Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein is the celebrated 1935 sequel to Universal’s 1931 hit Frankenstein. Both movies were directed by James Whale, a man with an extraordinary and to my mind slightly mystifying reputation as a great director of horror movies.

We start with a rather unnecessary prologue featuring England’s most degenerate poets, Byron and Shelley, listening to Shelley’s wife Mary continuing her story where the novel left off. And the movie then takes up the story at the exact point at which the 1931 Frankenstein ended, with the monster incinerated in the burning barn and the body of the hapless Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) being returned to his castle and to his grieving fiancée Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson).

Henry Frankenstein is however not quite dead. He recovers and is determined to forget all about his terrible experiments. The arrival of his old teacher, Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), changes all this. Pretorius has been working (in a particularly bizarre way) on the creation of artificial life as well, and he wants Frankenstein’s help. He intends to get that help, even if he has to resort to extreme methods to persuade Frankenstein.

Pretorius wants to create a female monster, a mate for Frankenstein’s original monster. The monster, like its creator, survived the fiery furnace and now is now roaming the countryside causing mayhem and trying to make friends, which in turn creates more mayhem. The monster’s wanderings will eventually bring him to Frankenstein’s castle where Pretorius will use him to force Frankenstein’s hand.

Finally, after an hour of mostly irrelevant sub-plots and maudlin interludes, the movie kicks into high gear as Frankenstein and Pretorius bring the monster’s mate (played by Elsa Lanchester) to life with unexpected and catastrophic results.

James Whale clearly had no genuine interest in horror films and no real respect for the genre. As in most of his horror efforts he insists on playing far too many scenes as comedy and unfortunately comedy was something for which he had little flair. The entire movie seems to be intended as a mockery of the horror genre, and of Mary Shelley’s original story and quite probably mockery of the audience as well. To make sure that the movie’s impact as a horror film is blunted as much as possible Whale agains calls on the services of Una O’Connor who had almost single-handedly wrecked The Invisible Man. She throws herself into her task of wrecking The Bride of Frankenstein with great enthusiasm.

Many many writers worked on this film so perhaps it’s not surprising that the final script is a little disjointed and unfocused.

The acting is extremely uneven. Apart from the appalling Una O’Connor we get more unfunny comic relief from E.E. Clive as the burgomaster. Colin Clive is dull, as he was in Frankenstein. Ernest Thesiger is mannered and arch and while he tries hard to be the personification of evil and vice at times he becomes just irritating.

On the credit side Elsa Lanchester is memorably bizarre in her dual roles as Mary Shelley and as the monster’s bride but gets little screen time and little time to do any actual acting. Karloff is good, as always, although he strongly disagreed with the decision to make the monster speak. Dwight Frye as the sinister Karl is another bright spot.

The scenes involving Dr Pretorius’s miniature people are technically impressive but they’re silly and pointless and they greatly weaken the film.

While the script, direction and acting are uneven the superb visuals do much to compensate for the movie’s other weaknesses. The bringing to life of the monster’s bride is a spectacular visual tour-de-force. Whale seems suddenly to come to life, throwing one stunning image after another at us. There’s some superlative editing also in these scenes. The movie is well worth seeing just for these absolutely superb sequences.

Whatever its weaknesses this is technically an exceptionally well made motion picture. The sets are excellent. The Bride’s makeup effects are terrific. John J. Mescall’s cinematography (he described the lighting approach he used as Rembrandt lighting) is magnificent. James Whale had worked as a set designer and apparently had quite a bit of input into the impressive art direction of the film.

Universal’s Blu-Ray presentation looks great and there are plenty of extras, including an embarrassingly worshipful audio commentary.

Bride of Frankenstein is certainly a vast improvement on Whale’s The Invisible Man. It has some very very good moments. The changes of tone are somewhat disconcerting. For most of the earlier part of the film it just doesn’t quite work, perhaps mostly because it’s obvious that James Whale never really wanted to do the film in the first place. The last twenty-five minutes though are as good as anything that has ever been achieved in a horror movie. Despite the reservations I have about it Bride of Frankenstein still has to be recommended.


tom jones said...

Used to love this film when I was younger - loved all the Universal Horrors - but the last time I sat down to watch it, I got so angry with Una O'Connor I gave up barely a quarter of the way through.

Elsa Lanchester makes a great impact, from what I remember - depressingly, these days, she'd be more likely to play Una O'Connor's part rather than a female lead. And Valerie Hobson -the future Mrs Profumo - is completely wasted as Frankenstein's fiancee

Randall Landers said...

Yeah, I gotta agree. Una O’Connor ruins The Invisible Man, and tries to ruin Bride of Frankenstein. Fortunately, I think it's saved by Ernest Thesiger as Pretorious, a character so charmingly evil and full of vice that he is wonderfully reincarnated and prominently featured in Mary Shelley's Frankenhole, the stop-motion animated series created by Dino Stamatopoulo.