Friday, February 19, 2010

Film #11: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Director: James Whale

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 4 years ago)

The Story (in which I completely give away all plot points, including any spoilers. Fair warning):

*In order to tell the full tale, I feel it necessary to cover the original film, Frankenstein. In addition, all readers should be aware that these reviews cover the film versions, not the book. The films take much "artistic" license with Mary Shelley's novel, which will be briefly covered later.

Frankenstein: Young Doctor Henry Frankenstein robs a few graves to assemble the final pieces that he needs to complete his ultimate experiment - to create human life from previously-dead tissue. He is successful in creating a hulking but inarticulate being. To the horror of his onlooking fiancee, Elizabeth, and closest friend, Victor, Frankenstein revels in the majesty of his accomplishment. Unfortunately, Frankenstein's sadistic henchman, Fritz, frightens the creature, who escapes into the countryside. Henry returns home to marry Elizabeth. Meanwhile, the creature roams free, seeking friendship but finding only horrified villagers. After mistakenly killing several people, including young children, the monster is chased by Frankenstein and a German posse into a windmill , where he is seemingly burned to death.

Bride of Frankenstein: Picking up where the previous film left off, we see that the creature escaped death by falling into a deep, watery recess underneath the burning windmill. Back at Frankenstein's nearby home, the doctor prepares to marry his betrothed. A mysterious and sinister character from Dr.Frankenstein's past named Dr. Pretorius arrives on the scene and entreats Henry to work with him to recreate his experiment. We soon see that Pretorius is a death-obsessed, maniacal genius who has created a bizarre menagerie of strange creatures of his own. He will stop at nothing to force Frankenstein to help him realize his ghoulish vision.

All the while, Frankenstein's creature roams about, initially finding the same hatred as before, until he finds an old, blind hermit in the woods. Not seeing the creature's hideous exterior, the blind man takes him for a mute, treats him with kindness, and even teaches him how to speak, though in a limited capacity. Eventually, a few villagers show up, see the monster, and run him off once again.

The monster, amazingly, comes across Dr. Pretorius, and they conspire together to kidnap Elizabeth and force Frankenstein to construct a female companion for the creature. The young doctor concedes and creates the female abomination. However, once she becomes aware and sees the original creature, her intended mate, she recoils in horror. Upon realizing that he has no hope of finding a kindred spirit in this world, the creature sabotages the machinery in the massive laboratory, killing himself, his "bride" and Doctor Pretorius, with Frankenstein and Elizabeth narrowly escaping.

Take 1: My Opinion (done after one viewing, before any research on the film):
Bride of Frankenstein is a really good movie, though steeped in some old, B-Horror movie conventions. It's clearly better than its predecessor, even though both were directed by the renowned horrormeister James Whale. The primary difference is that Bride moves closer to the deeper themes of Mary Shelley's timeless novel, whereas the first Frankenstein keeps things relatively simple.

While in Frankenstein, the creature is portrayed as almost more monstrous than sympathetic, in Bride, there is a much better balance. By allowing him to speak and giving more time to his obvious pleas for companionship, I felt much more for him than in the first film. This touches on the creator/creation relationship that was so key to the novel. The vehicle for this shift comes in the scenes between the "monster" and the blind man who takes him in. In these few minutes of the film, we really see the creature as a young, desperate and tormented child who wants nothing more than contact. Here's a taste of the interaction:

Scenes like this one set this classic horror flick far above its peers. Perhaps the capper is the literally explosive grand finale. By accepting death rather than a tormented and solitary life, the creature represents a certain existentialism that belies the B-horror veneer.

My main problem with the movie is that it is rooted in a few clumsy elements. Dr. Pretorius, played extremely eerily by Ernest Thesiger, seems somewhat contrived. While the character himself is somewhat intriguing, he represents the biggest of several serious gaps in the narrative. Who is Pretorius? Why the death fixation? This guy quite literally just shows up on the doorstep and takes control of the entire movie, with nary an explanation. The plot was obviously highly streamlined in order to keep the pace quick, but it leaves a few too many questions to be answered for my liking.

