Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) -- James Whale

The villagers think that they have killed the monster that was terrorizing the countryside, having trapped it and his creator, Victor Frankenstein, in a grain mill, which was burnt to the ground. However, both monster and creator survived the inferno. While recovering from the incident, Dr. Frankenstein receives an unwelcome visitor in the strange Dr. Pretorios. He comes with a ghastly proposition for Frankenstein and will force his cooperation through blackmail -- create a female version of the monster.

The Bride of Frankenstein is justly considered one of the best sequels in the history of film. Coming just four years after the sensational Frankenstein, producer Carl Laemmle Jr. was able to gather the most important principals from the earlier hit: director James Whale and actors Colin Clive and Boris Karloff. Dwight Frye is along as the dwarf assistant, though in this one his name is Karl instead of Fritz. And because Whale used even better craftsmen for some of the other crew members for the production, the result surpasses the original.

Elsa Lanchester as the Bride.

While the first film is loosely based on Mary Shelley's 19th Century horror novel, Bride is an entirely original story. Director Whale cleverly starts it in the Shelley drawing room. A storm rages outside. Shelley friend, Lord Byron, is talking with Mary and Percey about her book. Scenes from the first film play over their conversation to remind viewers what took place. Mary explains that her book was a moral lesson: punishment for mortal man who attempts to act like God. Prompted, she tells the two that there is more to the story. From there, the film is the visual representation of her tale.

Picking up where the first film left off, the exultant crowd of villages, complete with pitch forks and rakes, disperses from the wreckage of the torched mill. One man and woman stay behind, the parents of the girl the monster threw in the lake in the first film. It's a poor decision as the monster is alive. It soon dispatches both. The woman's death is particularly effective. She reaches to grab a hand she thinks is her husband's, who has fallen through the weakened floorboards to where the monster has gone into hiding. After drowning the husband, the monster is climbing out. It's quite a surprise.

Among the new elements are a terrifically eerie score by Franz Waxman, and highly effective performances by Una O'Conner as a nervous villager, and Ernest Thesiger as the disturbingly unhinged Pretorious. O'Conner has a memorable cackle when she believes the monster is dead, and a signature scream when she first sees him alive. 

Thesiger as Pretorius, the mad scientist. 
Thesiger looks and acts the part. His introduction is a creepy one, and reminiscent of how Director William Friedken introduced Max von Sydow in 1973's The Exorcist. The door opens to reveal a somewhat emaciated figure, clouded in mist. In one scene he sits in a crypt eating his dinner, talking to a skull he has propped on a coffin. Pretorius is an old acquaintance of Frankenstein's from the university. We don't know their whole background together, but apparently they were once colleagues of some sort. Pretorius reveals that he was kicked out of the university so we know there is something wrong with him. He has been conducting some weird experiments of his own and wants Frankenstein's help to create a woman. Crazy enough to think the two creations might procreate, he raises a glass of wine and offers a toast: "To a new world of gods and monsters!" Frankenstein is appalled, but intrigued.

Later, when Frankenstein tries to back out of the deal, Pretorius secures his help by having the monster steal the wife.

The set direction and sound in the scientists' laboratories might be the aspect that lingers most from watching both films. Bride's is the superior of the two, however, with its elaborate winch sequence and giant kites. Electricity pulsates and hums along large electrodes and diffusers. Smoke and sparks explode and snap. Whale interjects the action with some wonderful closeups of the actors. Rarely has black and white cinematography played such an important part in setting the mood of a scene.    

The director makes sure we sympathize with the monster. Karloff as the monster cries when he sees his ugly reflection and is made a Christ-like figure when captured by the villagers. And at the end of the film, we'll see him make the supreme sacrifice.

The faux crucifixion scene.

Before the big laboratory scene we see the monster wandering in the woods. He meets and befriends a blind man, the first person to show him any compassion. The message here, if obvious, is still essential: real beauty is under the surface. The monster only wants peace. He's violent because that's the only way he knows how to react. To emphasize the point that the monster is more human than some of his pursuers, Whale has a tear role down his cheek as he listens to the blind man's violin. (The scene was later famously parodied by Mel Brooks in his comedy Young Frankenstein.)

A good action sequence follows the monster's capture. He's been hauled into jail like an animal trophy, and secured with heavy chains. He yanks the heavy chains out of the concrete and breaks down a door, sending the villagers running for their lives. The jail, as well as Frankenstein's castle, and the cemetery are wonderful Gothic settings. And pre-dating Film Noir, shadows and sharp angles fill the frame.

Karl is a dutiful assistant, a thankless role if ever there was one considering his scant screen time. He helps steal a corpse for the scientists' experiment and gets to kill a girl to secure a fresh heart. His best line comes at the height of the lightning storm: "The kites! The kites! Get 'em ready! He wants the kites!" The actor Dwight Frey was a staple of Universal's 1930 horror classics, his most famous role as the loony Renfield in the 1931 classic, Dracula. One wishes he had a larger role here.
A trusty assisant. 

The Bride (Elsa Lanchester) doesn't make her memorable appearance until almost the last scene. The buildup has been nicely paced and the payoff is one of film's great introductions, a biological abomination wapped tight as a mummy and held together by large safety pins. Pretorius removes some gauze from her face to reveal her eyes, open and alert, (Waxman overscores it with a marvelously screaming note), and Dr. Frankenstein again gets to marvel, "She's Alive! Alive!" She bears the same facial scars as her predecessor. Many viewers will remember the Bride's crazy hair, piled ridiculously high with a zig zag running up one side, but it's the bird-like movements of her head that most fascinate.

What follows is the most poignant scene in any of the early Universal horror classics. When the monster first sees the Bride his face looks on in happy wonderment. He tries to hold her hand, and for a moment the two might be any couple sitting on a park bench. Alas it is not to be. She hisses in disgust and screams at the sight of her intended mate. She too finds him hideous. Not only are the creators punished (here, Pretorius), but the created as well. Once rejected by one as repulsive as he, the monster knows he can never find happiness. He says he would rather be dead.

Yet inexplicably, he somehow finds pity on Dr. Frankenstein and allows him to escape before destroying himself and the rest by bringing the castle down on their heads. In this final act, he shows far greater compassion than any of the humans in the film. 

One woman's reaction to a blind date.

Clive is wonderful as the tortured Dr. Frankenstein. Racked with guilt over his earlier creation, he has blood on his hands. I suspect his escape was a conscious decision by the studio to keep the character alive in case there was another sequel. There would be, but Clive wouldn't be available. The actor suffered from tuberculosis and drank himself to death in 1937.

If the film has a flaw, it is Whale's decision to have the monster speak, something it did not do in the original. Frankenstein says little but utter "Gooood," "Baaaad," and "Friendddd," to convey his feelings. Perhaps it is because the effect has been so parodied over the years, but the words sound cartoonish today. Karloff was a good enough actor that his emotions were evident without speech.

Here's a trailer for the film:

1 comment:

  1. Great review! "Bride of Frankenstein" is a great film...as are "Frankenstein" and "Son of Frankenstein." Elsa Lanchester's screen time as the Bride is so brief...but so wonderfully unsettling. A great moment in film history.