Somewhere in the Kootenays. The Mad Film Critic is alone in his study. His graying hair spikes upward as if he’s permanently wired to a Van de Graaff generator. He pounds his computer keyboard in frustration, unable to create the brilliant review of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein that he needs to meet his deadline and save his soul. Outside, the night is clear and silent, mocking him by failing to produce even the most meager of thunderstorms to play to his madness. In desperation he calls out to his not-quite-so-mad research assistant: “Ludwig, my brain is failing! I must have a new brain to finish my work!!
Ludwig: “But, Master….”
Mad Film Critic: “A new brain, Ludwig! And it must be a fresh one this time! This review is dead—we must give it life!!!”
Ludwig: “Fresh brains are not easy to come by, Master. Can’t I just steal a few juicy paragraphs from Roger Eb—“
Mad Film Critic: “Silence, you fool! I have delved too deeply into the mysteries of movies to turn back now. My readers know too much. They will destroy me if I cannot enthrall them!”
Ludwig: “You mean….?”
Mad Film Critic: “You think I’m mad. Ha, ha, ha!! Perhaps I am, but I must feed the hunger I have created! One more brain, Ludwig, and the Ultimate Review will be mine! You and I have gone too far to stop now!!”
Ludwig: “I warned you, Master. Rent Riverdance, I said. But noooo, you had to watch Bride of Frankenstein. Yes, yes, get the brain, get the brain….”
With the astounding success of the recent independent film The Blair Witch Project, which cost $30,000 to make and has pulled in over 100 million dollars in North America alone, horror films are back in the spotlight. Blair Witch represents one unhallowed extreme of the genre: ultra low-budget cinéma-verité that chills the spine because the horror seems as close as one’s neighbour and her (or his) camcorder. Their pseudo-realism insinuates them behind our defenses. Watching these films is like finding a big snake curled up in your car seat or outside your front door—you know it’s probably harmless, but try telling that to your imagination. In the best of the low-budget shockers no one is ever safe. No one has told the monsters they have to lose by the closing credits. The classic creep-outs include George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943).
At the other extreme is the horror extravaganza, where the 1933 King Kong and 1935 Bride of Frankenstein reign supreme. James Whale’s second attempt at telling the Frankenstein story (his first, the silent Frankenstein, had been made four years earlier) is a triumph of wit, pathos, excess and style over common sense. Whale had the full resources of the Universal Studios at his disposal. The invention of sound film put a powerful new tool in his arsenal. Whale’s only advice to his actors and his crew must have been “More! More!”
Ironically, beneath Bride’s camp humor is probably the most faithful treatment of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece ever put on screen. In the novel (written when Shelley was 19!), the monster is one of the great anti-heroes of Romantic literature. He learns to speak, and the scenes where he confronts his creator are astonishingly prophetic of the scientific age which would give birth to the atomic bomb and eugenics experiments.
Bride of Frankenstein, while still playing fast and loose with Shelley’s plot, gives us the greatest Frankenstein’s monster in movie history. Boris Karloff reprised his original role. Although he originally objected to having the monster speak, Whale insisted. With a 44-word vocabulary derived from a Universal acting manual for child actors, Karloff’s speeches are a far cry from the epic Shakespearean monologues of Mary’s monster. No matter. Karloff manages to put more emotional weight into fewer words than any actor before or since. When he dreams of a companion and says “Woman…friend….wife” each of those words resonates. He is the ultimate outcast, a figure of tragedy and horror but never of ridicule. At one point, he is almost literally crucified by a village mob. His last despairing words—“We belong dead!”—are deservedly immortal.
With fifty pounds of costuming, a make-up job that took seven hours to apply each day, strapped onto stilts, and working with a broken hip caused by an accident early in the filming, KARLOFF earned the all-capitals no-first-name billing he got in the opening credits.
He had a lot of help. Franz Waxman composed a musical score that made Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture seem modest. James Whale and cinematographer John D. Mescall proved that the lessons of German expressionist cinema had not been entirely forgotten. The forests and graveyards in Bride of Frankenstein are abstract masterpieces of stripped trees, weird tombs, and sinister horizons. Scenes are shot in extreme close-up, with actors’ faces tilted sharply upwards and downwards. Bizarre camera angles give entire scenes the feeling of having been shot on a small ship in high seas. One truly appreciates the artistry of Bride when looking at still photographs taken from the film. Every shot seems framed for maximum effect. Going counter to logic, which often equates confined spaces with fear, the sets of Bride consist of vast rooms, enormous vaulted ceilings, and strange horizons. There’s a mad scientist’s laboratory that no one’s ever managed to top. In a model for later American film noir, patterns of light and shadow play over every scene.
There are subtler gestures as well. Whale cast Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the Bride of Frankenstein—creator and creation as one (“symbolic of how evil, monstrous forces lie within all of us”??). He and lead actor Ernest Thesiger, drawing on their own artistic talents and inspired by a portrait of Queen Nefertiti, designed an extraordinary Bride. Built up on stilts to seven feet high, bound so tightly in bandages she had to be carried around the studio and fed by a tube, with an unforgettable hairdo and reptilian hands, Boris Karloff had a true soulmate. Too bad she moved like a demented sparrow and screamed at the first sight of her betrothed. The scene does not exist in the novel. Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein destroys his female creation just before it’s about to be infused with life. But both book and movie drive the same point home: the unshared life is a monstrosity.
