Today it's the Frankenstein sequel that is almost universally (heh, get it?) praised as being superior to the first film, Bride of Frankenstein!
After the monumental success of the 1931 adaptation, Universal Studios understandably pushed for a follow-up, but James Whale was initially skeptical, thinking there was nothing more that could be explored in the material. Instead Whale directed another hit horror film, The Invisible Man, and the studio pushed even harder for a Frankenstein sequel. Whale finally agreed on the condition that Universal would produce a film of his called One More River, and when directing Bride opted to swing for the fences. It would be a much larger-scale production with garish surrealism and subversive undertones, blending monster horror with dark comedy. On paper this movie should never have worked as well as it did. Whale was allowed to inject so much of his own personality into the film and its characters, and thus it became a celebration of those who live outside the norm. With the expressionist influences of the first film were turned way up for the second, and the drama ranging from horrific to funny to genuinely touching, Bride of Frankenstein is the pinnacle of the Universal monster films.
Now let's criticize it.....
Boris reprised the role that made him a superstar, once again slipping on the giant boots and flat head. This time the monster actually spoke, lending more depth to the character and making him even more sympathetic. Indeed, Bride of Frankenstein is much more about the monster's character arc than Frankenstein's. His driving motivation in this film, much like in the novel, is the search for a companion of some kind, and Karloff gives a largely quite tender, vulnerable performance that further solidifies the monster as a misunderstood brute.
|Still the man|
Despite very little actual screen time between her two roles (Seriously, it's maybe five minutes total), Elsa Lanchester brought to life one of the great movie monsters and gave a tremendously memorable turn. Also notable is the disparity between her two characters; Mary Shelley is sweet-faced and proper, while the title character is wild-eyed and bird-like (Lanchester apparently based her head movements on those of a swan). Her brief onscreen interaction with Karloff is bizarre and climactic; one of the great monster movie payoffs.
|Makes sense her hair is standing up, |
she did just get electrocuted technically
The other major new character is Dr. Pretorius, who visits Frankenstein early in the film and coaxes him back into the bizarre monster-making occupation. Ernest Thesinger plays the character as a flamboyant, Luciferian mad scientist, creating the irreverent subtext of an older man luring Henry away from his happily married home. The Pretorius character is just outlandish enough to work, completing the triumvirate of wonderfully fantastical figures in this movie.
|So how'd he create mini-people again?|
I'm not sure how Whale came to this decision, but the role of Elizabeth was recast for Bride, with 17-year-old Valerie Hobson replacing Mae Clark. But the change is welcome, despite Hobson's complete lack of physical resemblance to her predecessor. Clark was fine in the role the first time around, but Hobson makes Elizabeth a much more memorable character and gives a more dynamic performance (Though the idea of a 17-year-old sharing a bed with the 35-year-old Colin Clive is icky).
|Am I wrong, the new Liz is better?|
Once again Jack Pierce created an iconic screen character, the Bride being the only female Universal classic monster. With her Nefertiti-esque hair and glamor makeup, Lanchester's image is just as recognizable as that of Karloff's monster. Karloff once again looked the part of the original creature, although I thought the makeup was better executed in the first film. Between Karloff's filled-out face and the switch from cotton and collodion to a rubber headpiece, he didn't look quite as convincing to me this time around. However one nice touch was that Karloff begins the film with most of his hair burned off and it grows as the film wears on. Great attention to detail.
Bride was the first of this series to feature a full film score - strangely the first film (and Dracula) contain no music aside from the opening and closing credits. Bride however has a lush, bombastic score created by Franz Waxman, who cleverly included themes for each of its two monstrous characters. The monster's appearance is heralded by an ominous four-note melody, while the Bride's theme is a sultry three-note phrase. The music punctuates the macabre drama, heightening the story's various dynamic shifts.
Blind Man Sequence
Aside from the film's climax, the most memorable sequence is the one in which the monster befriends an old blind hermit. The old man can't see Karloff's deformity and thus isn't afraid of him, rather he pities this terrified, mute creature and begins to teach him how to behave in society. This sequence ranges from deeply touching as the two lonely characters are brought together, to comedic as the monster learns about food, drink, good and bad, to heartbreaking as he is chased away by villagers who assume he's attacking the old man. Taken directly out of the novel, this might be the most faithful section of any of the old Frankenstein films, and it's certainly one of my favorites.
In hindsight, Bride of Frankenstein got away with some pretty shocking imagery for 1935. James Whale had some trouble with the censors in pre-production, for example during an intended scene where the monster comes across a statue of Jesus on the cross and tries to save him. The compromise in the actual film was the monster angrily toppling a statue of a bishop, which is even more iconoclastic. There's also the Christ-like presentation of the monster being captured by an angry mob and tied to a vertical beam. Consider additionally the homosexual undertones of Henry leaving his marital bed to run off with Pretorius, or the monster finding happiness with the old man. None of this is shocking to us now, but it's pretty amazing Whale was able to sneak so much connotation past the uppity Hays-era censors. Even aside from all that, the film's general eccentricities make it a joy to watch - almost no screen time is devoted to the "normal" characters. This is an anthem for the outsiders of the world, who just want to be loved and accepted. Sadly in the end Karloff's monster can't even garner affection from another reanimated being.
|Frankie wages the War on Christianity|
Alright, so this movie obviously has a lot going for it, but it's not perfect either. And here's why.....
