeling for sketches in Whale's poolside painting studio. Lolita Davidovich makes the most of a thankless role, that of Boone's suspicious ex-girlfriend.

Gods and Monsters is a richly textured movie that speculates about the last days of an iconic filmmaker while exploring the sometimes divine, sometimes monstrous landscape of obsession and desire.

--Ed Kelleher