“To a new world … of gods and monsters!”
We have already established that James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein was the film that really kickstarted the Horror Genre and gave it a look, a feel and a mood that was distinctly and uniquely unto itself.
He would go on to refine its mechanics further, and more indelibly.
With Whale’s own 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, we had the beginning of not just what has now become the relentless cycle of the horror sequel, but of the horror superstar ethos. The Monster was now the main attraction. He may have been the draw of the first film, as any self-respecting “monster” would be, but he was also much more than just the lurking menace of the drama – he became the film. Not just because of the carnage he could cause, but because his story was what audiences clamoured to see. Universal’s triumvirate of top class creatures – the Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man – would appear in several movies, cementing their stature as icons of terror. We can’t really count the bandaged delinquents of either the Invisible Man or the various Mummies that came along, as they tended to be portrayed as slightly different characters each time around, but The Creature from the Black Lagoon certainly developed into a serious and credible personality over his three adventures. Hammer Films then propelled both Christopher Lee’s Dracula and Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein to dark heroic status throughout a long-running series apiece. Cut to the seventies and eighties and you would find Damien, Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Kruger and Pinhead as fantastical poster-bad-boys and confirmed genre celebrities in cult cherished franchises. But it was Karloff’s return to the role of the Monster that first established this as a trend whose popularity could be both culturally important and eminently bankable at the same time.
Although controversial, the first Frankenstein film had been enormously successful and the studio had begun the process of fashioning a sequel almost straight away. Screenplays went from the basically rehashed to the blatantly ridiculous, with one version even having the Monster gaining control of a city-flattening death-ray with clear parallels to the devastation of the First World War, but the version credited to William Hurlbut is the one that finally came to fruition, although this was much worked-upon by Whale, himself, whose detailed illustrations and notes upon it would totally steer the direction in which the production’s design and visual effects would eventually go, even down to the shape and curvature of building arches, the rails of crypt-gates and the angles of trees, windows and statuary, and the very costumes of the cast. Although Karloff was quite happy with his appointment within the genre and didn’t mind at all playing the misunderstood creature again (this enthusiasm for the role wouldn’t last, however, and he would only play the Monster one more time after this, in Son of Frankenstein, and, even then, with a large degree of reluctance) James Whale definitely didn’t want to return to the saga, and it would take several years of studio nagging to get him to change his mind. Not only was he put off by the technical difficulties and the expense of making horror pictures, he just didn’t feel like re-opening the wound that was the gothic tragedy of Shelley’s tale. After all, he thought, what more could be said on the matter? The Monster had been destroyed at the end of the picture, hadn’t he? And his creator had barely survived the ordeal. (Initially, Henry Frankenstein was supposed to have died in the fire as well, but preview screenings proved that to be an unwelcome conclusion.)
Ultimately, Universal mogul Carl Laemmle and, most pertinently, his son and heir to the studio throne, Carl Jnr, sugared the pill by offering the now lauded director almost complete creative license over the production. They just wanted him to allow the Monster to live again and to expand upon the thrills and chills that had shocked and amazed audiences back in 1931. There had been many horror films that had flickered across the silver screen since then – the taboo-breaking Freaks and The Island of Lost Souls, the awesome King Kong, of course, and Whale’s own bravura frightfest of The Old Dark House – but Universal hadn’t managed to find something so damn popular with the masses as Frankenstein. So, with a screenplay that was further tweaked and modified to provide what became the essential elements of the Monster’s mate and the inclusion of an even more obsessive rival in the mad doctor department – the uncanny Dr. Pretorius – Whale discovered that he could inject far more of his own unique sensibilities, personality and eccentric sense of humour into the production than ever before. And that proved to be an irresistible temptation to a man who really wanted to leave behind the genre that he, himself, had actually helped to forge.
With a bigger budget, a far more accomplished, sophisticated and witty screenplay, a bigger roster of performers and a broader canvas upon which to play, an original and now classic score from Franz Waxman, along with much improved photography and special effects, the curtains opened to reveal one of the greatest sequels ever made … and one that stands the test of time to tower above almost an entire genre. Once committed to the project, Whale, himself, probably summed it up best as being simply “a hoot.”
“I love dead … hate living!”
