Bride of Frankenstein

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October 2, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

For me, the best and most embarrassing part of being a film critic is writing about really cool movies that I should have seen way before I got around to watching them. I’ve stunned people with my limited knowledge of Woody Allen’s oeuvre, and can count on both hands the number of times I’ve heard, “You’ve never seen Cool Hand Luke?” I never know how to react, beyond shrugging and insisting that such-and-such movie is at the top of my list (right behind whatever Hellraiser sequel is currently streaming).

Yesterday, I watched James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, the follow-up to another classic film I’ve yet to see. I’ve heard this described as one of the all-time best horror films, so I decided to skip the original and jump right to the good stuff. Fortunately, there’s a handy re-cap of Frankenstein in the beginning that’s handled in a way I absolutely did not expect.

The movie opens in the grand estate of Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), who’s just finished hosting a small dinner with his friends, the Shelleys, Mary (Elsa Lanchester) and Percy (Douglas Walton). Byron congratulates himself on being the world’s premiere debaucherous pervert, haughtily rolling his “R’s as if practicing for a cunnilingus marathon. He stops short, remembering a story that Mary wrote involving a monster stitched together from the remnants of the dead and brought to life by lightning. He asks her to recount the tale.

With one of the creepiest smiles I’ve ever seen, Mary gives a condensed history of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, which is presented as a montage of the first film’s events. The story ends with Frankenstein (Colin Clive) being tossed over the side of a mill by his freakish creation, The Monster (Boris Karloff). A horde of angry, German villagers burns the structure to the ground, allegedly killing the beast. Byron presses Mary for more, and she picks up the story with some of the villagers inspecting the rubble while others transport the battered but breathing doctor back to his family’s castle.

Of course, The Monster is still alive. And he’s pissed. Gone is the confused, misunderstood giant: he’s been reborn as a straight-up killer, emerging from the watery depths of the well under the mill to roam the countryside. He takes out two nosy villagers right away, and scares another, who runs to tell everyone else that they need to finish the job.

After a couple of awkward encounters with paranoid, gun-happy citizens, The Monster happens upon the cabin of a blind, monk-like hermit (O.P. Heggie), who welcomes the company. The kind, old man teaches his guest how to talk, drink, and smoke, and it’s here that I finally understood why Karloff is a legend.

The Monster isn’t just a mindless predecessor to Jason Voorhees (though I can definitely see where C.J. Graham got inspiration for the psycho’s body language in Friday the 13th Part VI); rather he’s a frustrated spirit incapable of expressing how awful it is to stumble around in a shell made up of random, expired people. Karloff conveys his need to re-learn the art of humanity through subtle facial gestures and mannerisms that made me forget I was looking at an actor in fright makeup.

Before long, The Monster is discovered and hauled back to the village. Dr. Frankenstein, meanwhile, receives a visit from an old colleague named Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who persuades him to try his experiment again—this time with a partner. Pretorius has dabbled in resurrection himself, but can’t come up with anything better than miniature people that he dresses in costumes and keeps in domed glass jars. The scene in Pretorius’ office where he unveils his creatures is stunning; the visual effects team creates an utterly convincing environment that kept me guessing as to how Pretorius could so easily interact with these pets without the obvious use of screens or cutaways. I’m still puzzled.

Pretorius arranges for Frankenstein’s wife, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), to be kidnapped. As further insurance that the fragile doctor won’t renege on his commitment, he frees The Monster from the castle’s dungeon and presents him as a far angrier and intelligent beast than before. Using a stolen corpse and the still-fresh heart of a peasant, the doctors prepare their lab’s equipment to receive the re-animating gift of lightning. What emerges from the mummy-like body wrappings is a tragically beautiful woman, The Monster’s Bride (also played by Lanchester, who is officially uncredited in this role). She surveys the lab, the doctors, and, finally, The Monster, and lets out that famous, other-worldly scream.

I won’t spoil the ending for the three of you who, like me, will come to this movie late. Suffice it to say, Bride of Frankenstein surprised the hell out of me; first, by not introducing the titular character until the last five minutes, and then by… allowing what happens to happen.

It’s easy to see why this film is so highly regarded, even today. In an era of 3D showiness and “more is more” evisceration effects, the subtle, mind-bending horrors of Bride of Frankenstein really stand out. You can call this old-fashioned filmmaking, but I’d be willing to bet this movie would be a hit if Universal pushed for a two-week, limited re-release. I realize I’m giving horror audiences way more credit than many people think they deserve, but above all, I think what draws fans to scare-shows is a desire to be wowed and creeped out. And there is plenty of unsettling weirdness to be found here.

For one thing, the movie’s historical context can’t be ignored. In a bizarre case of cosmic coincidence, the filmmakers tell a story about a German madman experimenting on people he deemed inferior in the hopes of building a master race—just four years before World War II. James Whale also includes lots of Catholic iconography here, the most sinister of which is a crucifix whose glow lingers during a fade to black. These and many other overt and subconscious touches kept me on edge during the whole movie, more so than John Mescall’s harsh-angled cinematography or Charles Hall’s twisted, imaginative sets.

I love Bride of Frankenstein. It’s got heart and horror to spare, and represents a long-gone era in which the people behind big-studio films seemed to be in love with all the creative possibilities of the medium. Aside from one really annoying villager (Una O’Connor) who kept popping up as comic relief, this is a perfect film that should be seen and appreciated by everyone.

[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 08/23/11.]

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