I'm not a fan of horror films (even old classics like Frankenstein), so I watched this film for the human interest angle, and because it features Ian McKellen. He brings subtlety and depth to any role he plays, and this is no exception. The story is a fictionalised account of the last few days of the life of James Whale — the director of some classic horror films, as well as Showboat.
James sees himself as an outsider — partly because he is gay and partly because of the way that he has hidden his poor, working class background — and he is haunted by memories of his time in the trenches in the Great War. He strikes up a friendship with the handsome gardener Clay Boone (brilliantly portrayed by Brendan Fraser) with an ulterior motive — though it isn't the one you probably first think of. Their growing intimacy is very touching. James opens up to Clay and tells him things he's never revealed to anyone before, and Clay comes to terms with his homophobia as he is moved by James's stories.
There's a particularly harrowing scene where James remembers the first man he ever loved in the trenches, and who died on razor wire in no-man's land. Even though his body was very close to the British trenches, they couldn't expose themselves to enemy fire to go out and fetch it. So for months, they — including James — made black, gallows-humour jokes about the poor chap. Imagine that; you have to watch the corpse of your first love rotting before your eyes every day. If nothing else, this film certainly makes you think that there's much more of a sub-text beneath those old Frankenstein films than you first thought.
It sounds like quite a bleak film the way I've described it, but it's actually very funny in places. The housekeeper is a wonderful comic character, and McKellen has some great, catty lines.