For this chapter, Colin Clive’s soul-blighted Frankenstein is forced to play not just second fiddle, or even third, but fourth fiddle in the dark morality power struggle. The Monster now takes a very justifiable lion’s share of the story and the screentime, revealing the overpowering stature and dignity of the character and, of course, providing Karloff with his greatest showcase to date. But the inclusion of Ernest Thesiger’s highly camp, yet resolutely sinister Dr. Pretorius, and the acute and haunting presence of Elsa Lanchester’s briefly seen but extremely potent Bride become the icing on an already very rich cake.
Casting from brimstone the template that the genre would forever (and ever, ad infinitum) adhere to, it transpires that the Monster did not die in the blazing inferno in the windmill at the climax of the earlier film, after all. He survives the conflagration, crawls out of the millpond secreted beneath it, and embarks upon a crusade to make friends with anyone who doesn’t shriek in horror and revulsion at the sight of him … and to basically kill all those who do. In the meantime, the badly injured Frankenstein attempts to recover from being roughed-up at the mighty hands of his estranged son, even marrying the beautiful Elizabeth (Mae Clarke in the original, now played by the seventeen-year-old Valerie Hobson, who really does look and act a fair bit older) and trying to put all of this resurrection lunacy behind him. But Fate just won’t let go. Out of the shadows comes a mad doctor even more obsessed with creating life, the wild and wacky Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, who was an old associate, mentor and producer from Whale’s stage days), who wants to join forces with Frankenstein in an experiment to create a WOMAN this time around. Although Frankenstein refuses, the dark inventive fire still burns within him and, with Pretorius now aided by a vengeful Monster who still has an axe to grind with his disrespectful “father”, he is eventually blackmailed into switching on the generator up in the old watchtower again and getting to work on energising yet more dead flesh. The Monster wants a mate, and if Frankenstein doesn’t obey and deliver him one, then he will never see his new wife alive again.
Cue the thunder and the lightning!
The film is full of metaphor, brazen religious symbolism and raw emotion. It is also imbued with a deliciously dark sense of humour, acres of highly stylised imagery and plenty of quite astonishingly vivid action. Its winning combination of the gruesomely outlandish and the hauntingly poignant elevate it to an esoteric plateau that looks down upon the otherwise lowly creature-feature from the sort of heights that Orson Wells, Alfred Hitchcock and Powell and Pressburger tend to occupy. Bride has always been a demented darling of the critics and of film-scholars, although it still needs to claim a place in the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films where its forebear resides, but this does not mean that it is entirely the province of the academic. Far from it. Whale’s amazingly constructed and stunningly complex odyssey of life and death and the hinterland that exits between the two, and the passions that they all cultivate, is, first and foremost, a spectacular horror film that delivers all the murder, terror, twisted motivation and atmospheric set-pieces that a greedy ghoul could wish for. We have graveyards, crypts, gothic watchtowers and dungeons. We have torch-bearing mobs and ghastly experiments and murder most foul. For a film that runs for a scant seventy-five minutes, Whale packs in a helluva lot of ripe old goodies.
The cast is eclectic, eccentric and thoroughly archetypal. Like the first film, they follow a deadly, destiny-bound path in grim earnest, and the story explores some complicated and troubling themes that remain as morally dubious, and just as ambiguously answered today. Henry Frankenstein, himself, comes off the worst. As a miserable wretch whose original dream he has turned his back on, he is merely a husk of a man for whom the opportunity of redemption lies in a repeated crime against nature … and another shower of infernal sparks.
But, hey, let’s give the good, though misguided doctor his due … for without him, there would be no story at all.
“I’ve been cursed for delving into the mysteries of life!”
Still a grumbling wreck of fearsome genius, Frankenstein is given to only a fleeting moment of euphoric exultation when the Bride awakens. Beyond that, he is the famed bank-robber lured back for one last job, or the haunted Special Ops agent recalled for a final mission that nobody else but him can possibly pull off. His unique skill-set and innate savvy for electrical and meteorological conditions means that he is in high-demand by anyone who fancies a go at playing God …and his nemesis in Dr. Pretorius is nothing if not determined to recruit him to the job that he does best. Clive was having terrible problems off-screen by now. His alcoholism was worse than ever and his health was rapidly deteriorating, with severe bouts of depression regularly engulfing him. Nevertheless, this perpetual pain and anxiety lends his performance all the necessary handwringing angst, and his one victory – a repeat of the fateful lightning-bestowed signs of life in a stitched-up corpse that spelled disaster for him last time around – is a cruelly joyous occasion that leaves us in no doubt that he has, in all probability, finally lost all his marbles, happy ending for him and new wife notwithstanding.
