Zombos Says: Sublime
It took four years, rewritten scripts, and lots of coaxing to get the reluctant James Whale to direct Frankenstein's sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Karloff, who acted in over eighty movies before finally hitting stardom in Frankenstein, in spite of sustaining severe back injuries manhandling Henry in the first movie, was eager to reprise his star role. Dwight Frye, whom Whale liked very much, definitely dead after the first movie, was given a new role—sort of. He plays Karl, the murderous, club-footed assistant to Dr. Pretorius (Earnest Thesiger).
Once again, Frye takes a meager role and embellishes it to perfection. Colin Clive is back as Henry Frankenstein, more morose and unbalanced than in Frankenstein, and still looking for peace of mind after his near fatal fall from the windmill. Clive broke his leg just before filming began, forcing him to be seated most of the time in his scenes (Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, Tom Brunas, Universal’s Horrors: The Studios Classic Films, 1931-1946).
It is Ernest Thesiger, however, as the effete, nefarious Dr. Pretorius who does most of the instigation, and a good share of scene stealing, this time around. While Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi may have been considered for the role, Whale preferred Thesiger as the pompous, perverse mentor.
Thesiger’s Pretorius is morally superficial, whimsically condescending, and deeply sinister; a gentleman dabbling in dark alchemical arts. He knows he is naughty and he revels in it. He is a hedonistic Baroque patriarch to his own dark morality and desires, reflecting Whale's own drive toward self-expression, self-destruction, and discomfort from his commercial directorial success, and his gayness.
To entice Whale back to the laboratory he was practically given carte blanche to direct his way, which he did by greatly loosening conventionality with his caustic wit tipped off by derision for having to succumb to commercial necessity, and by an unbridled flair for pushing boundaries; all of which combine to produce a less serious and less sedate movie than Frankenstein, but one far grander.
Bride of Frankenstein borders on the outrageous; part parody, part satire, it is a reluctant parable touched with fantasy that periodically explodes into quintessential horror theatrics, providing Whale with a lucrative vehicle to poke fun at domestic relationships, the budding horror genre he helped foster, and the freedom to allow him to lay bare his inner struggle between his homosexuality and society's ambivalence toward it. Henry, the Monster, Elizabeth, Pretorius, the townspeople, all represent parts of Whale's tag team match with his inner demons, yearning for, while frustrated with, a social conventionality he can never attain, but still desires deeply.
Bride of Frankenstein celebrates the maverick, the rebel, the outsider, the creative being who dares to counter mainstream culture and its prissy morality, no matter what the personal cost” (Garey J. Svehla, Midnight Marquee Actors Series: Boris Karloff).
Whale's insistence on having the Monster speak, albeit rudimentarily, did not sit well with Karloff who felt a speaking monster would lose the audience’s sympathy. Time appears to have settled this point in Whale's favor. Karloff’s guttural growls and halting speech bring greater depth to the Monster's soul as he reveals his distrust of the living and his need for companionship. Mentally and emotionally a child in the first movie—inquisitive, innocent, and in need of guidance—he is now more mature and although still inquisitive, has learned caution and guile to satisfy his wants.
Punctuating this arty mix of the fantastic, Franz Waxman’s original music reflects the different moods of scene and character, providing an alternating exuberant melodic and sinister harmonic accompaniment, lighthearted one moment, darkly portentive the next. From the whimsical yet ghoulish bone-tinkle of the dance macabre, heard while Dr. Pretorius is in the crypt, to the Monster’s imposing entrance, Waxman’s notes play across a spectrum of charnel creepiness to mocking crescendo as they resonate cynicism with a grin during the wedding ceremony as Bride and Monster meet for the first time.
A precursor to the now de riguer techniques employed for continuing a commercially viable horror franchise, Bride of Frankenstein begins with a recounting of the first movie's ending, told through the artifice of saucy drawing room chit-chat between Romantic poets Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), and Frankenstein's real creator Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), whose ample bosom and double entendres caused much concern with the Production Code censors.
