dir. James Whale
“Bride of Frankenstein” is, at the very least, the perfect sequel. It works as a Frankenstein continuation, as horror, and as comedy. Because, hey, when making the greatest horror sequel of all time you might as well invent camp while you’re at it. I mean, why not? To make a successful followup to the colossal hit that was “Frankenstein” was no small feat. However, “Bride” manages to stand head and shoulders (alright, maybe just head) above it’s predate. It can be discussed in the same rarefied company of “Mad Max 2”, “The Empire Strikes Back”, and “Toy Story 2”, as a sequel that is universally regarded as superior. And why not? Aside from being the perfect sequel, “Bride” is also quite possibly the perfect film. It’s funny, dramatic, horrific, clever, ingenuous, and unforgettable. Some great films demand a certain level of patience on part of the viewer, “Bride” is one of those rare crowd-pleasers that is widely esteemed and beloved by moviegoers and critics alike, and for good reason. Like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Casablanca”, it remains timeless. The 81 years that it’s weathered haven’t aged it in the slightest. That it’s the best of the Universal horror output is faint praise. It’s also so much more. An idiosyncratic horror film that’s as idiosyncratic as they come. Straight from the mind of James Whale, a forward thinker in every sense of the word. “Bride” is a molotov cocktail of pathos. Very few films can play an audience and on so many levels. Like a magician’s sleight of hand, Whale distracts us with the humor and sneaks in some humanity when we’re not looking. It also boasts some of the most gorgeous black + white cinematography this side of Carl Dreyer. Spoiler: If you want to just skip my ramblings and watch the film, I’ll spare you the discourse – it’s still a masterpiece.
Of course, being a revered film in the critical circles isn’t without it’s baggage, and the years have masked “Bride” with a profundity of subtextual readings. A film was even made on the subject, the admittedly well-done “Gods and Monsters” (taken from a “Bride” quote, starring Ian McKellen as Whale). By now Whale’s sexuality is well known. Does being the first flamboyantly gay filmmaker have any correlation to creating the first camp film? Possibly. Did it impact Whale’s decision to include the hermit segment, the perfect depiction of a joyously married couple? Possibly. Or to give the monster parental figures of the same sex (Pretorius, obviously playing the role of the mother, with the pragmatic Doctor Frankenstein as the father)? Possibly. There is an unshakable air of implication every time Ernest Thesiger (Pretorius) grins the line, “Here, have a cigar… they’re my only weakness!” No doubt, there is something subversive and sly about the film. It’s also no secret that Ernest Thesiger was openly homosexual himself, and plays the role of Pretorius with all the stereotypes of the flaming bitch, his tongue so far in his cheek that he’s basically just mugging for the camera. But to get lost in the haze of readings is to forget what makes the film work in the first place. You don’t have to be keyed into the hidden connotations of homoeroticism and religion to understand why the film was, and remains, such a treasure. Like Bryan Singer would later do with the first two “X-Men” films, Whale’s sexuality makes the material his own. Just a little more personal. However, it’s his sense of the Gothic theatrical and his quirky humor that makes the film so groundbreaking.
The film opens with one of the strangest openings that I can recall. Mary Shelley and poets Percy Shelly and Lord Byron are passing a stormy night by discussing the horror of Mary’s fabled Frankenstein tale. Already Whale is taking meta to a whole new level, and long before meta was even part of the horror lexicon. It’s easy to take Whale’s odd flourishes for granted but it must have struck like a thunderbolt back in 1935, and horror cinema never has been the same. Just look in the direction of Sam Raimi or Tim Burton and you’ll see the tall shadow of James Whale. But even beyond acting as a fourth wall joke, the opening serves to cleverly recap the last “Frankenstein” film by having Lord Byron describe his favorite separate horrors (rolling every ‘r’ as possible). Mary then informs him, and us, that there is more to the story and then BAM! We’re back at the burning windmill. It’s such an effective opening because it not only leads us organically to a fine start, but because it sets the tone that Whale is going for here. However, if that wasn’t enough a hint we are shortly introduced to Minnie (played wonderfully by Una O’Connor, who stared in a similar role in Whale’s “The invisible Man”). Some horror films are designed to scare, to traumatize. Whale only intends to spook. Perhaps that is what gives his films the cozy feeling of a nice warm blanket, and makes them so perfect for Halloween viewing. Minnie shrieks like a banshee, almost inviting us to laugh and shriek along with her. There is one genuinely chilling moment in the film and comes right at the beginning. The father of little Maria (now recast and given a name, Hans) falls into the burning wreckage of the mill. As his wife extends her hand down to lift him up (the line “give me your hand, Hans” never fails to illicit a chuckle from me) she unknowingly grabs the undead hand of the Frankenstein monster. EEK!
