Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Day 14: Bride of Frankenstein
"To a new world of gods and monsters."
The sequel. Though naysayers love to treat it as a new and lazy phenomenon, it has existed since the dawn of the arts. Sophocles created two sequels to his biggest success Oedipus Rex. D.W. Griffith created what is widely acknowledged as the first film sequel Fall of a Nation, released less than a year after his 1915 Birth of a Nation. A lot of film buffs point to The Godfather Part II as the legitimization of the sequel, but I think it occurred long before that.
I will grant you that sequels have become too heavily relied on in recent years, but this is hardly a new occurrence. Universal Studios sustained itself on virtually nothing but sequels to its wildly successful monster movies throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Dracula spawned three sequels and a Spanish language simultaneous release; Creature from the Black Lagoon spawned two sequels; and The Wolf-Man, Mummy and Invisible Man all had four sequels, as did the wildly successful Frankenstein. The first, and best, of all these sequels was 1935's Bride of Frankenstein. It reunited virtually all of the talent behind the 1931 original, director James Whales, stars Boris Karloff & Colin Clive, art director Charles Hall, and producer Carl Laemmle, Jr.
The film opens with a rather strange prologue involving Lord Byron, Percy Shelley & Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester, later playing The Bride) sitting around while Lord Byron waxes melodramatically about how he can't believe that a woman was able to conjure up such frightening images as Mary Shelley had with Frankenstein. After a brief recap of the events of the first film, Mary lets them know that this was not the end of the tale and there indeed is more to the story.
We are then transported to the immediate aftermath of the first film where Henry Frankenstein's maid Minnie (Una O'Connor) is mourning the loss of her boss and thanking the Lord for killing the monster. The parents of the girl the monster killed go to see the corpse of the beast for themselves when they find out that, surprise, The Monster (Boris Karloff) isn't really dead, but survived by falling through the rubble of the windmill and into a watery trench below it.
The Monster escapes as the body of Henry (Colin Clive) is brought back to his fiancee Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). Henry isn't dead however and now they can marry. Late that night a strange visitor by the name of Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) comes to call on Dr. Frankenstein and solicits his help in creating a mate for Frankenstein's monster, which Frankenstein not-so-politely declines. Later in the film, Pretorius and The Monster join forces, kidnap Elizabeth, and force Henry to bring The Monster's Bride to life.
The film is gothic horror to the max. The art direction, lighting, and score work together in such a way that it makes for a beautifully composed film. James Whale is one of the first true geniuses behind the camera and is an unsung hero for the countless directors who would mimc his style in the ensuing decades. Karloff's performance as The Monster is significantly more nuanced than it was in the first film. Thanks to some time spent with a blind hermit, he learns some basic vocabulary and is able to exhibit more emotions here than he was previously.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room while I was watching this however was Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks' 1973 classic Young Frankenstein. It began with the character of Minnie upon whom Cloris Leachman very clearly based her character of Frau Blucher. It continued with the blind hermit in the woods, a touching scene in its own right, but it's nearly impossible to keep a straight face when all you can think of is Gene Hackman's brilliant cameo in Young Frankenstein and his immortal line "Wait! Where are you going? I was gonna make espresso." There are many other similarities as well, and I know that Young Frankenstein was a parody, it's just hard to watch the original for what its creators intended it to be when the parody is much more a part of your understanding of the language of a film like this.
Is that unfair of me? Perhaps. As a dad, I love living vicariously through my daughters' first viewings of films I've seen countless times and watching them watch a film for the first time. It's a fact that you can't watch a movie again for the first time, so you bring whatever baggage you have to your viewing and hope that it doesn't interfere.
Bride of Frankenstein is a wonderful film but it doesn't have near the effect on me that I imagine its creators had hoped for. I can never be the little girl in Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, forever haunted by the image of Karloff's monster, because the two things that come to mind are Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein and Martin Landau's brilliantly delivered diatribe as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood about how it doesn't take real talent to play Frankenstein. The horror is lost on me, but the mood, atmosphere and brilliant direction can't be lost on anyone. This is gothic filmmaking at its finest.