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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) review


Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Septimus Pretorious), Valerie Hobson (Elizabeth), Elsa Lanchester (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley/The Bride of The Monster), Dwight Frye (Karl), John Carradine (hunter)

Directed by James Whale

The Short Version: James Whale's spectacular sequel lays down the rules on how to deliver a 'Part 2' that works and surpass its predecessor. It's more or less the same film, but expands on both the mad scientist and monster mythos by introducing an even more devilish doctor and making Karloff's lumbering creature even more pitiable and tragic than before. The monster speaks, in addition to getting a potential mate. This is possibly the movie that muddled the attribution of the Frankenstein name to the monster as opposed to the doctor. Easily one of the most important horror films of all time; and one that, like other Universal horror pictures, laid the groundwork for thousands of nightmares to come.

On a dark and stormy night, Mary Shelley spins the continuation of her story, 'Frankenstein'. In it, the Monster survives being burned alive by the villagers inside the windmill. Presumed dead, Henry Frankenstein's body is returned to his castle where his fiance, Elizabeth awaits. As soon as the news breaks that the Monster is roaming the countryside, Elizabeth sees her seemingly dead husband-to-be move. Dr.  Frankenstein is still alive. The once mad doctor decides to give up his experiments with creating life, but is pushed into it again by both the evil Dr. Pretorious and also the Monster himself, who now desires a mate.

James Whale was enticed to return to Frankenstein's laboratory one more time in this superlative sequel that surpasses the original in virtually every way.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is essentially the blueprint by which all great sequels have aspired to replicate. The budget is bigger; the sets are more expansive; the plot is mostly unchanged, but with enough additions to make things intriguing. Basically, Whale's sequel is bigger and better, yet it jettisons any attempt at being truly frightening; a road on which the first film took the scenic route.

BRIDE is more like a dark fairy tale; and since the sequel informs us from the very beginning that 1931s FRANKENSTEIN unfolded via the visual storytelling of Shelley herself, the surrealism of the indoor sets with those strikingly sinister monochromatic skies reinforces this fantasy quality. It's occasionally humorous, which some might find off-putting, yet these low-key comedic moments seem to fit within the fantasy framework and never threaten to derail the picture into the bowels of parody.

Take for instance the sequence where Dr. Pretorious coaxes Dr. Frankenstein to join him in an all new experiment. In it, the elder doctor shows off six assorted Homunculi he has created. The effects are still startlingly impressive even by today's standards. It reminded me a lot of the fantasy extravaganzas brought to life by Ray Harryhausen, particularly THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960). This one sequence alone is as far away from the dead serious tone of the previous picture as you can get. But again, this is more akin to a Grimm's Fairy Tale than outright horror. This bonding of fantasy with horror is seamless in Whale's movie and a testament to his skill that others would fail to replicate over the years.

Whale's never loses sight of what made the first movie such a ghoulish spectacle, but merely widens the playing field with a hearty dose of storybook qualities, richer characters and an indelible amount of pathos for its lead creature again played by Karloff.

Frankenstein's Monster is more pitiable here, and more likable till he comes into contact with Dr. Pretorius. It's at that point where the animalistic traits of Frankenstein's brutish creation come to the fore; induced by the sinister Pretorious.

Upon the monster's first appearance in BRIDE (which begins immediately after the end of the first movie), his anger at having been nearly destroyed in the burning of the windmill results in the murder of a couple of villagers. Not long after, he's being pursued through the forest till he comes across a young lady who falls into a small pool of water. Saving the woman's life, two hunters happen by and shoot the creature in the arm. This scene recalls the one from the first film with the creature by a river with a little girl. This scene also foreshadows the monsters desire for female companionship that surfaces a short time later.

Stumbling around through the woods, the creature finds an isolated cabin inhabited by an old blind man. This near ten minute sequence is possibly the best bit in the entire film mostly because of the amount of emotional evolution the monster engenders here. He finds his first real friend who teaches and encourages him to talk, introduces him to the most basic social standards, and also shows him that fire has its advantages, too, especially when it comes to a good cigar.

The two provide a good deal of companionship for one another (a moment where the monster sheds a tear upon realizing he's found someone who doesn't wish him harm is especially affecting) till John Carradine and another gun toting hunter show up and send the creature on the run again after inadvertently setting fire to his new-found friend's home. The blind man is never seen again, but his purpose of eliciting an emotional bond between the monster and the audience has been successful.

Once the monster comes into the company of Dr. Pretorious, the creature at first believes he's found an all new friend to enjoy a drink and a smoke with. It becomes obvious the sly, devilish doctor wishes to use the man-made monster to further his own evil agenda; this involving building the monster a mate in the hopes of establishing some new unholy race of beings. His purpose is never revealed, but it's obvious he's crazy, and for mad scientists, I suppose that's the only motivation required.

