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Thursday, 18 March 2010

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Director: James Whale
Star: Boris Karloff



I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

While the Universal version of Frankenstein in 1931 was based more on the play by Peggy Webling than the original novel by Mary Shelley, this sequel, four years in the making, goes back to the original material, focusing on one of its subplots. It also adds a framing story that covers the history behind the writing of Frankenstein. Four writers had spent a wet summer in Geneva in 1816: Alfred Lord Byron, John Polidori and the Shelleys, Percy Bysshe and his wife Mary. Talk of science and horror among writers led to a number of important works, not least Frankenstein and Polidori's 1819 story The Vampyre, the first vampire story written in English.

To accompany such a momentous occasion, James Whale establishes a more solid, fast paced tone from moment one, accompanied by a musical score, brisk editing and smoother camerawork. It's sinister even as the camera flies through the trees to the castle where Mary Shelley sews and Lord Byron rolls his Rs. 'How beautifully dramatic!' says Byron, orating partly to hear the sound of his own voice and partly to give us a quick precis of the first film. When he describes the night as 'the cruelest savage exhibition of nature at her worst without,' Shelley then gives him the sequel. After all, 'it's a perfect night for mystery and horror,' she says. 'The air itself is filled with monsters.'

Now that we all know what the monster in question looks like, we don't have to wait for half an hour for him to be unveiled. Here we see him almost as quickly as we see anything as Hans, the father of the little girl Maria who the creature unwittingly drowned in the first film, goes into the wreckage of the windmill to find proof that the monster is dead, only to find proof that he's still alive, dirty and in rags but still alive. Hans doesn't last long, because the monster has lost his innocence and quickly kills him. His wife unwittingly helps the monster out of the wreckage, believing its her husband, only to be cast down to her death. We're ten minutes in, only five if you don't count the framing story, and we have two dead already. The numbers soon rise.

We're also treated this early to the joy that is Una O'Connor cackling as the mill burns. She's a riot and the firm beginning of the camp tone that pervades this film. I've seen O'Connor in 17 movies from Alfred Hitchcock's Murder! in 1930 to Witness for the Prosecution in 1958, but I think this will always be her finest hour. She whoops and hollers and screams, every moment on screen a delight that seems to wake up her fellow actors as much as it does us. She's Minnie, the sassy maid of the Frankensteins and thankfully she gets more screen time than was usual, because there's so much going on at the Frankenstein residence where Henry, now the baron, is supposed to be resting after being nearly killed at the mill.

Of course he can't keep away from his experiments, even though he finds himself in two minds. On the same night he's almost killed he explains to his fiancée about what he's achieved. 'Think of the power to make a man,' he tells her, 'and I did it. I did it! I created a man, and who knows, in time, I could have trained him to do my will. I could have bred a race. I might even have found the secret of eternal life.' This is 1935 and we're already into to Nazi zombie territory. We see the cinematic potential as much as he sees the scientific potential. Yet when the mysterious Dr Pretorius arrives, we find something else entirely: homunculi, that he's proud to exhibit to Frankenstein like some sort of Victorian freak show.


Pretorius was a Doctor of Philosophy at the university that Henry attended but was booted out unceremoniously. 'Booted, my dear baron,' he says, 'is the word for knowing too much.' It's only when he tells Henry that he has also created life that he becomes eager and travels to Pretorius's lodgings to witness the marvels, which are brought to life through joyous effects work. He hasn't created his life out of the dead, but grown it like a culture. The catch is that his creations are miniature in size and so are kept in glass bell jars: the queen, the king and the archbishop; the devil, the ballerina and the mermaid (an experiment with seaweed).

There's even a baby, played by Billy Barty, but he isn't introduced and is only briefly visible on the table. I should add that the king is a lecherous old soul very reminiscent of Charles Laughton's title character in The Private Life of Henry VIII, Laughton being the husband of Elsa Lanchester, who plays the title character here. Another movie connection is that it's Pretorius who in suggesting that he and Frankenstein partner together in creating a bride for the monster cries out a toast, 'To a new world of gods and monsters!' Gods and Monsters would be used as the title of the exploration of the last days of James Whale, the director of both this film and its predecessor, made in 1998 with Sir Ian McKellen as Whale.

Pretorius, in the wild form of Ernest Thesiger is crazy as a loon, retrieving a body from a crypt with a couple of murderous assistants only to choose to stay there and dine with the bones, laughing like a lunatic. Thesiger was gay and he let that flow into the role of Pretorius, at least as much as the Production Code would allow. He had made a few films back in England but became noticed when James Whale, also gay and moving in the same circles, cast him as Horace Femm in The Old Dark House in 1932, in which Karloff also starred. After another Karloff picture, 1933's The Ghoul, he found himself back with Whale and Karloff both for what would become the most famous role of his career. He's also the driving force of the film, Frankenstein's fiancée Elizabeth surely able to convince him to leave all his scientific dabbling behind if not for the meddling of this insane newcomer.

Everyone knows the plot to Frankenstein, but given how many sequels and remakes have been made, it's easy to confuse one film with another. It's always surprising to go back to the Universal films and rediscover yet again which parts we hadn't quite remembered correctly. The scene with the little girl is in the first film, the scene with the blind hermit is in this one. In the first film, the monster never speaks, merely growls and utters guttural noises like an animal. Here, against Karloff's wishes, he speaks, albeit with a highly limited vocabulary, one that ends up with the memorable and much quoted line, 'We belong dead!' This choice to use words meant that he couldn't repeat the removal of his bridgework to suggest sunken cheekbones as he had in the first film.