Prompted by Byron (in florid speech filled with rolling 'R' puffery) for more of her story, she tells them how the Monster survives the fire. As the flashback takes form, we leave the romantic trio in their drawing room—the past—and return to the windmill—the present—where little Maria’s parents find out why it’s a bad idea to lag behind when everyone else has gone home.
Boris Karloff, now successful in his acting career and able to eat regularly, is heavier in body and face than his first appearance as the Monster. The way in which he reappears, and the hysterics dramatis of Minnie (Una O'Connor) signal Whale's intent to make Bride of Frankenstein a more fanciful excursion into the macabre than his first movie. Whale had a fondness for O'Connor and allowed her burlesque-styled antics to overshadow (self-destruct?) more serious scenes.
Universal makeup artist Jack Pierce paid special attention to the Monster's appearance in this movie. He altered his 1931 design to display the after-effects of the mill fire, adding scars and shortening the Monster's singed hair.
As the monster prowls the countryside again in search of acceptance, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson this time around) and Henry are lounging about their incredibly large bedroom (even Donald Trump would be jealous). Elizabeth, always the stronger and more resolute one, though directed toward more melodramatic acting, is distraught as she tells Henry how she senses Death lurking in the dark corners. Henry, ignoring her fear, ponders how his meddling in life and death must be part of some divine plan.
After all the death and heartache caused by his hubris against the natural order, now he seeks divine succor and intervention?
Overcome with worry and Henry's indifference, Elizabeth swoons as Dr. Pretorius makes his bold entrance, immediately ingratiating himself between her and Henry. The gaunt, arrogantly tousle-haired doctor has been experimenting with creating life also, and insists on showing Henry his accomplishments that very minute. Over her objections, Henry is soon impatiently sitting in the doctor’s apartment.
Dr. Pretorius disappears into another room and returns carrying a large chest. Dressed in clothes that could be mistaken for those of an alchemist or a cleric, he pulls glass cylinders from the chest. In a display of special effects that are still impressive today, each one is shown to contain a miniature person he’s grown 'from seed:' a King, a Queen, an Archbishop, a Devil, a Ballerina, and a Mermaid.
The shooting script called for a seventh figure, a baby—
—already twice as big as the Queen, and looking as if it might develop into Boris Karloff. It is pulling a flower to pieces. Wisely, Whale dropped both the baby and the script's self-conscious flippancy. Pretorius is a manipulative God figure who gave these beings life, determined their identities, and controls their actions. He is archly disdainful of them, which is revealing of Pretorius and probably of Whale, who conceived of them in the first place (Paul M. Jensen, The Men Who Made the Monsters).
Over gin (Pretorius says it’s his only vice), the two argue, but Pretorius finally persuades—actually inspires—Henry to make a female because Pretorius' seed process for growing pocket-sized people lacks Henry’s ability for stitching together the seven-foot tall variety. Given the homosexuality of Thesiger, Clive, and Whale, this tete a tete over procreation is ripe with layers of innuendo, or not, depending on how you are inclined to view it.
In a separate story thread from Pretorius' and Henry's pursuits, the Monster, trying to befriend a shepherdess in an idyllic pastoral landscape, causes her to almost drown. She screams as he tries to help her, inciting the exasperated villagers to chase him, again, from this paradise into a forest of starkly barren tree trunks. The villagers eventually overpower him and truss him up in symbolic crucifixion fashion, which Whale captures in an elaborate series of close-ups, midshots, and farshots, then cart him off to the town dungeon, where he is chained to a garroting chair with massive links of iron.
Oddly, although he was overpowered by the villagers initially, he breaks free of the more restraining chains and goes on a murderous rampage, which Whale softens by showing a series of random deaths after the fact. Hungry, the Monster stumbles into a gypsy campsite and, having no quarrel with them, uses his hands to beg for food and a warm seat by their fire. The attempt is a futile one and they drive him away. Now more tired and hungry, he makes his way through the woods until he hears serene music and follows it to a small cottage. Looking through the window like a curious little boy, he sees an old man playing a violin. He barges into the cottage with a growl, but this time there’s no fear at his appearance. The old man is blind and as much an outcast from society as the Monster. Fortune through a man's sightless eyes finally brings respite.