Clive, looking more like Jean Claude Van Damme than ever in the sequel, can’t have been much fun to be around … and this translates to Frankenstein, as well. He’s a frightful bore, melancholic and obstreperous – fully helping to establish the now well-known fact that the villains are far more interesting than the heroes.
Karloff the Uncanny!
Big Boris is the clear star of the piece, though. Like Kong, he owns a film that is already deeply fascinating and populated with odd and bizarre characters that continually threaten to, but unsurprisingly fail to upstage him. He might only be one part of the narrative’s insanely quirky merry-go-round, but he is the engine that drives it headlong into the vortex of horror.
The Monster evolves far beyond the tragically misunderstood and mute progeny of science gone terribly awry to develop a whole range of emotions, and a fully-rounded dimensionality that few “normal” characters could boast in much more traditional dramas. Karloff wasn’t enthused about giving him the power of speech, thinking it “a bad idea”, although this development inarguably provides the character with a hefty new dose of very necessary personality and a sense of grave nobility. In the third picture, Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein, Karloff found that the Monster’s reversion back to being mute was about the only thing he enjoyed about the production. But in Bride the Monster ultimately learns the value of life and of mercy, even if it comes at the cost of his own single chance for happiness. A terrific set-piece down in a crypt sees him discovering what “death” really means when he blunders into a coffin and tries to rouse the corpse within, and his affinity for that status is cleverly gleaned. Thus, his final defiant roar of “We belong dead!”has a more poetic than defeatist quality. Since he would be required to talk, Karloff wasn’t able to remove his dental bridge this time, which meant that the Monster no longer had a sunken cheek. Thus, he looked altogether healthier with a fuller face and, therefore, more powerful than ever. His now-famous lisp doesn’t register at all as the Monster merely grunts his limited vocabulary in belches of accusatory torment or dollops of wallowing lament. “WORK!” he commands an exhausted Frankenstein with a growl. “She … hate … me …” he declares tragically as his Bride jilts him at the thunderclap altar.
Torn between rage and a need for friendship, the Monster is either snarling and lashing out with bestial ferocity, or whimpering and extending his scarred hands, palms upward in supplication to all he comes across. He learns to speak, courtesy of the poor and lonely blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) who longingly and unconditionally befriends him in the belief that the Good Lord has finally answered his prayers and sent him a kindred spirit, and this leads to the oft-implored begging for “Friend … friend?” Shelley’s Monster was extremely and page-engulfingly articulate thanks to his much extended sojourn in the woodland cottage, but Karloff just gets to grips with the basics -“Smoke – good! Drink – good! WOMAN! WIFE!”(Hmmm … perhaps Father Jack from TV’s comedy show, Father Ted, was somehow related!)
Whilst everybody else is afraid of the Monster, Dr. Pretorius, alone, has the arrogance, intelligence and self-belief to win him over. Being an outsider, himself, just as the homosexual Whale felt that he was within the industry and society, he unquestionably associates with the outcast creature. His disdain for “normal” relationships is apparent in every piercing glance, every mocking sentence he emotes, every effete mannerism of his wizened, warlock’s frame. His raised fist to God is even more pronounced than Frankenstein’s as being a statement of abject defiance. Whereas Frankenstein was pursuing a scientific goal that just got out of hand, Pretorius is hell-bent on breaking all the rules from the get-go. Original versions of the screenplay made it clear that he had been Henry’s tutor and had suffered for this connection, although this final cut still manages to imply that they have had a prior relationship. However, in Whale’s hands, this prior relationship could mean something else entirely, and Henry’s reaction to this sinister manipulator’s return is certainly shuddery as though undertaken with some barely forgotten revulsion. His interest in sexual politics is that of a detached alien observer. He finds natural convention abhorrent and seeks to rectify it andimprove upon nature’s way with his own outlandish and occultish variation on procreation. His experiments (which, let’s face it, are far in advance of Frankenstein’s crude, flesh-stitching methods … especially so, given John P. Fulton’s extraordinary optical effects with glass-mattes and rotoscoped live-action integration) have resulted in the creation of homunculi that he proudly reveals to Henry. “I grew them as nature does,” he boasts as his little Queen fends off the amorous advances of his little King, and a diminutive devil looks on from inside his satanic bell-jar, “from seeds.” This curiously entrancing notion may even have found its way into the invention of The Thing From Another World’s modus operandi for Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby in the 1951 SF classic of an alien invader who sought to use human blood to grow his own kind from seedpods. Pretorius, too, wants to grow an army of such man-created beings … potentially to rule the world. It may not be said, but it is certainly inferred that he would like to eradicate all normal humans from the planet and replace them with these controlled creations … leaving himself, and Henry, as the Gods who rule the Earth and preside over a veritable race of monsters. This is a vast and insidious plot that takes its cues from Lang’s Metropolis (although the birth of the Bride would be the most overt lift of them all) and his first Dr. Mabuse film.