We are also reintroduced to the mending Doctor Frankenstein (the great Colin Clive, reprising the role) and his still-soon-to-be bride Elizabeth, now Valerie Hobson instead of Mae Clarke, who is still perfunctory but far less stilted in the role. It’s perhaps because this casting change that I’ve always felt a connection between the two in “Bride” that I never did in the original. That’s one area of vast improvement over the preceding film that deserves to be mentioned. Gone are the wooden Victor and Doctor Waldman. In place of supporting characters we get Minnie and the equally as comical Burgomaster (played in Abbot and Costello fashion by E.E Clive). There is no dead weight or stock side-characters. Sure, Minnie doesn’t really contribute much to the plot of the film, but she serves the tone well and provides comic relief that actually works. Colin Clive is just as phenomenal here as he was in the last outing, though given far less mania and more reserve. When approached by Pretorius to continue his scientific inquiries you can see a light turn on inside. He’s inescapably drawn to probing the mysteries of life, despite knowing all too well the horror that his research had wrought on the innocent. Clive manages to infuse the character with a battle of conflicts that plays out primarily on his face. It’s a fantastically subtle performance, which is all the more impressive given the era in which the film was made. Back when the exaggerated, wildly theatrical silent method of acting was still trying to transition into sound. It’s a shame that Clive’s alcoholism got the better of him and limited his career, as his performances in the first two “Frankenstein” films are the stuff of legend. He didn’t just create a character, but a character trope. How many other actors can make that claim?
But the real star of “Bride” is Ernest Thesiger as the egotistical, and kooky Doctor Pretorius. Starring alongside Karloff in James Whale’s “The Old Dark House” (a prototype for “Bride” in terms of tone), Thesiger was no stranger to camp. He manages to create as unforgettable a character as Doctor Frankenstein or even the creature itself. Amazing, considering that Pretorius didn’t have decades of theatrical and literary iterations to attain his iconic stature. Like Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula, Thesiger’s performance is so domineering and overplayed that you just can’t take your eyes off him. That he manages to steal scenes while standing beside Clive and Karloff is nothing to scoff at. Just listen to the way that he toasts “To gods and monsters!” or how he tells the creature that, “You are wise in your generation.” Obviously basking in the role, Thesiger has as much fun playing Pretorius as we do watching him. Take the fantastically oddball scene where Pretorius introduces the outcomes of his various experiments, which amount to little more than tiny people in glass jars. It’s bizarre for many reasons, the least of which is an almost acceptance of the fantasy genre, but also because Thesiger almost struggles to keep a straight face and knowingly grins the whole time. Especially when he introduces the Devil that he has created and vainly boasts; “He bears a strong resemblance to me, don’t you think? Or do I flatter myself?” Again, the undertones are there and rather easy to read if you desire to. It gives the character a shrewd edge that modern day viewers are more likely to pick up on.
