Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Bride of Frankenstein


I had some time to kill before I went to the hell that is my restaurant job and figured I should spend some time with Universal's only iconic female monster since I hadn't in awhile. Also, what better time than the Halloween season to refer back to those old horror classics? She's beautiful, she might have just been deadly had she been allowed to live, and she graces my flesh for all eternity, she's the BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN!

I fell in love the Bride when my grandma let me watch some Universal movies on TV when I was about nine or ten and I've loved her ever since, but I hadn't REALLY come back to this film for quite some time. I don't know why - I watch that creature do his thing in that black lagoon place several times a year, same for that whiny werewolf guy (ooh, sorry, don't mean to offend - that SENSITIVE werewolf guy), but I don't relish the same attention on the Bride for whatever reason. And I absolutely LOVE her! Yesterday, I was, as they say, in the mood.

This isn't just a good horror film; this is a great film as far as films go. I spend 99.99 percent of my time on horror movies, hands down. Once in awhile I'll watch an indie flick or some other stupid thing or whatever, but I didn't minor in film studies for nothing (well, I guess I really did since I bring people food instead of expounding on film for money, but you get it) and I know a good movie when I see one. For one of those silly 'horror' themed movies, this is the pinnacle of excellence. From the score to the sets, to the costuming to the storyline, to the superb acting by a talented cast (which is worth repeating ;)), it don't get much better than this, people.

I'm assuming most of us here know the tale, but a quick (?) recap for those who need BRIDE 101. BofF (1935) is director James Whale's sequel to his 1931 masterpiece, FRANKENSTEIN, the film that made Boris Karloff a household name back then, as well as horror icon today, an indisputable fact if there was one.

BofF is, in many ways, a superior film to its original, something that is somewhat of an anomaly, especially in horror, as any horror fan worth his or her salt knows all too well. Shit, even my mom probably knows this about horror movies and sequels (in general as well). Four years before BofF, FRANKENSTEIN had rocketed the careers of both Karloff and Whale and when approached by Hollywood to make another monster, Whale was hesitant at first. He had a love-hate relationship with his monster movies (he also directed THE INVISIBLE MAN and I think Claude Rains was supposed to appear as Karl - Dwight Frye's character in the Bride but it didn't happen and I can't remember why), and wanted to be taken more seriously (but let's face it, money was probably a factor, too), having been a theatrical stage persona in Britain before arriving in Hollywood.

The result for BofF was Whale having complete control and a great deal more money to work with in this particular outing for Universal. He could lavish attention on the sets, he could hire an all-British cast of his choosing (and what a cast it was! - we'll get to that in a second), and he could play with the story elements, because Whale was, as you see when you know what he insisted on including, a man with a great deal of imagination.

The film begins with a prologue, again at Whale's insistence, with a young and beautiful and well-endowed, IYKWIM, Mary Shelley (played by a young and beautiful Elsa Lancaster), Percy Shelly, and Lord Byron expounding one dark and stormy night how a delicate creature such as Mary could have conceived of the horror of Frankenstein. Mary quips at them a bit and then they urge her to continue her tale because the first had ended so abruptly. Mary smiles sweetly and obliges and thus begins the BofF.

The prologue is excellent and sets the tone for the film, a film told by a woman. Mary is presented as sweet and beautiful, but with a dark side, kinda like me ;P She's afraid of storms and lighting, but has no problem telling the men stories about cadavers and crypts and Monsters. She says, "...such an audience needs something stronger than a pretty little love story, so why shouldn't I write of monsters?"

The actual film picks up right after the first film ends. The monster has been brought to 'justice' by an angry torch toting mob because there's really no other kind of justice than angry mob justice, and Henry Frankenstein (reprising his role from the first and playing it to a nervous, hand ringing tee by Colin Clive) has seemingly perished in the melee, along with his abominable creation. Henry is taken back to his homestead, where a tearful Elizabeth (the beautiful ingenue Valerie Hobson) awaits. Seems that this night was to be their wedding night.