“Yes, I hope so! Have a cigar. They’re my only weakness.”
Thesiger is magnificent as the sardonic Septimus Pretorius (whose impressive moniker is actually a very sly Latin take on the Seven Deadly Sins). His face takes on a more and more gothic appearance as the film goes on. With his wickedly pointed beak, his narrow chisel-shaped countenance and those vicious Mephistophelean brows he even comes to assume the physical attributes of the German Expressionistic sets that Whale loves so much. Look especially for the shots of him stricken by the light and shadow of the Bride’s birth sequence to see this fantastic trait brought most gloriously to the fore. Here, he perfectly resembles a hideous gargoyle. Some scenes even depict him in a rather trim-fitting tunic that may be intentionally reminiscent of the costume that the spindly Max Schreck wore in Murnau’s Nosferatu over a decade before. Whale had recruited him for The Old Dark House, the storm-lashed story of a family whose bloodline is very definitely tainted with more than just madness, and his camp delivery of some incredible lines (“Have a potato” becomes weirdly threatening with his viper-like delivery)was so inherently twisted and layered with arch decadence that it seems impossible to think that the character of Dr. Pretorius wasn’t written especially for him.
“What we need is a female victim of sudden death. Can you do it?”
We’re in a gothic horror fable … what do you think, Doctor?
And then we come to the Bride of Frankenstein, herself, exquisitely played by the phenomenally rare talent of Elsa Lanchester. The extraordinarily attractive actress has two roles in the film. During the elaborate and fanciful “real-life” prologue, she is seen as Mary Shelley, the rebellious nineteen-year-old author of the original novel, whooping it up in decadent luxury in the storm-assailed mansion of Lord Byron (a wonderfully consonant-rolling Gavin Gordon – “Rrripe cadavers frrrom frrreshly rrrifled grrraves!”) alongside the flamboyant dandy and her husband-to-be, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton). Egged-on by Byron, she vocally commences a sequel to her grotesque tale of the New Prometheus for their warped delectation. Her transformation from this oh-so-pretty New Age romantic to the fright-wigged Bride is just as uncanny as seeing Karloff first appear in the doorway as the morose, confused and patently dead Monster in the original film. Twitching her head about in spasmodic, almost robotic convulsions, she is the captivating, electrical goddess of the afterlife, resplendent in her silk gown, like some angel they have captured from a point just beyond the void. Her little startled gasp as the Monster, her hugely unintended groom, lumbers up to her, is such a fabulous touch from Lanchester, who never really enjoyed being in front of the camera, that she suddenly appears alien and cat-like and profoundly ethereal. The black and white photography from The Black Cat’s John J. Mescall suddenly attains a luminosity that simply takes the breath away. How someone can make such an impact in only a couple of minutes is an almost mythical talent. She cited the anger of an enraged swan in Hyde Park as being the influence for that heart-stopping feral hiss.
Skinned and raw, Claire Higgins, as the reborn Julia in Hellbound: Hellraiser II, screams in shock and agony at her own appearance in a mirror, and is later swathed in white bandages, consciously reversing the visual depiction of the birth of the Bride. Jennifer Beals assumed the role opposite Sting’s infinitely cooler Frankenstein in Franc Roddam’s 1985 reinterpretation, The Bride, though to much lesser effect despite gaining a far greater part.
“Fine. I wash me hands of it … and let you be murdered in your beds!”