Karloff (thankfully, reprising his role) also has more fun with the creature this time around. More faithful to Shelley’s original text, Whale made the brilliant decision to give the monster speech, allowing Karloff the full range of pathos. Some of it is funny, as when after being christened to the pleasures of wine the creature bellows, “Wine. Good!” Some of it is tragic, as when the monster muses, “Alone: bad. Friend: good!” As in the first film, the performance is masterful in body language. Karloff manages to find the perfect nods and ticks to make us genuinely sympathetic. He even resurfaces the grasping hand gesture from the first film, introduced than as he grabbed for the castle’s vaginal skylight, used now towards the blind hermit. Make from that what you will. The sequence involving the blind hermit is without a doubt the most written about and analyzed in the film. That it oozes subtext is quite obvious. However, even more striking is it’s placement in the film at all. Even upon rewatch I’m consistency caught off guard by the segment’s earnestness and humanity. Not the kind of stuff that you expect in a horror film, one called “Bride of Frankenstein” no less. A level of pathos is reached here that mirrors the best of Chaplin. As the lonely hermit embraces the monster and thanks God for sending him a friend Whale fades the scene to black, but keeps the crucifix at the top of the screen lit for just a little bit longer than everything else. It’s a subtle but powerful transition.
The first two “Frankenstein” films are the most visually impressive in the Universal horror catalog. Even the later, non-Whale sequels bare some great German expressionism inspired imagery; obviously influenced by Whale, but lacking his signature touch. After cutting his teeth on the stage Whale brings a decidedly theatrical visual to his films. The camera glides across the landscapes almost like a stage, sometimes even gliding through walls. He makes effective use of backdrops and matte paintings. However, his films are never stagy or stiff. They still contain sequences as cinematic as anything from the 30’s. As the villagers chase the creature through a desolate graveyard, Whale executes in it an impressive dolly shot that’s just gorgeous to look at. When they capture the creature and string him up on a pole, Whale can’t resist adding some Jesus parallels and gives us a powerful image of the monster crucified. The castle is even more elaborate in “Bride” and the laboratory is shot through as many canted angles as possible. The birth of the actual Bride is nothing short of a masterpiece in art direction and lighting. Executed with far more pizzazz than the original creation scene, this time we are treated to exterior shots of the Bride’s ascent into the sky. The scene is as exciting and bizarre as anything in horror cinema. The dark faces of the two mad doctors, shot Terry Gilligam style with dutch angels and jagged shadows. Ornamented laboratory equipment sparking and flashing as lightning cracks down from the heavens. That the Bride only has a total of four minutes of actual screen-time is easily forgotten due to everlasting impression that she makes. Once seen, Elsa Lanchester’s (who also plays Mary Shelley in the opening bit, and assumes the ‘?’ credit from Karloff) enduring Bride can never be forgotten. When Doctor Pretorius introduces (relishing each word) “the BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN!” is one of the great moments in cinema. The film ends with two punchlines that are both mordantly brilliant. The first is when, after being re-animated to life, the Bride takes one look at her mate and screams in terror. The second is when the Frankenstein creature resigns himself to death by explosion and scowls at the soon-to-meet-his-demise Doctor Pretorius, “We belong dead!”. One can argue the logic and function of having an easy to access self-destruction level in the laboratory, but it makes for a cool as hell movie moment. The single tear that rolls down the monster’s cheek is the closest that Whale would come to unabashedly admitting the sentimentality behind the creature, and it never fails to crush me.
One thing that I criminally didn’t make note of is Franz Waxman’s musical arrangement, one of the greatest of all film scores to be sure. It’s just as loud and overbearing as a film as campy as “Bride of Frankenstein” demands. I can see audiences today dismissing it for perhaps being too much. But that’s the kind of film “Bride” is: in your face, off the walls, and demented. Compared to the uneasy silence of the first film, which worked wonders for it’s particular tone, Waxman’s music works just as well.
“Bride of Frankenstein” is undoubtedly a great film. It still is and always will be. But great films aren’t supposed to be this much fun. I can’t imagine a day when people will grow immune to it’s charms and innumerable pleasures. It mixes sentimentality, camp, and horror in a boiling pot that just shouldn’t work. However, it does. Because of Whale’s consummate vision and willingness to be different. Later, more subversive, sequels like “Gremlins 2” and “Evil Dead 2” would learn quite a bit from Whale. So would the horror genre. James Whale made only four horror films over the span of his career but defined the look and feel of horror cinema ever since. It’s no hyperbole to say that he was as important to the growth of the genre as F.W Murnau.
Rating: A+ (MASTERPIECE)