All is not lost, however, as Henry isn't really dead after all and he and Elizabeth decide he's done with the mad scientist racket and that they'll be married and then go away, leaving all this business about playing God behind them. Seems it just ain't all it's cracked up to be. But before you can say Here Comes the Bride, a creepy old flamboyant eccentric, Dr. Pretorious (played to with much gay aplomb by an old friend of Whale's from his stage days, Ernest Thessinger), shows up and seduces Henry away from Elizabeth with the prospect that he has created life.

Here's where it really starts to get interesting. It's really a complex tale and a great deal of subtext to be argued. We've got the constructed woman in the Bride, but more on that in a second, once we get to her creation scene. But this film can also function as a metaphor for the moral responsibilities of parenthood and as an abortion debate, the concept of asexual reproduction or even homosexual reproduction, and even more subversive ideas about reproduction in general. There's certainly homosexual presences in front of the camera here, but behind it as well as in front of it, Whale having been openly homosexual in the 30's. There's a lot going on here, and not to get all AS A WOMAN on your asses, but let's unpack some of this stuff (that's my teacher talk - not 'asses' but 'unpack.' That made me LOL. I should stop. We're being serious here, lots of critical analysis and what have you.).

So Pretorious comes to get Henry and immediately is able to seduce him away from Elizabeth, with the prospects of SCIENCE, another reason to love the hell out of this movie. I'm a sucker for SCIENCE, especially of the MAD variety, and this film has its share. Pretorious has been hard at work creating life, namely these cute little guys that live in jars, a king, a queen, a mermaid, and a baron, his babies, as it were. It's a great scene and one that smacks of Whale's creativity and talent. Henry's hooked, but conflicted, and agrees somewhat reluctantly to help Pretorious find a way to bring an artificially created brain to life.

Meanwhile, Henry's bastard son is out 'terrorizing' the countryside. In the Monster's fleeing from the angry villagers, he meets a blind and companionship starved hermit in the woods. Being as how the hermit can't see, he isn't afraid of the Monster and the two begin a relationship - the hermit introducing the Monster to the pleasures of smoking and drinking, kinda like your older friend when you first went to college, and the Monster is all the more grateful for it. Seems these two have finally found exactly what they need in each other. One could argue that this is the only really successful and happy relationship in the film, a relationship between two males (although, and this is something I've pondered for awhile, how is it that monsters are male or female, really? I mean, I guess it's through language and prescribed gender roles already in place, but seriously, I might be getting ahead of myself, but this enters into the reproduction debate WRT this movie and monsters reproducing in general), in that Henry's relationships with both his woman and Pretorious are strained at best.

Well, happiness is fleeting, as we know, and the villagers eventually arrive at the hermit's place to take the Monster to jail. Both the Monster and the hermit are crushed, their happy little love nest disrupted. We can't have the Monster in jail for too long because that wouldn't be any fun and he eventually comes to Pretorious to aide him in his badgering of Henry. Elizabeth has put her foot down once and for all, and she and Henry are leaving! No more mad science, no more gay Pretorious, and certainly no more monsters! But Pretorious knows how to use what he's got - and since there's been some developments in the Monster - namely he now speaks with a fair amount of reason but has also developed a taste for scotch, which Pretorious definitely uses to his own advantage - and Elizabeth ends up becoming the damsel in distress when Pretorious orders the Monster to capture her so Henry will do his bidding.

I'm glossing here a bit because I'm so excited to get to the final creation scene when we actually get to meet the Bride. The film is unusual in this regard - yes, she's titular and yes, she's really what you remember from the movie - but honestly, I think she has like less than five minutes of actual screen time at the very end. Everything I've mentioned up to this point is very important - especially the Monster being given speech and reason - it brings up a whole host of other questions about the nature of humans with serious religious undertones - but you know, with me it's always the SEX part I'm interested in.

So yeah, the creation scene - my favorite scene in the movie - mad science abounds, the wind howls outside the turret, the storm begins to rage, the lab-or-a-tory is teeming with artificial life, and we have Dwight Frye as an excellent lackey for Pretorious. Apparently there was a bit more a subplot involving Frye's character, Karl, but Whale took it out of the movie for a reason I cannot recall at this moment. But, but, then then the slab is raised and our girl is finally brought to life. As I mentioned, we've got two men toiling away at SCIENCE, sleeves rolled up, brows furrowed, intent on their work, a traditional scene. But what makes it work for me is the fact that they are toiling at creating female life, asexually. The whole thing is specifically and hyperbolically phallic - what with the long shaft that elevates the Bride to the roof to Henry's excited shouts of 'It's coming up!' and then finally, the orgasm in the quality of the lightning hitting her slab so that she can live.

