Tuesday, May 18

Some quick thoughts on The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

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I've said this before, but watching a classic such as this is both a privilege and quite humbling. The experience is also intimidating as a "horror aficionado" with most genre product prior to Romero's ushering in of the modern age with Night of the Living Dead being far out of my forte. It's simply easier to write fluffy sentences about crap slashers and messy Karo syrup explosions than to even trend onto the hollowed grounds of such a foundational criterion like Bride of Frankenstein. Not to mention both of Whale's classics being event films with gala premieres, something that truly hasn't occurred in the genre for decades, and it feels wrong watching them on such a relatively tiny screen. Despite being afraid of insulting the genre even by attempting to write about James Whale's classic, I'll trek onward, as I viewed both Frankenstein (1931) and its 1935 sequel last night.

The reason I chose to expound upon Whale's reluctant follow-up is because, and this is sheer heresy, I've never particularly cared for Frankenstein. While I admire its Expressionist influences and the impact of Whale's carry-over of this German style into the American horror vernacular, as a whole the film feels like a rough draft with only (albeit very bright) glimmers of greatness saddled by lighthearted farce and the creaky formalism of its time. Chiefly Boris Karloff's magnificent make-up and childlike characterization of the Monster and his creator's bold-to-this-day proclamation of knowing "what it feels like to be God!" after his creation awakens are what makes Frankenstein so memorable. In contrast, Bride of Frankenstein feels unbridled, presumably from Whale given much more artistic freedom, and manages to surpass the original in every way.

It's interesting that Whale appears to have wanted this sequel to be a "memorable hoot" believing it couldn't be superior to his original. What makes that even more curious is that the levity in Bride is mostly relegated to the first half with the boisterous Minnie shouting about everything and the technically great special effect of Doctor Pretorius's "little people"; while the cantankerous Baron Frankenstein is more evenly spread throughout Frankenstein. Once Bride hits stride with the Monster's incarceration and escape, Whale seemingly forgets about the comedy and really crafts the tired adage of "one of the greatest horror films of all time" that only gets better by the minute.

If I had to quibble about aspects after this point in the feature, I can't understand the point of the Monster--inadvertently or not-- killing another little girl during his frenzied prison break. Karloff builds an ever wiser character in this sequel that increasingly understands right and wrong. While the Monster still has a very immature mental age, the murder of a girl here just seems tossed in to appease those who didn't catch the subtly of the original's girl by the lake and what that said about the Monster. Also it would have been more satisfying for Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein to have a fleshed out sense of ownership, abstract love, and blind devotion towards his creation. Even concerning the original, you'd think after enduring all that to create life using his bare hands Frankenstein would "stick" with his creation rather than join the bloodthirsty mob and wish to completely awash himself of the monstrous burden in Bride. Frankenstein's transition from mad doctor to flustered entity is like the flip of one of his castle's electrical levers.

This is where Ernest Thesiger's deliciously sinister Doctor Pretorius comes in as the catalyst (along with some nefarious kidnapping) for Frankenstein to agree to the creation of a mate for his Monster. Pretorius is essentially an older, wry version of Frankenstein without the shred of conscious anchoring the younger doctor. Pretorius also snaps into a more traditional rendition of the genre's "mad doctor" character type and Thesiger seems to relish every wrinkled sneer and roll of the tongue. Clive's Frankenstein still has the look and sound, but Thesiger's grandiose delivery does loom large in every sequence graced with his appearance. There's also an inspired sequence that breaks the film's segmented feel when Pretorius quietly signals the Monster to kidnap Frankenstein's squeeze as he closes a door after presenting the hulking thing that should not be to his creator.

Boris Karloff's protests over the Monster speaking for this sequel were thankfully overruled. That sounds harsh considering the actor/make-up master's immense contributions to the genre, but the sparse lines work to give viewers even more empathy with his character and the scenes with the blind villager might be his best acting work. Karloff's make-up is revised from his threadbare appearance in the original with a progressively decayed, tattered, and dejected look matching the Monster's entirely unwanted presence in the world he inhabits. The Monster's final ominous lines are also instantly memorable and rank among the most powerful in the horror genre. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Dwight Frye's greasy fumblings as Frankenstein's minion of dastardly deeds.

Though Elsa Lanchester, despite merely screaming and hissing, damn near usurps Karloff as the Bride in the incredible climax. The Bride's appearance after a vast, elaborate creation sequence is honestly tear-inducing in its perfection. John Mescall's stark gothic cinematography and Franz Waxman's playfully whimsical score kick into full swing as Thesiger delivers the icing on the cake with his announcement of "the bride of Frankenstein". The loving close-ups of Lanchester as the bullet-eyed, twitchy Bride are absolutely breathtaking and it's a shame her image along with most of the imagery found in the Universal's monster classics is now considered kitsch for kid's Halloween parties. Whale's screen adaptions of Mary Shelley's novel did much to legitimatize the genre and I guess that's more important than the sacrifice into their status nowadays. They truly can't make films like Bride of Frankenstein anymore without being considering pure parody, but at least the bygone examples from the golden age of horror are so damn good.
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1 comment:

The Film Connoisseur said...

I feel pretty much the same way you did about Bride. To me its far superior to the original in many ways. Its obviously had a bigger budget, the sets are more elaborate, everything is bigger.

The thing with Bride of Frankenstein is that once you know Whale was homosexual, suddenly, you see all this subtle homosexual undertones in the movie. They really are all over the place! I guess Whale was just giving the movie his own personal touch, wanting to express his frustrations about being gay back in those days.

The monster simply wants to be understood, yet no one wants to understand him. He simply wants a friend, but he ends up hating humanity because they fear and reject him for who he is. And so forth.

Gods and Monsters goes more into that whole part of Whales life.

...do you dare tread upon the staircase?
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