It also leads to some powerful scenes, though perhaps not as clear a separation as before. In Frankenstein, the monster's lack of communicative ability makes him appear more animal than human, meaning that scenes where Fritz torments him or he's chased into the mountains are somehow more akin to animal abuse than to human abuse, but this means that when he does show his humanity such as when he plays with the little girl Maria it's all the more overt. In that scene we see him happy but then flustered at what he's done, running through a whole string of very human emotions in only a few seconds. Here he learns a little language and so appears far more human throughout and thus more monstrous as we're conditioned to believe that a human being killing so many people is more unacceptable than an animal doing what comes naturally. The death count here was originally 21 though it was dropped to ten to meet censorship concerns.

Of course there's a sexual element too, given that even the title speaks to the efforts to create a mate for the monster. These are probably the most human scenes in the film, as the creature seeks love only to find rejection. Some critics have written about a gay subtext to the film, but I doubt most of that was intentional, the character of Dr Pretorius excepted. In particular there's suggestion that the blind hermit who takes the monster in represents a gay relationship, one that is quickly ended by society in the form of John Carradine in an small early part. The monster does use the same word for his mate and for the hermit, 'friend', as if he can't understand the concept of different relationships with members of different sexes, but he uses the same word for others too, so I don't buy a deliberate gay subtext.

However I absolutely buy the religious subtext. When the monster is captured early on he is tied to a cross and carried to a jail. While Jesus was crucified and then rose from the dead, Frankenstein's monster, a product of blasphemy, does the precise opposite: he is brought back from the dead then crucified. There are religious elements everywhere here and I can only assume that they would have been more overt had the date not been 1935 and thus this film, unlike its predecessor, was released under the auspices of the Production Code. Even in a freer time, the first film ran afoul of censors because of Henry Frankenstein's line, 'Now I know what it feels like to be God!' Given that the whole concept of Frankenstein revolves about the blasphemous concept of man taking on a role that has hitherto been reserved for God, restrictions on that front are a little crippling, but Whale did manage to sneak a lot through.
The main two stars remain unchanged from the first film, Boris Karloff returning as the monster, something he would do again for Son of Frankenstein in 1939, though Lon Chaney Jr would take over for 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein. Strangely Karloff would be back for House of Frankenstein in 1944 but not as the monster, the reins passing there to Glenn Strange. Karloff was such a versatile actor and he made so many films that it feels unfair to claim this role with all its inherent restrictions as his crowning achievement, but it's certainly his most iconic role, with his fifteen pound boots and eight hours of makeup a day. As decades of horror movies have demonstrated, anyone can stumble around and grunt but it takes a talented actor to bring humanity to a monster. Lon Chaney certainly mastered that first but it was Karloff who brought the concept believably into the sound era with Frankenstein's monster.

Colin Clive returns as Henry Frankenstein, even though his alcoholism was apparently getting worse. Rather than cast someone else, as he did with some of the smaller roles, Whale kept him because he felt that the 'hysterical quality' was helpful, even necessary for the film. Certainly the character was broken mentally by the events at the end of the first film if not physically and the story runs roughshod over him, mostly at the instigation of Dr Pretorius. Also returning is Dwight Frye, who possibly had roles in more of the classic Universal horrors than anyone else. His character of Fritz, Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant, was killed off in the first film so here he became Karl, one of the henchmen that Dr Pretorius uses to do his dirty work. The only reason he's less memorable this time around is that he has less screen time, one key scene as yet another character being cut to appease the censors.

In its review of the film, Variety ignored that this was a horror picture and wrote that it was 'one of those rare instances where none can review it, or talk about it, without mentioning the cameraman, art director, and score composer in the same breath as the actors and director.' There are other crew members that can't be ignored either. The camerawork is dynamic, far superior to the original film, and the use of lighting is much more sophisticated and expressionistic too. The creator of the monster's make up, Jack Pierce, finessed his work here and also designed the memorable look for the title character, basing the electric hairstyle on Nefertiti and building it through a perm over a wire frame. Kenneth Strickfaden, who had designed and created the lab gear for the first film, went a few stages further with what he did here. The excellent homunculi effects were created by John P Fulton and David S Horsely.

Given that the film is called Bride of Frankenstein, it seems amazing that we don't even see the title character for 70 minutes, especially given that it's only a 75 minute movie. She gets a memorable entrance, all bandaged up like the Mummy, only to faint away and reappear in her full finery, clad in a long white gown to hide the fact that the 5'4" Elsa Lanchester was bandaged into stilts to make her appear 7' tall. What's most amazing is that the Bride is so utterly memorable given that she hardly even appears in the film. Lanchester gets more screen time as Mary Shelley at the beginning, scared of the dark but still able to write of such horrors. As the projection of that imagination, she hisses like a swan, jerks around like she's doing the robot and glides as if she's dancing. She's amazing to watch and we leave the film with her few minutes directly on our minds.

Regardless who dominates, everyone and everything combine to make Bride of Frankenstein one of the most outrageous and deliciously camp of the Universal horrors. It really feels like the filmmakers pulled out the stops after the first film, especially given how many drafts they went through to make this sequel, the initial thoughts about it beginning during the preview screenings of the original film but taking four full years to become reality. It's not surprising that it has become such a cult classic but in the process it also became a rare example of a sequel that outstrips its predecessor and is very possibly the only sequel to appear in the IMDb Top 250 without the film it follows being there too. To be fair, I'm working from a static list that I grabbed in 2004, since when Frankenstein found its way in too and both films then dropped back out again. This one will be back though. You can count on it. After all it's always 'a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters...'

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