After the Bride's birth, she's dressed in white, typical of brides and virgins, although her behavior after her birth is anything but typical. She immediately clings to Henry, seemingly very vulnerable. She's the victim here. However, she shuns the Monster immediately at his attempts to be near her or hold her hand. She hisses at him (something Elsa brought to the character based on seeing the swans hiss at Regent Park) and screams bloodcurdling screams. When she rejects the Monster, she's no longer that female victim you see in horror movies (starting as early as Griffith's BIRTH OF A NATION). The Bride was literally made for the Monster, at least according to the poster art (and I could write a whole other diatribe about the marketing for this film), but she powerfully decides on her own that this is not what she wants. So she was created as a male fantasy, maybe even as an extreme version of Elizabeth, but there's definitely some relation here between psychoanalytic and structuralist models of gender exchange, although I don't know if I'm smart enough to really pinpoint all of them ;P There's female powerlessness (what you see in early horror paradigms) and there's female agency. The Bride has her own agency, which you wouldn't expect I should think, and I love her all the more for it!

I could really go on for days about the stuff I love about this movie, from Franz Waxman's amazing score (I love the Brides three-toned open ended 'theme' - you even hear it when they first start talking about her before she's even 'born'), to the amazing, but in many cases befuddling, poster art -something we horror fans have learned to put up with by now, to even more SEX issues buried deep within as well as issues dealing very subversively with religion, to the venerable Jack Pierce's amazing makeups for the movie (have you noticed how gorgeous the Bride's makeup is - she's almost wearing glamour makeup if it wasn't for the nasty scar on her neck), but I do have other things to do and one of them involves baking many pumpkin pies and eating most of them myself so I'll conclude here...

This film encompasses all the reasons I love great horror movies and what got me started on them in the first place, even when I was young and couldn't quite grasp all the underpinnings and whatnot. It's complex, it's smart, it has lots of issues (not a bad thing), it's stunning to look at and listen to, it's imaginative, and it's just all around great. I think you owe to yourself, as you watch ubiquitous amounts of horror movies in honor of Halloween, to give the Bride some props. It is seriously in my top five of my favorite films of all time.

I'm afraid all of this is just from my abnormal female brain and I have no sources to cite - a lazy scholar is me. But I absolutely love David J. Skal's musings about all things Universal in his book THE MONSTER SHOW as well as his other critical book on horror flicks, SCREAMS OF REASON. Another great book is THE DREAD OF DIFFERENCE: GENDER AND THE HORROR FILM, and has been a great source wrt to my interests for quite some time. Elizabeth Young wrote a great essay in that book dealing specifically with many of the issues I touched in this post. Check it out!

9 comments:

  1. the posturing (and admittedly rather irritating) little popinjayOctober 13, 2009 at 7:29 PM

    Jenn, i`d love to hear your opinion on "Frankenstein Created Woman" (1967) its one of my all time favorite movies.

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  2. I love it as well, I will see what I can do!

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  3. While I love FRANKENSTEIN, I have to agree that BRIDE is more technically proficient and gives the original a run for its money. Its been too long since I have watched them both back to back, but I treasure both films. Love the bit about your gramma, I remember staying up and watching THE WOLFMAN on Nick at Nite at my grammas too =D

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  4. BRIDE always gets all the love, and rightly so. How can you not love the flamingly gay, ostentatiously eeevil Dr. Praetorious, luring Henry away from his dear, frail, socially acceptably hetero wifey in order to make babies the MANLY way, with sleeves rolled up, big machines, and sweaty brows? Doc P's interactions with the monster are great too--my fave is that first scene in the crypt, with Doc taking a picnic on the graves and then being not at all shaken by the monster's appearance.

    There is definitely something going on here with the whole "creating life without women" thing, even though the life they are creating is female (in a blasphemous turn on Genesis, of course--"It is not good for Monster to be alone, I shall make a helpmate meet for him"). The biblical imagery continues with the Monster's famous crucifixion scene in this one.

