The Film: 'Bride of Frankenstein' (1935), Dir. James Whale
Starring: Boris "?????" Karloff, Colin "It's Alive!" Clive, Ernest Thesiger and Valerie Hobson.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: When I was but a fresh-faced youth with his whole life still in front of him, a certain cable channel that shall not be named would run marathons of old horror movies every Halloween. The classic Universal monster movies were always in the mix and this was where my love of horror cinema was allowed to grow. I saw 'Frankenstein,' 'Dracula,' 'The Wolfman,' 'The Creature From the Black Lagoon,' 'The Invisible Man' and most of the other classics by the time I was twelve. Somehow, every year, I managed to miss 'Bride of Frankenstein.' Every year, I vowed to track it down and never did. And here we are. Happy Halloween.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions (Before I've watched the film): 'Bride of Frankenstein' is one of the greatest horror films of all time and one of the best sequels ever made, taking what worked about the first film and amplifying it ten-fold. Like its predecessor, it's a film simply crying out for a musical score, but the work from an ensemble of old pros and James Whale's gothic direction provides atmosphere in spades. Maybe an effective musical score would have made this movie too good, too perfect of an example of the greatness of the original Universal monster movies.
The story picks up some time after the original, loosely borrowing elements from Mary Shelley's original novel that were not plundered for the first adventure of Dr. Frankenstein and his man 'o many parts. Like its predecessor, 'Bride of Frankenstein' will never win any awards for sticking to the events of its source material, but you're only allowed to complain about that when a movie is a failure. Anyway, the movie captures the spirit of Shelley's work if not the exact text and considering how strange and bold the original novel was (and still is), that's all the film needs.
So, story in a nutshell: Dr. Frankenstein's all like "Man, I'm so glad my monster died in that windmill fire" and then the monster shows up and is all like "Nah, man! I'm still alive and I learned to talk and now I want you to make me a lady friend or I'm going to kill your entire family!" and Frankenstein's all like "Oh no! Here we go again!" and he goes about reanimating another corpse so his creation can get his groove on.
Karloff is amazing. Clive is amazing. Without modern make-up or reliance on blood and guts, Whale manages to craft a tone that evokes horror and dread like nothing before or since. This is classic horror at its finest. This is real cinema.
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Post-Viewing Reaction (After I've watched the film): As you can tell, I had really, really high expectations for 'Bride of Frankenstein.' And why shouldn't I? It's often bandied about as being the best of the original Universal monster movies, always touted as James Whale's masterpiece and more than several scenes have simply become iconic, familiar to people the world over, even those like me, who hadn't actually watched the film until about a half hour before writing this sentence.
Disappointment is an unfair, simplified and nearly vulgar term for the more complicated reaction I had to 'Bride of Frankenstein,' but it's the one that instantly springs to mind, inaccurate though it may be. I was ready for something transcendent, the Great Classic Horror Movie to end all Great Classic Horror Movies and the funny, weird, intelligent and endlessly creepy movie I ended up watching is indisputably a wonderful, important film, but it just can't quite fill its own iconoclasm, which has grown far bigger than the film itself.
'Bride of Frankenstein' is one of the classiest, most beautifully shot and most entertaining B-horror movies of all time. It doesn't transcend it's Universal monster movie roots, but it has no desire to. It is what it is and doesn't care what you think. It operates in a niche arena and has no desire to be seen elsewhere. It only wants to be the best of its kind and has no delusions of grandeur. Nowadays, it's rare to find a horror movie this smart that doesn't have at least some air of pretension around it, but 'Bride of Frankenstein' is from another era, cloaking its dark humor and acidic wit with creepy lighting, endearingly hammy acting and even a shocking moment or two.
And this time there's an actual musical score and Oh My, does it help.
After a slightly baffling intro featuring Mary Shelley recapping the last film for Lord Byron and her husband, we're off and running, picking up straight where the last film left off. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), having barely survived his ordeal, returns home to his bride-to-be and the Monster (Boris Karloff), very much not-burnt-alive, offs a few pesky townsfolk and is soon on the run from a lot of torch and pitchfork-wielding peasants. Soon enough, Frankenstein is visited by Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who wants to start a collaboration and continue the whole creating-a-being-out-of-corpses-and-bringing-them-to-life thing. At first Frankenstein refuses, but-
Nah, I'll stop there. What transpires is actually more surprising than you'd think, especially how and when the Monster re-enters the picture. Suffice to say that it's a busy 75 minutes.
Will there ever be a more memorable movie monster than Boris Karloff's Monster? The answer is no. Although he actually gets a chance to talk in this one (the monster picks up rudimentary speech as well as liking of cigars and booze), this is a role defined by his physicality. It's not just the famous make-up...it's his walk, his posture and how he carries himself. At no point does the monster move like a normal human being. How could it? It never had a childhood, never had a chance to develop like a human being. It's a walking example of science gone horribly awry. There is just as much care put into this performance as there is in a "serious" Oscar performance. The level of physical control on display is on the same level as The Three Stooges, The Marx Bros., Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but unlike those performers, who used extreme physicality to get a laugh, Karloff uses his body to vanish into this character. You are never watching Karloff; you are only watching a walking amalgamation of body parts brought to life with lightning.
More important than all of the shambling and grunting though, is the soul of the Monster. Like King Kong, the Monster is misunderstood and frightened, abandoned by the only man who could have taught him how to be a human, how to have a conscience and how to understand the world around him. The scene with the blind musician, the first person to treat the Monster with any dignity at all (brilliantly parodied in Mel Brooks' 'Young Frankenstein') is heartbreaking. We watch a creature with the mentality of a child, a creature who has only known cruelty and pitchforks and flaming windmills, learn that decency actually exists. His final scene in the film (and Karloff's brutal final line) showcases how this monster isn't evil bur rather has absorbed the evil of the world around him. In the final minutes of the film, the Monster understands this and takes what he deems as appropriate action.
While Karloff provides the pathos, Clive and Thesiger provide the wit and the ham, chewing on their brilliant dialogue just as much as they chew on the scenery. Clive may be the other iconic figure from these films, with his "IT'S ALIVE!" proclamation having entered everyone's vernacular, but its Thesiger's Dr. Pretorius who feels more vital and who's definitely had the longer impact. You can see shades of Pretorius in every other movie mad scientist since, from the 1950s B-movie loonies who grow giant radioactive ants to Christopher Lloyd's Doc Brown in 'Back to the Future.' With his wild gray hair and the disturbing glee he takes in his work, he may be an archetype that's still being copied and pasted today, but the years of creative theft have done nothing to dull the character. They can steal the image, but they cannot replicate its power: Dr. Pretorius may be the greatest mad scientist in film history.
I don't want to be the guy who goes on and on about how they just don't make 'em like they used to, but it's true. They don't make 'em like they used to. Not that this necessarily a bad thing. Times change. People change. Audiences change. Tastes change. However, what James Whale does with 'Bride of Frankenstein' is unique compared to most modern horror films. Yes, it has its fair share of horror moments (although time has definitely dulled their total impact), but it's also funny and sad and strange and exciting. It's a complete package of just about everything you could want out of movie. Old Universal horror movies may feel quaint to many modern moviegoers, but these classy, well-made films have stood the test of time. I would say that I hope they never get forgotten, but they won't. They're not in any danger. They're here to stay.
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