Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Movie Review: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

[Note: As with the my previous Frankenstein review, this review will also contain spoilers.]

As is fairly well known, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was written by a young Mary Shelley in the early 1800s. The novel was the result of a competition between Shelley and several friends to see who could write a better horror story. While the 1931 Frankenstein was introduced by a speaker warning the audience of the impending horror, The Bride of Frankenstein begins with a highly fictionalized account of the origin of Shelley's story.

One stormy evening, Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), her husband Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), and the famous Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) find themselves with little to do. Inspired by the storm (and with an atrocious "Scottish" accent), Lord Byron reminisces about the story that Mary had once told about the mad scientist and his monster. As he speaks, key scenes from the original film flash across the screen for the benefit of an audience that, in all likelihood, had not seen Frankenstein for four years. Mary tells Lord Byron that her story isn't yet finished and launches into the second half of her tale.

This opening is just plain odd, and not just because Lord Byron's accent is horribly obnoxious. Since the film begins as the windmill is burning, leaving little time for exposition, I understand that the filmmakers would feel the need to insert a summary of the original movie. However, bringing Mary Shelley herself into the film has bizarre consequences. Shelley and her friends are shown wearing clothing appropriate for members of early 19th century England's upper class. However, American accents notwithstanding, Frankenstein clearly takes place in Germany in the very decade in which the film was made. Except for the traditional clothing worn by villagers preparing for the marriage of Baron Frankenstein's son, the men all wear 1930s style hats and suits. Even Elizabeth's wedding gown is characteristic of '30s fashion. The machinery used to bring the Creature to life are of 20th century manufacture and are well beyond anything Shelley could have dreamed up.

It seems like the filmmakers decided to retcon the series by changing the era in which Frankenstein's sequel takes place. Gone are the '30s hats and coats; now the Bürgermeister (E. E. Clive rather than the original's Lionel Belmore) and the villagers continuously wear traditional German clothing. Later in the film a character uses a device that is obviously a telephone but has to inform Henry Frankenstein, an accomplished scientist, what the device does. Since The Bride of Frankenstein is a direct sequel to Frankenstein and goes as far as to bring back several secondary characters (if not their original actors), this sudden change in setting is disconcerting.

Anyway, our film opens as the windmill is burning. Henry Frankenstein (still Colin Clive) has been thrown from the top of the building and the villagers have placed him on a makeshift stretcher. At the very end of Frankenstein we saw that Henry had been returned to his family home and was recovering. For whatever reason the villagers now believe Henry to be dead or dying (they're not clear on which). It's at this point that we meet Minnie (Una O'Connor), Baron Frankenstein's housekeeper. In my previous review, I said that the role of Odious Comic Relief would be more than adequately filled in this movie. That role goes to Minnie; a shrill, obnoxious, and opinionated old woman whose antics are supposed to be amusing and funny. They are neither. Minnie dominates every scene she's in and annoys every character as much as she annoys the audience. And, for whatever reason, the writers put her in multiple scenes. In fact, I hate this character so much that she's a major reason why I give this film a lower grade than the original.

The Creature makeup was refined to
allow Karloff to be more expressive
As the villagers take Henry back to his home, certain(?) that he's dead, the Bürgermeister tries to herd the peasants back to the village. Although the original film explicitly showed that only the men had gone out to hunt for the Creature, the mob of townsfolk now contains a large number of women. Hans, the drowned girl's father (Reginald Barlow in place of Francis Ford) who effectively started this whole party, refuses to leave until he sees the monster's charred bones. As his distressed wife looks on, Hans climbs into the smoldering ruins just to fall into a water-filled cistern underneath the windmill's foundation. Needless to say, the man finds a Creature that, despite a few burns on its face, is very much alive and very upset. Dad is quickly dispatched. Believing that the grunting figure emerging from the ruins of the windmill is her husband, Hans' wife finds herself helping the Creature out of the wreckage. Mom finds herself in the cistern, too.

Unaware that the Creature is on the loose again, the locals return the young Frankenstein to his home (oddly, the ubiquitous Baron Frankenstein from the first film is nowhere to be found). As his fiancée, Elizabeth (who is now Valerie Hobson, a brunette with long hair, rather than Mae Clarke, a blonde with shorter hair) and his household begins to mourn him, the not quite dead Henry begins to stir. This causes Minnie to go into "comical" hysterics (man, I hate this character). With Elizabeth's help, the scientist begins his long recovery, regretful that he ever played God and brought such a curse on his family and his village. I said last time that Colin Clive's Frankenstein is great when he's in mad scientist mode. Unfortunately, there's nothing quite as dull as a penitent and self-pitying mad scientist. At the same time, Elizabeth's character seems to be on the edge of insanity. Her premonitions from the first movie have become outright hallucinations as she imagines that an ominous specter seeks to claim Henry (this never comes up again, by the way).

