Bride of Frankenstein (1935) ½
Word on the street is, this is the best of the Universal Frankenstein films, possibly the best horror movie of the whole 1930’s. El Santo’s word, on the other hand, is “What the fuck have you people been smoking?!” Frankenstein showed what first-rate direction could do, even when saddled with a lousy script, bored actors, and scarcely any precedent to draw on. Bride of Frankenstein, meanwhile, was written as a parody of its predecessor, and James Whale directed it as though he had no real idea what it was supposed to be. The result is a film that constantly switches gears between humor that isn’t funny and horror that isn’t scary, built around an offensively cutesy script, and brought to life by one of the biggest bunches of no-talent goons every to strut and fret their hours upon the stage. Or, if you’d rather I put it bluntly, Bride of Frankenstein is Leprechaun, 30’s-style.
You can sense the impending avalanche of suck teetering toward you from the very first scene. In a doomed attempt to artfully remind audiences what they saw four years before, Bride of Frankenstein begins with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley hanging out in somebody’s parlor while a thunderstorm rages outside. Byron (whose counterfeit English accent makes me want to kick something) paces about the room praising Mary for her artistic triumph in concocting Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, making sure as he does so to recap all the major plot points from the previous movie. To those of us who’ve actually read Shelley’s novel, this is fucking hilarious, because not a single scene Byron mentions in his synopsis appears in the book! There’s just one thing about the story that bothers Byron-- he doesn’t like the ending. “Oh, but that isn’t the end!” Mary exclaims, “Let me tell you the rest of the story-- I’ve been wanting to tell it!” And so begins the real movie, which, curiously enough, really does feature some material that can be found in Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The windmill in which the monster (Boris Karloff, one of the few good things about this film) was trapped at the end of Frankenstein has just about burned to the ground, but as yet, there is no sign of the creature’s body. Nevertheless, the burgomaster (not the same actor who played him last time, incidentally) is confident that the party’s over, and he disperses the mob after making arrangements for the seriously injured Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive again) to be taken back home to his estate. But the parents of the little girl the monster killed aren’t satisfied with the burgomaster’s assurances, and the father wades into the wreckage to see if he can find the conclusive evidence he seeks. In so doing, he falls through a weak spot in the floor, into the half-filled cistern beneath the mill’s foundation. The monster, it turns out, is there too, the water having spared it from the worst of the fire. The creature, still pretty pissed about that whole torch-bearing mob thing, kills both parents, and then hits the road looking for someplace slightly more hospitable.
Meanwhile, the Frankenstein household is all in a tizzy about Henry. Minnie, the household’s top domestic (The Invsible Man’s Una O’Connor, whose entire purpose here is to shriek at the top of her lungs in an ostensibly funny manner), has decided for no really good reason that Frankenstein is dead, and she greatly alarms Elizabeth (who, since we last saw her, has been upgraded to Werewolf of London’s Valerie Hobson) by telling her so. Minnie’s subsequent alarm when Henry regains consciousness is even greater than Elizabeth’s was at the news of his “death.” All concerned agree that now is not the time to go ahead with the wedding that was underway when the monster stopped by for a visit, and the ceremony is postponed indefinitely, pending Henry’s full recovery.
A few days later, a man named Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, of The Ghoul, whom James Whale had previously directed to absurd heights of thespic bombast in The Old Dark House) pays a visit to Frankenstein. You can tell Pretorius is evil because he has a mock-Latin last name and his face is almost always lit from below. Like Frankenstein, Pretorius is a scientific renegade in pursuit of the power of God. And like Frankenstein, Pretorius has enjoyed considerable success in his work, though he seems to feel that Frankenstein’s achievements outstrip his in certain respects. The reason for the older mad scientist’s visit is that he wants to form a partnership with Frankenstein, with the ultimate aim of creating not just one man, but an entire race of synthetic humans. Though Frankenstein professes to have learned his lesson regarding fiddling about with the Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, Pretorius’s pitch intrigues him, and he agrees to stop over at the other man’s lab to have a look at the results of his experiments. Now, this is where we come to the absolute most rock-bottom disgraceful scene in the whole damn movie, a scene that made me feel acutely embarrassed on behalf of the filmmakers, who clearly lacked the sense to be embarrassed on their own account. Pretorius (are you ready for this?) has created a bunch of doll-sized people whom he has tricked out as a king, a queen, a bishop, a ballerina, a mermaid, and a devil, all of whom live in little glass jars in a steamer trunk, and who speak in sped-up, pitch-shifted gibberish. Truly Pretorius is an evil, evil man. While the ballerina dances and the king tries to break into the queen’s jar and the bishop wags his finger disapprovingly at the lot of them, Pretorius explains that he grew these creatures from “seed,” as one might grow a bacterial culture. It’s a pretty neat trick, but the fact that he can’t come up with a creature more than half a foot tall has given the doctor something of an inferiority complex vis-a-vis Frankenstein. It is Pretorius’s hope that Frankenstein’s skill in reanimating dead tissue can be harnessed to his own capability to grow new living tissue to get around the problem Frankenstein encountered in his work, that is to say, his dependence on the supply of available human brains. If so, there would be nothing to stop the two men from building a woman to serve as a mate for Frankenstein’s original monster.
