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Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

Did anyone else ever read the monster books by Ian Thorne? They were a very accessible series on the classic movie monsters that were available in my elementary school library that I read long before I saw any of the actual movies. One of Thorne’s comments that always stayed with me stated that of all the Frankenstein films, Bride of Frankenstein most closely follows Mary Shelley’s book. Today having read the book and seen the movie, I’d say yes and no. Certainly, there are many elements from the book there, most notably the Bride herself (though she’s never completed in the book) and the scene where the Monster befriends a blind man, but the film goes in so many different directions from Shelley, I’m very reluctant to say that it closely follows anything she ever wrote. In fact, I’m rather amused by Lord Byron’s (Gavin Gordon) synopsis of the first film in Bride’s prologue to Shelley (Elsa Lanchester). He describes a series of events she never wrote. Perhaps Thorne took that prologue a little too seriously.

None of this is meant to sound like criticism. Today, I often see films that are based on books that I’ve read, and I take them on a case-by-case basis. I understand, accept, and even embrace some differences while I outright reject others. In the case if the classic movie monsters with literary origins, I’ve learned to accept them as works in their own right, more drawing inspiration from their respective books than being accurate representations of them.

Besides, there’s just so much to love about Bride of Frankenstein. I think if I had to pick one film to represent the whole of the Universal horror catalogue, this would probably be it. First, we have yet another solid performance by Boris Karloff. Many more people die at the monster’s hands in this sequel, but he still manages to remain sympathetic. His brief friendship with the blind man (O. P. Heggie) is very moving, and there’s a particularly touching moment where he looks longingly at the carving of a woman atop a sarcophagus and mutters “Friend”. The Monster is a bit more savage here, especially as his anger towards his creator mounts, but he never loses that pitiable edge.

Next we have the hilarity of Una O’Connor as Minnie, James Whale must have felt he underused her in The Invisible Man because she’s practically everywhere here. She’s part comic relief and part Greek chorus commenting on and running in and out of nearly every scene prior to the climactic sequence. It’s almost a surprise to find she’s a servant in the Frankenstein household considering her presence throughout the village.

Elsa Lanchester’s turn as the Bride is brief, but stunning. She’s not unlike a frightened feral kitten, savage yet vulnerable. I must confess, when I was a kid reading those Thorne books, I always found her a bit sexy. Her male counterparts, Dracula, the Monster and the Wolf Man easily comprise the big three when it comes to Universal’s iconic creatures, but I would place her solidly at number four.

Rounding out the standout performances we have Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius, possibly the maddest of all mad scientists and definitely one of the most entertaining. He certainly outshines Colin Clive’s crazy cackling from the first film, and makes him look quite sane when placed next to him in this one. With his campy demeanor as he introduces his collection of tiny people or his merriment as he dines in a crypt with a pile of bones as his lone party guest, they just don’t come much more eccentric. I could almost see someone giving him his own movie today, but I could not envision anyone but Thesiger in the role.

Finally, all of this comes together nicely under James Whale’s direction. His dark sense of humor reaches a pinnacle in this picture. Note how he takes one of the saddest moments of the first film, the death of little Maria, and gives it a dark punchline in the sequel by sending her parents to join her. Add Pretorius, his little people, and ditzy Minnie and there’s really a lot to laugh at in the film, yet Whale maintains a balance that keeps the film from slipping too far into silliness. The end result is a sublime and enjoyable ride.

This week’s supporting features:

Mickey Mouse in The Chain Gang (1930)

The Our Gang short Fly My Kite (1931)

Next week’s film:

Drácula (1931) starring Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, Pablo Álvarez Rubio, and Eduardo Arozamena

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