In a touching scene that carefully skirts becoming maudlin, both outcasts tearfully rejoice in each other's company. Rembrandt lighting illuminates the faces of the old man and the Monster, and flickering light cast by the fireplace frolics across the cabin's walls in a meticulous composition of shadow and emotional substance, music and motion. In the days (weeks? the duration is not clear) that follow, the monster learns to speak a few basic words and enjoys wine and a good cigar, though his first energetic puffs on it make him even greener than he usually is. For the first and only time he is happy. It doesn’t last, of course.
Huntsmen spoil his joy with their calamitous entry and the Monster is once again being chased by exasperated, torch-wielding, villagers. After toppling a religious statue in disdain, he finds sanctuary in the crypt where Dr. Pretorius is having a grand old time among the bones. Over wine and a good cigar (Pretorius says smoking is his only vice), they hatch a plan to force Henry to make a female companion. Karloff has his most introspective lines here. The tortured soul of the Monster is revealed. Between his studied pantomime and simple, carefully spoken words, he makes us forget the killings and elicits our sympathies. Without his spoken words this scene would be greatly weakened.
Following Pretorius’ direction, the Monster kidnaps Elizabeth, forcing Henry to acquiesce. After Karl produces a fresh heart through murder, the kites are once again prepared for the approaching storm to harness the cosmic energy of life. Whale alternates between a series of rapid close-ups and farshots, keeping actions lively between the laboratory and roof-top preparations.
Exhilarating electrical flashes, smoky sparks, and zapping, buzzing noises erupt. Slanted close-ups (Dutch shots as they’re called) showing Henry and Pretorius—their faces lighted from below to create shadows obscuring their faces, intensify the already feverish cranking of levers and twirling of dials while the body is raised to the storm in this highly charged atmosphere of expectation. Karl is suddenly killed by the impatient Monster after he sticks a flaming torch in his face (it seems dying a horrible death was part of Frye's role requirement).
With much anticipation the body is lowered after absorbing the life-giving energy from the heavens. The cosmic diffuser is raised and her bandages are unraveled. “She’s alive!” cries Henry, Waxman's music building to his words. Pretorius preens and says “the bride of Frankenstein,” to wedding bells mockingly ringing at his words.
After the delicate balance of humour and horror showcased in The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, Whale was perfecting in Bride of Frankenstein the then unknown quantity called 'camp', and for the most part the results are a delight. But, faced with Pretorius' miniature creations, one becomes aware of a director who is out of control. Ambivalent about directing the movie in the first place, he condescended to do so only on his own terms—and those terms occasionally included a frank display of contempt for his material (Jonathan Rigby, American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema).
Elsa Lanchester’s wildly elongated hairdo (copied by Matt Groening for Marge Simpson) , flowing white gown mimicking a wedding dress, and hissing response to the Monster saying the word "friend" as he moves closer is a hoot on one hand, yet a stark, sad moment of brutal rejection for him on the other. She turns to Henry instead. The Monster presses his intentions, but soon realizes she hates him like everyone else. Rejected, he falls backward, stumbling upon a lever the size of a baseball bat that can blow up the laboratory when pulled (who the hell puts a lever the size of a baseball bat like that in easy reach?). He tells Henry and Elizabeth—she shows up just in time to be blown up—to go. Pretorius is not so lucky. The Monster pulls the lever and blows himself, Pretorius, and his lamentable bride to atoms, telling them "we belong dead."
But this horror franchise has only just begun and monsters never truly die in horror movies that show a profit. Praise James Whale or curse him, his demons eventually overwhelmed him; but before they did, his struggle against them produced two fright movies that still remain daring, perplexing, and defiant of convention.
Without Whale to helm the next entry in the Frankenstein saga, Karloff becomes a caricature of the Monster, and is upstaged by an actor who, though a Hollywood outcast, is struggling against his own demons, and in so doing creates an unforgettable fiend more monstrous than Frankenstein's creation.