That monster, in case you were wondering, is still dodging peasants armed with torches and pitchforks. Eventually, it falls in with an old blind man (O. P. Heggie, from The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu and The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu), who, unable to see its hideous face, thinks it nothing more than an outsized mute. The blind man befriends the monster, giving it food and wine and a place to sleep. And as the days go by, he begins teaching the monster certain important skills for life in the human world, such as speaking an approximation of English and smoking cigars (a combination which results in such groan-worthy moments as the monster disappearing in a dense cloud of tobacco smoke and grunting, “Ngahhh... Smoke good!”). But sooner or later, those pitchforks-and-torches guys are obviously going to show up, and when they do, they ruin the monster’s groove in a big way by hauling the old blind man off and attacking the monster inside his firetrap of a cottage. The crestfallen monster then moves his operation to an insanely vast underground crypt in the village cemetery.
And it’s there that he meets Dr. Pretorius, who has come to collect a young female body for his and Frankenstein’s new project. Pretorius has no fear of the monster, and when he explains that he wants to build a girlfriend for it, the thing decides it rather likes the scientist too. Pretorius, of course, has an ulterior motive for getting all chummy with his partner’s creation, in that he doesn’t quite trust Frankenstein’s commitment to their work. He figures that with the monster on his side, he’ll be able to argue that much more persuasively should the younger mad scientist suddenly develop cold feet. It’s a smart move on Pretorius’s part, as he turns out to be exactly right about Frankenstein. At the next meeting between the two doctors, Frankenstein tries to back out of their collaboration, and Pretorius has to call in the monster to apply some leverage. In fact, the monster (apparently on its own initiative) goes so far as to kidnap Elizabeth and hold her hostage in exchange for Frankenstein’s cooperation.
And now, with all the setting up out of the way, it’s time to blow the dust off all those electrical doodads, and get down to business. The birth-of-the-monster scene here is absolutely the only one really worth watching in the whole film. It’s much longer and much tenser than its counterpart in Frankenstein, and the lab has been expanded considerably to include nearly twice as much sparking crap as it had the last time around. Then Whale goes and blows the mood completely by setting the unwrapping of the female monster (The Spiral Staircase’s Elsa Lanchester, who the observant will note also plays Mary Shelley in the prologue scene) to music suggestive of a wedding march, complete with goddamned church bells!!!! (And by the way, how in the name of all that’s holy and otherwise did all that hair fit under the scalp-tight bandages that were wrapped around her head just moments before?) Of course, we all know how this works out-- the monster chick thinks Frankenstein’s original creation is just as revolting as the pitchfork boys do, pissing it off so much that it reaches over and pulls the conveniently located “Blow Us All to Atoms” lever on Dr. Pretorius’s lab gear, destroying the laboratory, both monsters, and the madder of the two mad scientists, while Frankenstein and the unexplainedly freed Elizabeth escape in the nick of time. (Though if you look closely at the long interior shot of the lab blowing up, you’ll see Frankenstein standing in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. The original script called for his death, and it wasn’t until after this very expensive scene was shot that the studio bigwigs nixed the idea. The filmmakers gambled that no one would notice, and left the shot as it was.)
It may not be as viciously bad as Whale’s earlier The Old Dark House, but that’s only because Bride of Frankenstein actually has a story in which stuff happens and people do things. The tone is the same inept vacillation between ineffective horror and even more ineffective comedy that characterized the former movie, and would seem just as likely to induce spasms of cringing in any viewer over the age of seven. I realize that it somehow fails to have that effect on most people, but crap like this is the reason I usually avoid any horror film with a copyright date between 1994 and 1997 like I would the clap, and I feel no more charitable toward this movie for its having been made 60 years before that black era. Particularly when you consider what fine work the very same director put in on the original Frankenstein, the doltishness of this film is both depressing and baffling, nearly as much so, in fact, as the status and respect that have accrued to it over the past six decades. You may want to take my strident condemnation with a grain of salt, though, because my biggest beef with the movie is its comedy. I rarely find intentional comedy funny, and I almost never find intentional comedy produced before the late 60’s funny. If you find unsophisticated slapstick and high-pitched screaming in affected accents amusing, maybe you’ll view Bride of Frankenstein more charitably. I, however, would rather shove tennis balls up my ass than watch this contemptible shitpile of a movie again.