Hatchet-faced, whinnying Una O’ Connor played a mouthy landlady for Whale in his barnstorming SF thriller, The Invisible Man, so well and so demonstrably that he brought her in to portray the Frankensteins’ housemaid, Minnie in Bride. (She can also be seen briefly as the maid in the “real” mansion of Lord Byron, so she becomes a sort of Wizard of Oz meta-jumper from the reality to fantasy-world.) It is important to note that her irritating manner and moments of ceaseless shrieking are entirely deliberate. Her badgering of the burgomaster and her henpecking of all within earshot is definitely designed to make the blood boil and the fists ball. Whilst the Monster murders innocents with a snarl, left and right, he merely towers above Minnie and contemplates her gurning fears with baleful eyes, without lifting a hand to her. Perhaps he understands that letting her live causes Frankenstein more headaches. Literally. But as aggravating as she is, O’ Connor is brilliant in the role, easily commanding her numerous choice moments. Incidentally, the harassed Burgomaster was played by E. E. Clive, who appeared alongside her in The Invisible Man, as a constantly outsmarted constable.
I remarked in my review for the BD of Frankenstein that it is difficult not to be reminded of Mel Brooks’ excellent and loving spoof of the series, Young Frankenstein. Well, this comes up during the film’s most emotional and inspired sequence, when the Monster, who has fled into the countryside again, happens upon the cottage of the old blind hermit. But, such is the power of this tremendously moving and famous set-piece, that thoughts of Gene Hackman’s clumsy woodland host and Peter Boyle’s long-suffering Monster are soon evicted. This is where both Karloff and Whale hold us totally spellbound in a passage that completely transcends its vintage and its near-deranged plot-line. Never before, or since, has the universal desire for companionship been so keenly and heartbreakingly depicted. That it comes in the middle of a horror movie about the misadventures of a reanimated corpse and a couple of mad scientists just seems to make it all the more powerful. “This is my friend!”
“Friend? This is the fiend who has been murdering half the countryside!”
Without a doubt and shorn of all cliché or condescension, the inclusion of Ave Maria as the Monster finally finds some shared compassion is splendidly touching, composer Franz Waxman’s rendition of it bringing a tear to our eyes, let alone the creature’s.
The raucous five-note brass motif for the Monster is modelled on Karloff’s growl. The main theme, a gloriously romantic and swooning fanfare that is also the motif associated with the Bride, is delightfully celestial in nature. Waxman weaves this theme into various other junctures of the score, hinting gradually at what will eventually come to pass. But it is at its most majestic during the unveiling of the female monster. As the jubilant Pretorius exclaims, “The Bride of Frankenstein!” Waxman unleashes a peel of church bells to serenade the momentous occasion. He also provides a few playful passages. When Pretorius reveals his little creations to Frankenstein, the music becomes jaunty and odd. And when the weird little woodpecker-faced madman presides over his two reluctant henchmen as they open-up a casket down in the crypt, the music is like a carnival for cavemen with lots of odd percussion and a bizarre little lolloping melody with the musical equivalent of water dripping on stone. Some of this material was reinterpreted for the Flash Gordon serial starring Buster Crabbe, most notably the fanfare for the mob surging after the Monster, and the playful malevolence of the homunculi and the crypt-supper which tended to denote the various denizens that populated the caves of Mongo.
Listen out for his thrilling extension of the thump … thump sound of the heartbeat monitor that had so transfixed Frankenstein and Pretorius as the gurney holding the Bride descends from the lightning-ravaged heavens. He thunderously accentuates it’s rhythm with rapid bass drums to signify the creation of surging life in the cadaver.
“We belong dead!”