    In fact it's the monster who is the driving force back toward heterosexuality in this one, if you think about it. HE'S the one who wants a female mate. He's the one who tells the hetero couple at the end, "You go! You live!" and keeps Gaylord Praetorious in the tower while he JERKS THE LEVER that makes everything explode!

    I think I need a cigarette. ;)

    Of course I used to identify with the monster as a geeky high school student, figuring that even if I found someone made for me, she'd be repulsed by the sight of me and go after the handsome jock types instead. :P So there's that level for all us (male) horror geeks as well.

    As to why the monster had to be male, presumably Henry (who's none too butch himself) supplied the appropriate parts. To quote Young Frankenstein, the monster "Must have an enormous schwanschtucker!" ;)

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  5. Back to the biblical stuff for a sec (then we'll get back to the sexy stuff), I think in the original script, as the Monster lumbers through the cemetery, he was supposed to mistake Christ on a cross for something or other and rip it apart/think it was something else? I can't remember. The censors didn't like that so they changed it to him toppling over a statue of a bishop or something - still blasphemous.

    There's another blasphemous moment when Pretorious is still trying to lure Henry to his side, and he's all like something, something (sorry - you know me - I just woke up and have only had two sips of coffee - my abnormal female brain is still firing up), 'if you like you Bible stories.' In the script originally it read 'fairy tales' but the censors didn't like that either, so it got changed to 'Bible stories.' But the way Pretorious says it, almost with this evil inflection, makes it more blasphemous.

    I agree with you that the Monster is the driving force back to heterosexuality, but I'm not sure his mate absolutely needs to be female. Look at how well he got along with the hermit? He just wants a buddy, male, female, gay doctor, whatever.

    As an interesting capper here, did you know Colin Clive was openly bisexual? I think his real life sexuality, as well as Whale's, might have a thing or two with some of the relationships in front of the camera.

    Next on the critical chopping block just might be that cursed, sensitive wolf guy, I watched him be cursed and cry about it last night in two different movies ;)

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  6. October ESPECIALLY gets me all jacked up for these classics. I'm doin' a Hammer & Universal-themed weekend of viewing one of these next two weekends and I'm gonna have to squeeze "BRIDE..." back in there thanks to you. ;)

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  7. Wow, Jen, all of that BEFORE you head out to the restaurant?

    God knows what you would have written if you had not had to leave the house.

    Thought-provoking and well written piece on THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

    This is a truly amazing piece of cinema, and you've given it its due.

    I have always preferred it above FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA.

    My equal favorite is THE INVISIBLE MAN.

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  8. Thanks, Phantom, yeah, bringing people food isn't the most intellectually stimulating activity, so I gotta do something to keep the ol' synapses firin'!

    I agree, another equal favorite is THE INVISIBLE MAN, another that isn't entirely given his due. Aw, hell, all those damn monsters are so lovable! It's hard sometimes to pick a favorite.

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  9. Wow, Jenn, great stuff! I know what you mean about the restaurant business -- I work in a toothpaste factory myself.

    Thank you for the kind words regarding my review of this sublime classic -- Creature from the Black Lagoon is a very close second for me as well in terms of most-watched.

    I can definitely see a gay subtext, I don't know if it's because I've been led to see a gay subtext. I'm a historian by degree (got my BA last May), and I've never taken any film-studies classes (something I kick myself for, but by the time I'd started reviewing films I was already in my final semester), so I'm used to working with plain facts, and searching for hidden meaning is something very new to me. Who knows, maybe in a year's time I'll look back at my review and wonder what I'd been smoking that the subtext wasn't shaking its moneymaker right in my face.

    And like I said, I'm probably more than a little biased because most of the people I've known who find subtexts in films do so to further an agenda. As I broaden my reviewing horizon through talking to other film bloggers (like yourself) this attitude on my part is likely to change. Who can say?

    But again, thanks for the kind words and thanks for reading. Radiation-Scarred Reviews is a labor of passion for me (as I know Cavalcade of Perversions is for you) and it's supremely gratifying to know others are enjoying my work.

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