In addition to the semi-choppy narrative, there are several insanely coincidental occurrences that defy my ability to suspend disbelief. Chief among them is the monster happening across Dr. Pretorius in a tomb. I suppose you could argue that it fits that these two beings, both having affinities for the macabre, would meet in such a place. I had to roll my eyes a bit at it, all the same.

In all, though, it's a really good movie that earns the moniker of "classic". Modern viewers, especially young adults, may not be able to see past the outdated effects and occasional silliness of some scenes. If, however, the viewer can look past the surface, they may see a lot of things that the vast majority of films, horror and otherwise, are sorely lacking.

Take 2; Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after some research on the film):

This film is hailed as one of the greatest horror films ever. Film historian Scott McQeen even goes so far as to call it, "the perfect horror film." In listening to his audio commentary, he certainly makes his case well. He points out a lot of the meticulously-planned elements of the movie, including the visuals and the overall character interactions. I agree that the aesthetic of the film is really engaging and cohesive, with elements of baroque, rococo, and expressionism blending really well to create a slightly alien feel to the world. Even a non-art buff like me can appreciate these things.

I also discovered that my initial feelings about the narrative being a touch choppy were not just subjective. Apparently, the script and film went through several edits, thanks in large part to objections by the Hays censorship board. In the end, a longer scene that explains the relationship between Frankenstein and Pretorius was cut, along with several other scenes in which the monster kills people.

One surprising thing is that the original TIME magazine review saw Bride as equal to the original, rather than superior. Here's their original review.

The really interesting thing about the creative forces behind the films is director James Whale. A somewhat flamboyant, totally atheistic man, Whale was a playful and strong-willed man who had a vision and tried all he could not to compromise. He may have been one of the earliest users of campiness in his films. 

Dr. Pretorius, displaying his bizarre menagerie of experiments. This character gleefully and skillfully tiptoed the line between genuine eeriness and laughable camp.

A lot of analysis has been done on the possible religious and homosexual symbolism or themes in the film. In the end, it all sounded like people with too much time on their hands (ahem...). There's a great story about the movie: In the late 40s, James Whale went to a review showing of Bride. Throughout the show, Whale was obviously amused by his own cleverness is telling the equally horrifying and entertaining story that he wanted to, while tap-dancing around censors and critics, so he kept chuckling during the moments he knew were meant to be humorous. A woman in front of him, not knowing who he was, agitatedly turned and said, "Look, if you don't like the film, you can damn well leave!"

Just goes to show that few, if any, of us ever completely see all of the things that a filmmaker is showing us. Or, if we do, it's not for years or decades after they first revealed it to us.

Related Media

"Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus" (novel; Mary Shelley): brilliant novel that has been and will be around for centuries. The universal themes of existentialism and the search for knowledge through technology are still as, of not more, relevant today as when the novel first came out 200 years ago. James Whale took a lot of liberties with the story, right down to the names of some of the main characters, but retains some of Shelley's more brilliant ideas.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (film; 1994): Pretty wretched attempt to blend a faithful rendering of the original novel and the more popular conceptions of the story as created by James Whale. Director and main man Kenneth Brannagh was trying to do way too much with this one, and ended up creating a technicolored mess. Cool visuals. DeNiro as the creature is pretty good. The rest of the this thing is totally overblown, though, and in only a few moments does it approach anything worthwhile. I got through about two-thirds of it but couldn't take any more. Give me the original James Whale movies any day.

That's a wrap. 11 shows down. 94 to go.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Coming Soon: Camille (1936):

This one looks a little froo-froo, so I don't know what to expect. I may have to follow it up by watching Mike Tyson's Greatest Knockouts, just to keep my feminine/masculine equilibrium.