Wednesday, June 5, 2013


James Whale, 1935
Starring: Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson

"To a new world of gods and monsters!"

There are very few sequels that equal, let alone surpass their precursors, particularly among horror films, but Bride of Frankenstein has certainly earned that distinction. Dream-like and surreal, with elements of satire and black comedy, Bride of Frankenstein is a difficult film to truly get a grasp on, despite its relatively basic plot. During an introductory scene, the poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron congratulate Shelley’s wife Mary on her story Frankenstein and she explains that the story is not yet finished. Picking up with the fiery finale of Frankenstein at the mill, where the Monster and Henry Frankenstein have allegedly died, it's revealed that Henry has been rescued and has narrowly avoided death. He's being nursed back to health by his fiancee Elizabeth and renounces his experiments. The Monster escapes and flees into the wilderness, only to be captured and imprisoned by terrified townsfolk.  

Dr. Septimus Pretorius unexpectedly arrives at Henry’s door just after Elizabeth has had a hysterical premonition of her husband's death. Pretorius convinces the bedridden Henry to follow him to his laboratory to see his own experiments in creating life — a series of bizarre homunculi. He suggests that he and Henry work together to create a perfect companion for the Monster. Though Henry is repulsed by Pretorius’s experiments in magic and alchemy, he agrees. 

The Monster, meanwhile, has freed himself and finds his way, lonely, hungry, and injured, into to the home of a blind hermit. Instead of recoiling with fear, the hermit is grateful to have a friend and welcomes the Monster into his home and manages to teach him a few words. Unfortunately their domestic bliss is cut short by two hunters who recognize the Monster and set fire to the hermit’s cabin. The dejected Monster finds his way into a crypt where Pretorius has recently acquired some human parts and is dining on top of a casket. Pretorious tells the Monster that they are going to make him a friend. When Henry reconsiders this idea, the Monster kidnaps Elizabeth to ensure that Henry delivers on his end of the bargain. However, he doesn’t account for the bride’s acceptance of him when she wakes...

Much of the cast and crew of Frankenstein returned, including director James Whale, who was only lured back by Universal when they promised him full creative control. Karloff managed to outshine his performance in Frankenstein, using the limited dialogue he is given to his full advantage. What could easily have been a silly, farcical performance is full of pain and pathos. Where Karloff received the credit “....?” in Frankenstein, here he has rapidly moved to top billing. Colin Clive also returned as Henry Frankenstein. Though he shines in a handful of scenes, he is more subdued here than in Frankenstein, due in part to the encroaching effects of alcoholism and the handicap of a broken leg that forced him to remain seated for many scenes. Dwight Frye (Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz) returns as a new character, Karl the insane grave robber, and even Marilyn Harris, the little girl accidentally drowned by the Monster, returns in a bit part. The adorable, blonde Mae Clarke, who played Frankenstein’s fiancee in the first film, was replaced by the younger, brunette Valerie Hobson. Hobson actually improves the role, making Elizabeth more passionate and likable, if somewhat hysterical. 

The two new characters, Dr. Pretorious and Minnie, represent the best and worst of Bride of FrankensteinMinnie (Una O’Connor) is horrendously annoying and zaps the life out of nearly every scene she appears in. Whale intended her to be the plucky comic relief, at which she utterly fails with her shrill screaming and vapid dialogue.

Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger) nearly steals the film from Karloff and certainly leaves Clive in the dust. Thesiger is disturbing, funny, campy, charismatic, and a fitting foil for Dr. Frankenstein, who appears to be going on the straight and narrow in the beginning of the film, but is easily tempted away from his waiting bride to more perverse experiments in the creation of life. Pretorious heightens the elements of black comedy and the hint of a menacing, sexual ambiguity. The latter has encouraged modern critics to posit a gay reading on the film, combined with the knowledge of director Whale’s homosexuality. Whether there is something in this or not, Pretorious, the serpentine alchemist, certainly subverts heterosexual norms and contemporary morality. 

The titular “bride” could possible refer to Frankenstein’s bride-to-be, Elizabeth, but clearly indicates the Monster’s bride, played by Elsa Lanchester, who has a dual role as Mary Shelley. Though there have been some complaints that Lanchester barely appears in the film, her few moments are iconic and thoroughly gripping. The scene where Pretorious and Frankenstein give her life, while the Monster anxiously watches on, as well as her subsequent horrified rejection of the Monster, are more powerful than nearly anything else in this film or its predecessor.

Penned by Dracula scribe John Balderston and screenwriter William Hurlbut (yes, that is really his name), Bride of Frankenstein is based on a side plot in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where the lonely, desperate Monster demands that Dr. Frankenstein make him a mate. As with the original film and the novel, there are some similarities, but also many differences. If you combine the two films, I have to somewhat guiltily admit that they're better than Shelley’s verbose novel that nearly drowns in its many philosophical quandaries. Make-up artist Jack Pierce returned to create the Bride’s incredibly iconic look, allegedly based on sculptures of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. Special effects artist Kenneth Strickfaden also returned from the first film to recreate some of his incredible electrical effects, building new structures, such as the “Nebularium” to aid in the Bride’s creation. 

Bride of Frankenstein is certainly a more subversive, surreal, and fairy tale-like film than Frankenstein, with Whale free to explore a number of boundary-pushing themes. Though John Mescall’s lovely cinematography is still influenced by German expressionism, it stands more firmly on its own creative legs than that of Frankenstein and Charles Hall’s sets are somehow bigger and better than in the first film. There is a lot of hidden (and some more obvious) Christian crucifixion imagery. While the Monster and his Bride are both obviously raised from the dead, there are numerous scenes of important meals — the Monster and the hermit sharing bread and wine, the Monster intruding on Pretorious’s meal where the table is a coffin — and the Monster is tied up in a crucifixion-like pose. 

To a certain extent Whale seems to be mocking these rituals and the satirical tone is extended to an examination of the heterosexual family unit, which he subverts with the presence of Pretorius, as well as the Monster and the Bride’s doomed meeting, and the fact that Henry and Elizabeth, the characters that are supposed to be the most important, are the least interesting. (You can learn more about Whale’s homosexuality in the wonderful biographical film Gods and Monsters, released in 1998, starring Ian McKellen as Whale.)

As with Frankenstein, Bride was financially successful and achieved a decent amount of critical acclaim. It comes with the highest recommendation. Be forewarned that anyone who has seen the tremendous Young Frankenstein a few dozen times is going to be predisposed to laugh at certain scenes (such as the Monster dining with the hermit and most of Minnie’s scenes), but if you can take the film seriously you will certainly be rewarded and haunted by Whale’s masterpiece. I’m reviewing Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection DVD set, which includes Bride of Frankenstein and David J. Skal’s informative documentary about the making of the film, She’s Alive! Bride of Frankenstein is also available in the new Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection Blu-ray set and on an older, stand alone, but inferior DVD

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