Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)

(For Halloween, an old article)

Father of the Bride 

remember seeing this years ago on a Betamax tape, right after seeing the original (I had the films taped off HBO, way back when the channel was new). Frankenstein impressed me with one scene, where the good doctor (Colin Clive) exposes The Creature (the indelible Boris Karloff) to sunlight, and The Creature gropes helplessly, trying to touch the unreachable source of warmth and brightness; the rest of the picture looked cheaply done, with an ending I thought particularly disappointing, the extras running up what obviously was a soundstage set to surround the Creature, and The Creature tossing what patently looked like a dummy off the top of the windmill he was trapped in, before burning to death.

Which meant I wasn't in a good mood when I got to see Bride. The opening scene with Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) spinning off a new story to Lord Byron and her husband already struck a wrong note--felt like a feeble attempt at justifying a sequel. Dr. Pretorious's homunculi I thought silly--Dr. Frankenstein's stitched-together monster looked obsolete compared to those perfect (if tiny) creatures, making me wonder why Pretorious would bother asking the doctor for help at all (they were to combine Pretorious' black arts with Frankenstein's resurrection techniques to create a "a man-made race"). The rest of the film was more bizarre than bloodcurdling, down to the Bride's flowing robes and daintily birdlike gestures. I don't really understand it at all, at the tender age of (I'm guessing) twelve or so.

Viewing it so many decades later, when I finally understood the concept of 'tongue in cheek,' I was ready to consider it one of the greatest horror films ever made. 

Greatest? Why yes; any cheap scare flick from The Exorcist on down can make you jump out of your seat. A great horror needn't be disgusting either--Eli Roth fulfills that particular need on a regular basis, and frankly the returns from all the prosthetics and camera-fu and digital effects (the latter an invention I suspect of the Devil) has been swiftly diminishing, especially in the last few years. If horror at all has a future, it's in the retro minimalism of Ti West, or the exuberant comedy of Sam Raimi, or the chill philosophical musings of Kurosawa Kiyoshi (who I suspect has been moving beyond the genre--if he hasn't left already--in his recent work). In my book a truly great horror has to do far more than simply scare.

James Whale, director of the original monster hit, held out for four years till Universal Studio executive Carl Laemmle gave him complete artistic freedom, a substantially bigger budget (Over $400,000, compared to the original's $262,000), and a whole new team to create a more lush, more luxurious film. Whale didn't want to do a mere sequel; he wanted to go beyond what the original was trying to say--to, in effect, say a few things of his own.

The prologue with Mary Shelley makes more sense now--it's as if Whale were saying "we all know Shelley didn't write a sequel, but let's pretend, shall we…?" The film's true tone is established by a quick scene: the father of the little murdered girl in the first film walks through the smoking ruins of the windmill and promptly falls into an underground cavern; The Creature drowns the father and, when the mother grabs at an outstretched hand thinking it's her husband, drags her into the cavern as well. In the original this would have been an occasion for pure dismay, but here Whale adopts a kind of breezy heartlessness, playing the scene as dark slapstick: you don't know whether to laugh or cry out, and caught between two conflicting emotions can't help but think: "hello--here is something new."

A lot of ink's been spilled over the role of Pretorious: he's been described as "nurturing mother" to Frankenstein's "creative father"--a same-sex couple with their unconventionally engendered (Adopted? Artificially inseminated? Cloned?) child. It's also been pointed out that Pretorious' name is mentioned several times before he actually appears, the way you need to say the Devil's name three times before he appears (Whale shows us a Devil homunculus--a prized specimen from the doctor's collection--to which Pretorious remarks: "There's a certain resemblance to me, don't you think, or do I flatter myself?"). Pretorious, deliciously played by the gay (like Whale himself) Ernest Thesiger, is the life of this party, supplying much of the wit and winking, self-conscious commentary. Clive's Frankenstein is straight Faust to Thesiger's bent Mephisto, the latter's homunculi explained away as being more black magic than science; the Creature everyone fears is actually more a hapless victim caught in the struggle between human and demonic seducer.

Speaking of victim, I'd have thought the scene between The Creature and the blind man (O. P. Heggie), partly derived from Shelley's novel, would have succumbed to the merciless lampooning of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein--loved this parody for years. But viewing the original with fresh eyes I realized that while Whale may have intended something satiric--the pious music in the background sounds halfway vampish already--what actually unfolds is surprisingly, well, straight. Again the relationship between Creature and blind man has been seen as a metaphor for same-sex union, which I can buy, but which I also think transcends the metaphor, as it transcends the mosquito-whine music: this is Whale's genuinely felt plea to recognize The Creature's loneliness, a loneliness we've all shared at one point or another, to recognize the possibility of great affection, of true love--suddenly found, not necessarily sexual--between two men. I'd heard about the film being sophisticated horror satire; I never expected it to be moving as well.

And still this fits into Whale's overall scheme, because a satire that holds nothing sacred is simple nihilism, but a satire that can take at least one thing seriously--a satire that has (that unfashionable term) heart--is making a point. It doesn't just flail away at all directions; it plants its feet on some kind of moral ground and sinks its teeth into the meat of its target (you need feet on the ground for traction). Brooks' comedy is marvelous fun (particularly Gene Hackman's cheerfully blind elder), but Whale's original has real dramatic power.

That's about it, except I'd like to note that the Bride (Elsa Lanchester, who also plays Mary Shelly--unemphasized incestuous relationship there) is dressed in resplendent white, like a virgin meant for a grand wedding, but the whole affair looks more like an unholy cross between a masked ball and a town fiesta, complete with the Devil's own collection of laboratory fireworks. The Bride's response to The Creature is startling, the same time it feels inevitable--despite all the preparation and struggle and sweat, can you really guarantee that a woman will agree to bond just like that?

And yet it might be argued that The Creature needed the humiliation--needed the rending apart of the cocoon of lust and anger and hate he has woven defensively around himself. The Bride's rejection has shaken The Creature out of his self-pity; now he is free to learn one more important life lesson, complete one more step in his growth as a human being.

The line "you live…you stay!" grants The Creature the status of a fully human being, capable of rendering moral judgment. Funny how The Creature addresses "father" and "mother"--Frankenstein is known mostly through his absences; if he reacts to the Creature it is usually with horror. Pretorious treats the poor brute better--invites him to share meat and drink and a good smoke and (more importantly) recognizes a fellow freak. Yet The Creature speaks kindly to Frankenstein and witheringly to Pretorious--why?

Because (I think) The Creature realizes that Frankenstein, while a terrible father, struggles with something Pretorious lacks--a conscience, a sense of morality. The Creature respects that struggle, maybe even (despite past abuse) loves the doctor for his struggle, the same time he recognizes that Pretorious despite his amiability is evil. Whale's Creature is like a child who, because of his experiences and despite his sufferings, learns the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. I'd frankly be proud to have raised someone like that.

(First published in Menzone Magazine, October, 2004; modified and posted here 10.27.06)

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