Fortunately, after inflicting us with Minnie and damping Frankenstein's enthusiasm for meddling in God's domain, the writers give us Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Pretorius was one of Frankenstein's professors until, like Henry, he was shunned for the nature of his work. The doctor has heard of Frankenstein's success in reanimating dead tissue and has come to solicit his aid in his own experiments. Although he insists that his monster-making days are behind him, Henry can't help but to be curious and agrees to see the results of Dr. Pretorius' work.

Dr. Pretorius is the second best thing about The Bride of Frankenstein. Frankenstein gets enthusiastic about his work; Pretorius becomes downright giddy. And while Frankenstein has enough morality left to restrict his activities to a little grave robbing and stealing a slightly used brain from the local university, Dr. Pretorius has no such scruples. He's not just a mad scientist, he's an evil mad scientist. He's probably best characterized by the toast he offers to his potential partnership with Henry Frankenstein: "To a new world of gods and monsters!"

Unlike Frankenstein, who has bestowed life on dead tissue, Pretorius has been creating human-like creatures from "seed", similar to the way that one would grow a bacterial culture. Unfortunately, his experiments have merely resulted in doll-sized beings which he keeps in jars. It's Pretorius' conclusion that a combination of the scientists' techniques could successfully produce a race of artificially created human beings.

It was when Pretorius pulled out the little jars that my friend leaned over and said, "this is pretty weird", to which I could only agree. First of all, this whole scene is utterly ridiculous. The tiny people are dressed in various costumes and speak in sped-up cartoonish voices. One little person, who's dressed as a king, keeps trying to sneak into the jar of the person dressed as a queen while a tiny bishop wags his finger in disapproval. Why the former professor believes that his discoveries can improve on Frankenstein's work, or how the ability to reanimate dead tissue will correct Pretorius' failures is completely unexplained at this point. The doctor's gleefully over the top performance is the only thing that prevents this sequence from becoming unbearable.

It's bizarre that this scene exists in the same movie where a hideous and misunderstood monster roams the countryside, desperately seeking companionship. The Creature is now more lonely than angry and his occasional acts of violence occur only in reaction to the locals' attacks on him. That Pretorius' absurd doll-sized failures share a film with the Creature's tragic quest is absolutely mystifying. It's even stranger when we find out how Pretorius contributes to the titular Bride; specifically, he grows a new brain for his and Henry's joint creation. Why couldn't the filmmakers have Pretorius display jars with living organs and explain that he was still unable to reproduce an entire human being? Not only would the tone of the film have remained consistent, but the usefulness of this ability would have been immediately obvious given how hard it was for Frankenstein to find a suitable human brain the first time around. It's frustrating that such an obvious opportunity was missed.

And then, suddenly, the film takes a sharp turn and starts getting good.

While Frankenstein mulls over Pretorius' offer, the monster continues his wanderings. At one point the townsfolk actually succeed in capturing him and chaining him in a dungeon, but he breaks his bonds and escapes. Eventually, attracted by the playing of a violin, he enters the home of a blind hermit (O. P. Heggie). Thus far the Creature has been despised by everyone who's seen him. The hermit, unable to see the Creature's ugliness and just as lonely as he is, believes that God has finally answered his prayers and sent him a companion. He feeds the monster and tends the gunshot wound that the Creature suffered while being hunted. As time passes, the hermit teaches the Creature simple speech and Frankenstein's creation finally knows friendship. Of course this can't last and two villagers passing by the hermit's cottage "save" him from the monster while another angry mob resumes the chase.

While being pursued through a cemetery, the monster hides in a large crypt that is occupied by more than just the dead. Dr. Pretorius and his henchmen Karl (Dwight Frye, who played the hunchbacked Fritz in Frankenstein) and Ludwig (Ted Billings) have taken a page from Henry Frankenstein's playbook and are doing a little grave robbing of their own. In a morbid mood, Pretorius sends his goons away and breaks out a bottle of wine while talking to the bones of the long-deceased woman who will apparently be contributing to the professor's next experiment. When the Creature approaches the tipsy scientist, he's surprised to find the professor happy to see him. Pretorius begins questioning the monster and asks him if he knows who Frankenstein is. The Creature's answer, given in his halting speech, is heartbreaking: "Yes, I know. Made me from dead. I love dead... hate living." The professor promises to create a female companion for the monster, which interests the Creature very much.

When Pretorius visits Henry again to convince him to continue his work, he brings the Creature along to help emphasize his point. Frankenstein is rather surprised to hear his creation firmly tell him to "sit down"; one of the first things we heard Henry say to the monster in the original film. When Pretorius feels like Henry has been adequately intimidated, he commands the Creature to wait outside. When Henry finally refuses to build another monster, he hears screams; the Creature has decided to force his creator's hand by abducting Elizabeth. Left with little choice, Henry returns to the watchtower and, with the help of Pretorius, begins to construct a new creature.