The bodycount and the action quota are much higher than they were the first time around. The Monster may be awarded the opportunity to become even more sympathetic than he was previously, given the addition of more human emotions and purpose, but he is also permitted to indulge in greater rampages as well. The chaotic and random tussles of his ungainly anger in the earlier yarn – all clodhopping struggles with a real sense of the unpredictable - had been replaced by a much more assured and devoutly aggressive attitude. The makeup routine was slightly less taxing than before with Jack P. Pearce’s modified head appliance, so Karloff, who was now financially much better off as a result of all these “silly make-believe pictures” and therefore able to gain a healthier physique via a proper diet, found he had more energy and could move about much more quickly and with greater zeal, speed and animation. He actually lost over 20 pounds as a result of his exertions over the shoot. And, as a bigger and even more intimidating brute than before, he is given far more to do. He now has the capacity for committing cold-blooded murder, something that is made abundantly clear in the first scene of the story proper when he mercilessly kills the embittered parents of little Maria, the petal-floating child he drowned in the first film – a deed that will hardly endear him to us even though we know he has been as much a victim in all this as those that have felt his wrath. He charges through the cobbled streets, skittling and swatting slow-moving pedestrians as he does so, hurtles across the hills and through the woods, casually heaving boulders onto pursuers and toppling statuary all the while, and smashes down doors and rips cast-iron chains and bolts from their moorings as though they were made of balsa-wood. This is a hugely physical role – infinitely more strenuous than the vast majority of monsters that would wreak havoc in the movies, most of whom would merely stand there and waggle their paws, growl menacingly and hope that a victim would stumble into their grasp. Even these days, the lumbering brute – Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers, say – simply looms up out of the shadows or calmly walks after his next victim. Karloff, so sedate and composed in The Mummy, is a charging tsunami of energised gristle and bone.
Several more unmotivated murders, allegedly including that of the Burgomaster, were actually found in the original cut, but they tipped the scales from audiences understanding the Monster to despising him, and that wouldn’t work at all.
But there is a curious shadow that hangs over some the killings or “attacks” that remain in the film.
An earlier version had Dr. Pretorius’ nefarious assistant Karl (the fantastic Dwight Frye returning from the first film in a possibly nastier variant on his portrayal of the deformed lab-helper Fritz) murdering his own aunt and uncle and blaming the crime upon the Monster’s rampages. Only stills of this subplot still exist, but there are a couple of curious hangers-on in the plot that seem as though they could be attached to this lost sequence. After the Monster bursts out of Goldstadt jail like Johnny Rambo breaking free from Sheriff Teasle’s cop-shop in Jerkwater, USA (First Blood), he thunders through the village clobbering all those who get in his way. Disturbingly, it transpires that he has killed a little girl, Frieda, who was too slow to get to safety with her classmates – we are privy to the horrible discovery of her dead body – and this recalls the awfulness of his prior drowning of little Maria. Now that was an accident …it is pretty clear this time around that the death was not. It can be argued that she could have been merely trampled-down in the panic – those big asphalter’s boots would have no problem snapping a little spine or crushing a skull underfoot – so we can still ascribe her demise to the Monster even if we don’t see it happen. But the attack on the otherwise unknown Herr and Frau Neumann in their home, which we don’t see either, is not so easily explained away. The townsfolk, led by Una O’ Connor’s ever-shrieking Minnie just discover the bodies – it is unclear even if they are both dead, dying or just badly injured, and we do hear some agonised groaning from one of them, although this was apparently dubbed-on to appease the censors who weren’t too fussed on the number of kills – but it strikes me that the Monster would not tear his way into a random house and slay the occupants just for the sake of it. What this seems to be, to me at any rate, is a sort of additional scene that implies that there may be another killer in town. We find out that Karl is just such a nasty character. He remarks to his partner-in-crime, Ludwig (Ted Billings), when the pair grow nervous after some grave-desecration for Pretorius, that “It’s no business for murderers like us,” and then we witness Karl murdering an innocent young woman to provide the Bride with a fresh, new heart without experiencing any qualms at all over the matter. I think the attack on the Neumanns is now supposed to act as a subliminal hint that the Monster has become a convenient fall-guy for his peculiar brand of opportunist depravity. Perhaps the Neumanns have become surrogates for Karl’s aunt and uncle now that their entire thread has been removed from the plot. If you think about the scene atop the watchtower during the storm when Karl is hurled over the edge to his death – this begins to make more sense. Why else would the Monster, who is in-league with Pretorius and presumably his cronies too, suddenly go for Karl for no apparent reason and leave Ludwig alone? The earlier version had become bogged-down with the investigation into the murder of the old couple and the blame falling upon the Monster, so this brutal despatching actually seems more like a specific act of vengeance against Karl, the man who tried to set him up, as it would have appeared in the “complete” version.
If you look, you’ll see Karl lurking about near the Burgomaster during the initial capture of the Monster, and then in the streets when the creature escapes from the jailhouse. Look a little closer still, and you may discern the semblance of a plan forming behind his dark, feverish eyes.