There’s nothing like a little ludicrousness to set off the sublime. Boris Karloff almost meets his match in Thesiger who, as mad scientist Septimus Praetorius, goes completely over the top, chewing up scenery with a gusto that later generations of mad scientists would try in vain to equal. He dominates virtually every scene in which he appears, including his first appearance at Frankenstein’s castle, where his shadow billows out against the wall like the angel of death, and the intimate little scene in his tower where he gloats over the jars in which he keeps his artificially created homunculi of king, queen, archbishop, ballet dancer, devil, and mermaid (“an experiment with seaweed”).
We have of late grown used to conflicted villains. Praetorius represents a more naïve age where madmen had no need of analysts to rationalize their evil deeds and plead misunderstanding. Looking at his miniature Devil-in-a-jar, Praetorius comments, “…very bizarre, this little chap. There’s a certain resemblance to me, don’t you think? Or do I flatter myself?.Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn’t be much more amusing if we were all devils, and no nonsense about angels and being good.” He proposes a cheerful toast: “To a new world of Gods and Monsters”. When the monster itself unexpectedly wanders into the tomb in which he is enjoying a pleasant supper of wine and chicken set out amidst the bones and bodies he has plundered, Praetorius doesn’t bat an eyelash. He offers the monster a glass of wine and a cigar, and proceeds to exploit its loneliness for his own nefarious purposes.
Ooooh, now that’s bad. Did someone say chutzpah?
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Henry Frankenstein: I’ve been cursed for delving into the mysteries of life!
Karl: The kites! The kites! Get ’em ready! Ludwig! He wants the kites!
Doctor Pretorius: You think I’m mad! Perhaps I am. But listen, Henry Frankenstein. While you were digging in your graves, piecing together dead tissues, I, my dear pupil, went for my material to the source of life. I grew my creatures, like cultures, grew them as nature does, from seed.
Minnie: I’d hate to find him under my bed at night. He’s a nightmare in the daylight, he is.
The Monster’s Mate: Eeeeek!! [reaction upon first seeing her intended]
Not thus [by biochemical means], after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given a token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth….I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision….the hideous phantom of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.
–from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Still the most fun you’re ever going to have at a horror movie. Whale wanted his film to be a “hoot,” and that it is. A perfect cast, Karloff at his greatest, an over-the-top Ernest Thesiger (“as exquisite and far-fetched as the monster,” in David Thomson’s words), flamboyantly expressionistic lighting & sets, operatic flair, a memorable musical score, weird camera angles, incredible close-ups, the coolest laboratory scene since Metropolis, fantastic makeup, the best mad scientist dialogue ever, and lines like “She’s alive!!! ALIVE!” and “We belong dead!” that no one who’s ever heard them hasn’t managed to work into a conversation somehow, somewhere, sometime. The Citizen Kane of classic horror movies. I first came across Bride in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, a book I’ve kept on my library shelves for almost 50 years. I’m pretty sure I put together the scale model kit of Elsa Lanchester in Pretorius’s lab when I was in middle school. Those were the days when the model selection would have made Tim Burton smile—the Visible Man (anatomy), Big Daddy Roth & Rat Fink hot rods, Godzilla, and scale model guillotines.
With so much attention focused on James Whale, Bride’s composer, Franz Waxman, also needs to be acknowledged. Waxman went on to win two Oscars, and Imdb gives him 176 credits as composter and 186 as Music Department head. Waxman deserves his own article here at Seldom Scene. I was surprised to see that there doesn’t appear to be a published biography.
Art Director Charles D. Hall had 142 credits on Imdb, and two Oscar nominations. He began his career with Fred Karno’s musical hall troupe in England, and would later work with another Karno alumnus, Charles Chaplin. He was also the art director for Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man.
Roger Ebert included a chapter on Bride of Frankenstein in his first The Great Movies anthology; Danny Peary rhapsodized on the film in Cult Movies 2. With guys like these on your side, there’s definitely something going on. Here’s Peary on Karloff:
“…it is Karloff’s touching performance that makes the film great. What an actor he was. Wearing a forty-eight-pound uniform, standing on stilts, covered with bluish-green greasepaint, and almost hidden beneath genius Jack Pierce’s patented makeup, Karloff still comes through. His sensitive eyes always manage to express the Monster’s feelings. Here is a creature who comes across as a stray dog, beaten and burned in the past and paranoid, but desperate for kindness…..At all times viewers empathize with him—we understand his misery and his longings.” Peary also adds, “[The Monster’s] vocabulary consisted of forty-four simple words that director Whale found in test papers of Universal’s child actors. The Monster was given the mental age of a ten-year-old and the emotional age of a fifteen-year-old.”
Trivia for Canadians: Boris Karloff was married in Vancouver, and began his acting career in British Columbia. He joined up with a theater group in Kamloops, and toured through towns like Salmon Arm, Vernon, and Nelson. Check out the article “Bio details Karloff’s Kootenay link” by Nelson historian Greg Nesteroff at https://www.nelsonstar.com/opinion/bio-details-karloffs-kootenay-link/
I could say more, but that would leave you (and me) with less time to watch or re-watch Bride. Go on, you know you want to.