I presume this union -- of what amounts to two walking corpses -- is some sort of mockery of the Christian sanctity of marriage. Possibly not, but with the conspicuous amount of religious iconography (numerous crosses, Virgin Mary statues, the monster himself is crucified at one point) strategically placed throughout the movie, that was my interpretation of it. That the monster speaks(!) was also a controversial plot device that has also stirred unrest in horror circles for other, later genre franchises that dared to cross that line. Unlike other films, it actually works very well here, although subsequent Universal Frank films would abandon the creature's ability to articulate.


Giving Karloff's monster the ability to talk isn't the only "drastic" scripting idea here. Doctor Frankenstein's character (again essayed by Colin Clive) is also no longer mad. Reduced to seemingly secondary character status, he's sufficiently ashamed of having partaken in such an experiment. He goes from being a troubled man trying to get on with his life to being a victim and pawn once Pretorious ultimately forces him to join the even madder scientist in creating a female creature -- the bride of the title. 

Dwight Frye returns, but naturally as a different character. He's not a maniacal hunchback, but a murderous grave-robber named Karl. The one connection to his antecedent is that familiar, wild-eyed stare. He gets about the same amount of screen time, but is far more despicable this time out; and partnered with another seedy fellow in what I assume is a thinly veiled allusion to Burke and Hare.

Elsa Lanchester goes the dual role route essaying both Mary Shelley (seen at the beginning only) and also that of the hissing, recently resurrected Bride of Frankenstein. Brought to exquisitely ghoulish life via Jack Pierce's staggeringly effective makeup, the look of the Bride became just as iconic as that of his previous creation in turning Boris Karloff into a monster. This is no mean feat considering the Bride is only seen in but one official Frankenstein film. Her visage has been featured or referenced in one form or other in a slew of films and various pop culture paraphernalia; two of the most famous being Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) and also famous horror hostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark whose head piece (there's a joke in there somewhere) is a modified version of the Bride's familiar hairstyle.


When I first saw BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN as a kid, I wasn't all that taken with it. I do not know why, and I hadn't seen the picture in at least two decades and possibly longer. I do remember being perturbed that the Bride isn't seen till the end of the movie. I suppose being a kid, I was expecting something different considering the title. 

And now, a bit about this title that contributed to my mystification on the Frankenstein character.

I do know that while growing up, I was confused for a long time regarding who exactly was the doctor and who was the monster. There was an old copy of Shelley's novel at my grandmother's house from the 1960s that featured the gruesome visage of a monster on the front cover. That, coupled with Whale's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN mangled my perception of mad scientist and his creation. In BRIDE, the idea was to create a mate for the monster. But upon bringing her to life, it's obvious she fancies her creator and not her lumbering, corpse-composited admirer. 

Even though it's glaringly obvious the monster is never once referred to as Frankenstein, the connotation that the creature IS Frankenstein has been a long-standing presumption for decades. You can't have one without the other, though. I suppose a person could write a dissertation on the topic of man's dark side and his willingness to destroy in order to create where the subject of Frankenstein is concerned and most likely somebody already has.

To speak plainly, if you were to mention pop culture creatures like Dracula, or the Wolf Man, even non-genre fans will form a mental image of what they are in their mind. But if you say 'The Monster', there's no underlying figure with which to associate with. But if you say 'Frankenstein', everybody is going to instantly be reminded of a flat-topped walking corpse made up of bits and pieces of dead people with bolts in its neck; very few are going to identify the word 'Frankenstein' with the mad scientist.

Even the Japanese got caught up in this swapping around of doctor and creation that likely instigated this confusion further in 1965s FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON. It was released here as FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD the following year. While the monster featured in this Japanese movie is consistently referred to as 'Frankenstein' (the doctor is also referenced at the beginning), I suppose one could look at this analogously -- that doctor and his creature are one in the same.

Seeing BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN now, all these years later, it's a magnificent movie that surpasses everything that made the first FRANKENSTEIN so monstrously memorable. The performances, the art decor, the chiaroscuro styled cinematography and Jack Pierce's still impressive makeup effects work contribute to yet another Universal horror classic. It's debatable as to which is the better film, but James Whale truly delivered that rarity among sequels and did so in the most beautifully macabre way imaginable.

This review is representative of the Universal Frankenstein Legacy Collection DVD.


Samuel Wilson said...

venom, I actually prefer the first film's more primitive and starker atmosphere slightly, but Bride is still one of the greatest American horror films, and Thesiger's Pretorious one of cinema's greatest villains. That confusion over the Monster's name (or lack of one) set in pretty fast, since it's already being addressed in the next movie, four years later. From what I've read, Karloff was happy to have the Monster's dialogue cut from Son, thinking Bride had gone too far in making the character sympathetic. Shows what he knew.

venoms5 said...

Upon revisiting SON, I was a bit perplexed that there was no dialog at all for the monster. Sadly, I was unable to enjoy revisiting the remaining three films in that set as they were defective -- freezing up and so forth -- so I had to order them separately.

I thought having him speak worked fine, and I think the monster was always supposed to be a tragic character anyways. Still, I can understand Karloff's reservations for the dialog. Even so, he was brilliant in this role.

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