And there is a little moment when Karl observes the exposed skeleton of the nineteen year old girl (Mary Shelley was nineteen when she wrote the book, remember?) whose crypt he and Ludwig have defiled, when he remarks with an unsavoury grin, “Pretty little thing, in her way, wasn’t she?” This certainly suggests another, even grimmer side to his nature. Not exactly necrophilia, I don’t think, although Whale’s film definitely doesn’t shy away from such a concept, but rather Karl is casting a jaded and lecherous eye over how she may have looked when alive. Thus, given what we already know and can readily ascertain about him, the killing of the little girl in this film could potentially be pinned on him, as well.
It’s all conjecture, of course. But it’s certainly a fun and intriguing hypothesis.
“See he doesn’t get out again … he might do some damage!”
Iconic imagery abounds. O’ Connor’s screeching busybody coming face to face with the Monster beside the wreckage of the windmill is a comic-horrific delight, rammed full of the absurdity of the macabre and the whimsical terror of trounced bigotry. It is also great to see her introduction of Dr. Pretorius (a name she clearly doesn’t like) being upstaged by Thesiger’s dramatic appearance on two occasions. There is the splendour of Pretorius’ collection of little people and their repetitive, short-term memory antics – you have to wonder what becomes of them after all the flames and fury that eventually consumes their master. The Monster getting caught by the mob and then lashed, Christ-like, to a tree-trunk, and then chained to a seat in the infernal pit of a shadow-plagued dungeon is a thunderously charged extended sequence. The blissful, heartbreaking tear that journeys down his pallid face in the embrace of his new friend, the hermit, and the sight of his ghastly, stitched hand gently caressing the old man’s shoulder – the first physical contact he has made that has not resulted in death and despair. I have seen the film possibly a hundred times … and this moment never fails to move me. His subsequent grin of merriment and contentment as he smokes and drinks and moves in time to the music of the hermit’s violin, virtually crooning the word “Good!” in the happiness of the moment. The controversial sight of him heaving over angelic statues in the graveyard, Whale almost challenging an establishment that had only reluctantly accepted the original film’s premise of Man creating Man in his own image. The fantastic sight of a midnight banquet conducted by a madman and a Monster over the casket of a dead woman in a spooky crypt. Audiences would have to wait until the likes of Mario Bava, Roger Corman and Roman Polanski in the sixties to see such quaintly subversive visions as this again.
It is wonderful how Whale provides mirror images too, of some of the things that we witnessed first time around. It is almost as though he has taken us down the rabbit-hole and is showing us the inverted version lies underneath the story. There are the obvious things like a woman being brought to life instead of a man, and the switch from Frankenstein pulling the strings to Dr. Pretorius, with our favourite resurrector now more akin to poor scampering Fritz from the first film, at the beck and call of another, rather more demanding master. But look at the more deliberate and clever reversals, such as the Monster commanding Frankenstein to “Sit down!” like the doctor had done previously with his newborn, and the fact that the Monster finds solace in the darkness and decay of the crypt where previously he sought the sunshine. There is the business of heart-stealing now, as opposed to brains. Pretorius remarks that it is “The most complex organ in the human body,” which is obviously wrong and, being a biological scientist, he’d know that, but this is certainly a Whalean/Pretorian snubbing of the traditional human emotions of love and desire, an almost contemptuous backhanded comment about the societal status quo. It is also interesting how Minnie, who is merely a maid in the baronial house, becomes the main mouthpiece of the mob, ordering and barking like some riotous harridan. “I get no co-operation!” bleats the Burgomaster. But she does.
Even cut down from its original ninety-minutes to just seventy-five, Whale’s film is magnetic, moving and miraculous. The Monster would survive to go on more rampages, but they would be of ever-decreasing merit, and he would ultimately become nothing more than a moaning cameo in those cherished, but cheesy mash-ups that kept getting churned-out once the maestro of James Whale, the filmmaker who really empathised with him the most, bowed-out of the franchise.
Endlessly re-watchable and profoundly thought-provoking, Bride of Frankenstein is a marvel of the macabre. If there is one film amongst this fine collection of sure-fire classics from Universal’s golden era of the fantastique that can be accurately labelled as a true masterpiece and as a work of art, then this is it.
One of the greatest horror films of all time.
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