I know this was a very early sequel and the filmmakers wanted to somehow bridge the two films together, but I always found the prologue pretty hamfisted, with Mary and Percy Shelley hangin' out with Lord Byron, awkwardly recounting everything that took place in the first film. The dialogue here sounds like it was written on a napkin five minutes before shooting, and Gavin Gordon as Byron is cringe-inducing, with his phony rrrrrrolled Rs. There is a nice visual parallel at the end of this scene: Mary pricks her finger while sewing and both guys run to her side as she stands up. This echoes the later scene where the Bride is brought to life. But overall this sequence is a bit of a chore.
You can tell sequels were rare in the 30s, as James Whale gave less than a shit about film-to-film continuity. In addition to the recasting of Elizabeth, The Burgomeister and little Maria's dad were also recast with actors who looked nothing like their predecessors. The BM went from being portly and clean-shaven with wild, curly gray hair, to thin and mustachioed with dark hair and a completely different costume. And Maria's dad must've shaved off his mustache while searching for the monster, because in this film it's missing. What's odd is that the original two actors returned in Son of Frankenstein, but as different characters. 'The hell's that about?
|Yeah this is supposed to be the same guy.|
Fuck right off with that.
Also Frankenstein's house looks 1000% different in this film. In Frankenstein the sets were constructed with a striking verticality; narrow walls with crazy high ceilings. In this film his house is cavernous and deliberately gothic. Did Liz move all their shit to a new house while Hank was out looking for Boris?
While the decision to have the monster speak wasn't popular with Karloff himself, it turned out a wise move because it allowed the audience to much more easily sympathize with the character and it gave him a much stronger arc. That said, the filmmakers sadly only let him speak in 2- and 3-word sentences, rather than in the eloquent patterns of his literary counterpart. Somehow "Frieeennnd....GOOOOD!" doesn't have the same impact as "If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. Have a care; I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your birth."
The climax of the film includes both awesome and shitty elements. The Bride's "birth" is one of the great moments in cinema history, with both Lanchester's stylized performance and the expressionistic camera angles contributing to its iconicism. No complaints there. However, after she rejects the monster's advances he decides to just blow up the entire lab, using the lever that just happens to be right in the middle of the room! Umm, who installed this enormous self-destruct switch in Henry's lab?? Why would you put it in such an easily accessible spot? What's it hooked up to? When you really stop and think about it, it's one of the stupidest copout endings of all time. Was there no other way they could pay off the "We belong dead" line? Also Henry was originally supposed to die along with Pretorius and the two monsters until Whale decided to do reshoots showing Henry and Elizabeth escaping. But in the interior explosion shot you can still clearly see Henry in the left side of the frame. Jeezus, that guy just keeps escaping death, post-production.
|I mean, Henry's RIGHT THERE. Maybe crop that shot in post or something?|
-At the end of the first film we all assume the monster perished in the windmill fire. In this film they jump right into the retconning, as the monster is shown to still be alive about thirty seconds into the story. A little suspense about his fate might've been a nice touch, no?
-Wouldn't the monster stink like an opening into Hell by this point? He's been wearing the same clothes since birth, hasn't bathed, got burned and then extinquished, crawled through tombs, carried dead bodies around.... No one should be subjected to that kinda pungency. That blind guy must've also been anosmic (Look it up...).
-Henry's father, Baron Frankenstein is dead by the time Praetorius shows up but this is just glossed over. I know Frederick Kerr was deceased in real life by this point, but no mention of his character having died?
-At the outset of this film Henry is presumed dead by the villagers until he's brought home. They put him on a wagon and put a sheet over him, and Elizabeth bursts into tears until he begins to move. But the ending of the first movie already established that he survived the windmill fall, so why the charade of everything thinking he's dead? Did they just want to prank his wife?
-Why does Pretorius announce Elsa as "The Bride of Frankenstein" when she comes to life? They made her for the monster, not for Henry.
-What kinda weirdo is Pretorius that in the middle of graverobbing he stops and has a fine meal in a crypt? That can't be particularly sanitary sir. You're just asking for an ebola outbreak.
-During this scene the monster tells Pretorius he was made from parts of the dead. How does he know this? Henry never told him.
Okay, so Bride of Frankenstein has way more awesome about it than it does shitty. It's the best film of the series according to most people (including me) and it's gotta be the first film sequel to achieve that status. It's bigger, bolder, more irreverent, and has more depth than the first movie. As with Frankenstein, watching Bride is an annual tradition for me. Bride is also sadly the last truly good film of the series. The third movie Son of Frankenstein was somewhat ambitious and visually striking but failed to achieve the artistry of the first two, as we'll examine in more detail next time.
For now though, thanks for reading Awesomely Shitty Movies!