BFI Gothic Season – The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935)
What ungodly sorcery is this? Is this lunatic blogger attempting to create some mockery of man by welding together two preceding films seasons into one scientific monstrosity? What kind of mind, plagued with delusions of cackling grandeur could possibly hope to amalgamate his year-long Universal Monster movie season with the BFI’s spooky Gothic celebration? Well, this deranged mind that’s who, as with the arrival of the November programme I saw my opportunity to stitch together two competing priorities with the shriek scorched screening of one film forming in Asmodian alignment – The Bride Of Frankenstein. It is an oft used phrase but the film is a corpse cold classic, it’s not often that a sequel can be considered the superior to the original but a strong case can be made in this instance, as the lumbering Karloff returns as the iconic creation of the gibbering maniac Dr. Frankenstein, locked in a nebulous nexus of mortality and madness, malevolence and murder. I’m not entirely sure why but the BFI flew over Karloff’s daughter Sara to introduce the picture, it was quite humbling to see the film with second tier Tinseltown royalty in attendance, and she quite disarmingly opened her remarks by asking ‘What the hell are you all doing here? Don’t you have anything better to do?’….
Screening as a gleaming new digital abjuration the film opens on a curious beat, a framing technique of a storm-swept Chateau housing the literary romantics Lord Byron, Percey Shelley and Mary Wollenscroft Shelly (Elsa Lancaster who makes a dual appearance in this film), she continues her story of man tampering in god’s domain of creation with a tale that immediately follows the explosive conclusion of 1931’s Frankenstein. The hulking monster has survived the pitch-fork wielding mob by hiding in the basement of the ruined windmill, awaiting his chance he clambers back to civilisation and ostracised by humanity he roams the gloomy countryside in search of a sympathetic companion or friend, another wretched soul who will not judge his horrific appearance. Meanwhile the apparently slain Dr. Frankenstein (a loon eyed Colin Clive) quite fortunately isn’t, as he sparks back into life with no apparent explanation – don’t ask, don’t tell I guess – after being sequestered back with his fiancée Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) at the family castle. Vowing never to interfere in the infernal arts again his vow is shattered approximately 30 seconds later with the arrival of the blackmailing Doctor Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, director James Whale’s eccentric theatre mentor) a professor who urges Frankenstein to continue his experiments with his support or he will reveal to the authorities his colleagues satanic meddling with creation, and soon the twin tyrants decide that perhaps the abominable beast can be tamed and controlled with a female companion…..
The first illustrative word that struck me when I mulling over this film is hysteria. I’m not just talking about the frequent screams and faints that many of the films characters emit when confronted with the hulking homunculus but also hysterical in its comedic sense, as the The Bride of Frankenstein is so obviously a sly satire on the printed tale with a performance style so ridiculously high that even Navajo construction veterans would suffer from vertigo. It’s shrieking blast of a film, a howl of sly obscenity and chaotic intellectual inquiry, with a necrotic beating heart at its centre which frames the monster as the poor persecuted soul who just wants what we all want from (un)life – a little friendship, a smidgen of affection, a tolerant respect. It’s so very difficult to take this scene seriously given just how effectively Mel Brooks demolished its metaphors in Young Frankenstein, but once these memories are quelled it does retain a quiet solemnity, cruelly punctuated by the interference of foolish hu-mans. Karloff wasn’t keen on the project as they made the monster talk – quite ironic just as the movies were finding their voice and shifting from silent to sound – and it was Whale you impugned his wicked imagination on the picture, including Lancaster’s dual parts as the Bride and her creator Mary Shelley, the bizarro world miniature sequence, crafting in celluloid clay a sequel which which was an enormous success the equal of a Jaws or Avatar of its day. Some of that success is due to the retention of his primary henchmen from the first movie including Jack Pierce’s groundbreaking make-up designs, by proliferating the film with cold tombstones protruding from the ground like rotten teeth framed in expressionistic lighting, and Franz Waxman’s key throbbing score (one of the unimpeachable best scroes of the 1930’s) which herald impish Wagnerian character beats for the principal puppets in this lunatic shadow-play.
The initial cut of the film was considered deeply subversive by the newly enshrined Breen Office, those moral charlatans curtailing the blasphemous religious iconography and subtextual teasing of society, forcing Whale to cut the film by a couple of reels down to a modest 75 minutes and incurring the loss of an entire child murder subplot which is erroneously blamed on the creature. As previously revealed I’ve been reading The Genius of the System which deserves its own detailed blog posting, nevertheless it grazes over the film in terms of the industrial infrastructure of Universal in the 1930’s and their production methodologies which drove the entire horror cycle, its fascinating stuff in comparison to todays package deals and modern production techniques as the picture went a generous ten days over schedule and cost a creepy $397,000, a relative bargain for an A list picture of the period when you compare that with a $250 million risk for something equivalent like the The Dark Knight Rises some ninety years later. Some of much of this is cliché now but if you push aside its firm infection of popular culture then there is so much to enjoy, the production design and ghoulish atmosphere is second to none, even as its plot veers from the ridiculous to the sublime in a stuttering heartbeat. Why give the monster a bride? Well, just because we can seems to be the imperative, as the kidnap of Frankenstein’s fiancée by the monster forces him to reprise his bubbling beaker and storm charged experiments they all lead to a hair curling conclusion which is amongst the best in the genre.
Enter the bride herself who makes the irrevocable impression, I’m struggling to think of any other female horror monster with an equal historical presence (the Alien Queen maybe, although that’s really not the same thing?) as she is on-screen for a maximum of 60, or maybe 90 seconds but her bird-like twitching physicality is firmly stained into cinema history, indeed no less than authority as legendary critic Leslie Halliwell cites the sequence as the ‘most bizarre and incredible six minutes in Hollywood history’. I’m not sure I’d go that far but it is a wonderful creature wracked moment which is arresting and heartbreaking at the same time, the poor beast dooming them all to a second plunge into the abyss as his abhorrent form is rejected by the living and dead alike. Some of these confusions around creation have led to readings of the movie as a gay film and I guess that’s one reading of it, the notion of an outcast from society seeking affection among persecution, or the scheming Pretorious enamoured of Frankenstein’s skills pulling him away ‘from his bride on their wedding night to engage in the unnatural act of creating non-procreative life’. Well, I guess it’s a notion which gains a meta-momentum given Elsa Lancaster’s status as the wife of the secretly gay Charles Laughton in what was obviously a marriage of mutual career convenience, of Whale’s admitted and open and Thesiger’s presumed sexual orientation, in any case it’s an example of a richly thematic film which hums with many potent symbols and charges, concluding on a satisfying emotional climax which reasserts the hetronormal status quo as Frankenstein is reunited with his wife. In terms of context the film Gods & Monsters charts Whale’s career in Hollywood and recreates the scene with amusing affection, Bride is one of Del Toro’s all time favourites and you can see his affection and affinity with the monstrous throughout his work, but hark is that a distant howling I hear that echoes eeriely from the moors? Be swift Igor, fetch my blunderbuss and silver shot, it’s a full moon tonight so we must hunt and slay that lethal lycanthrope and finally expunge that scourge of our kinfolk;