Unlike last time, Henry has a much tighter schedule and is trying to incorporate Pretorius' innovations into the new monster. As he works, the Creature roams the watchtower, anxious to have a friend and companion made especially for him. Henry's short-tempered creation refuses to allow him any rest. When Frankenstein demands to see Elizabeth, he is only allowed to speak to her through "an electrical device"; i.e., the phone that I mentioned earlier. Although it's not entirely clear, it seems that Elizabeth is being kept in a nearby cave or dungeon.

The brain that Pretorius has grown appears to be satisfactory, but the heart isn't strong enough. The professor orders Karl to obtain a new heart, which he gladly does. Henry is amazed by the freshness of the organ, which Karl hesitatingly states was obtained from "an accident victim". As Pretorius well knows, the heart's donor was very much alive when Karl found her. With the organs installed, the body on the table awaits the quickly approaching thunderstorm.

The Bride of Fankenstein's creation scene is just as fantastic as the similar scene in Frankenstein, even after having seen both sequences within an hour and a half of each other. This second scene has introduced the use of large kites launched by Karl and Ludwig to help attract the lighting. While on the roof, the Creature attacks Karl and throws him off the watchtower. I'm not entirely sure why he does this, but it seems appropriate since Karl is a cold-blooded murder that's played by the same guy who played Fritz.

Obviously Frankenstein and Pretorius are successful, and again Frankenstein declares "It's alive!" with nearly as much enthusiasm as before (he might be doing it under duress, but a self respecting mad scientist should always be able to muster at least a little enthusiasm when playing God). Soon the female Creature (Elsa Lanchester, who played Mary Shelley earlier in the film), has been unwrapped and is brought to her feet. Pretorius dramatically calls her "the Bride of Frankenstein" (hey, he said the movie's title!) and the original Creature slowly approaches her. The Creature is sorely disappointed when the Bride finally opens her mouth and screams at his hideousness. The Creature again tries to interact with her by taking her hand and receives the same response. "She hates me," says the monster, in a voice mixed with as much sorrow as anger.

As the situation quickly starts to fall apart, Elizabeth appears at the watchtower door, having escaped her imprisonment off-screen. The Creature, now utterly desperate, rages through the lab and eventually puts his hand on a conspicuous lever. As required by the Mad Scientists' Union, Frankenstein's equipment apparently has a self destruct switch. Henry warns the monster that pulling the lever could kill them all. Realizing that death is almost certainly what the Creature wants, he warns Elizabeth away. Elizabeth refuses to leave without Henry, but Frankenstein won't leave his creations again.

Finally, the Creature makes up his mind and commands his creator and Elizabeth to go and live. Then, looking at Pretorius, he yells "You stay! We belong dead!" A tear falls down the monster's cheek as he pulls the lever. The resulting explosion envelops the Creature, his short-lived companion, and the professor. Henry comforts Elizabeth as they watch the rest of the watchtower collapse.

Although it has a few weaknesses, Frankenstein is consistently good. It starts out with grave robbing, promptly moves on to the creation scene, shows how quickly Frankenstein loses control of the Creature, and then finishes off with the hunt for and apparent destruction of the monster. The Bride of Frankenstein, on the other hand, just doesn't just seem to do a whole lot in its first half other than to show that the Creature survived the fire. We're forced to spend time with annoying characters like Minnie, we see an otherwise acceptable mad scientist like Dr. Pretorius pull out his ridiculous little people in jars, and we get to watch Frankenstein feel sorry for himself (which is the weakest part of the novel, too).

And then, just when The Bride of Frankenstein feels like it's going to be one of the many disappointing sequels to classic monster movies (see my review on the sequels to The Creature from the Black Lagoon) the filmmakers repent of their earlier mistakes and give us a different movie. Minnie effectively disappears into the background, Pretorius' jars are put away and never mentioned again, and Frankenstein gets back into the monster-making business. And the Creature learns to talk.

Boris Karloff does a great job when he plays a mute; he's amazing when his Creature is allowed to speak. In Frankenstein he's threatening, although it's hard not to have at least a little sympathy for him. As soon as he becomes acquainted with friendship from his time with the hermit, and once he learns to talk (albeit with a vocabulary of no more than a few dozen words), the Creature becomes a fascinating and tragic character rather than just a destructive force. Of course, he doesn't lose any of his menace; his first post-windmill interaction with Frankenstein proves that. But, ironically, it's the grotesque reanimated corpse that has the most depth and becomes the most human character in the entire film. Boris Karloff makes the movie and the filmmakers knew it. His name is rightly presented first and in enormous font during the opening credits.

If only the first half of the film was as good as the second.

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