Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bride of Frankenstein. (1935) James Whale

Four years passed between Frankenstein and its first sequel, but the story picks up on the same savage night of the supposed destruction of the creature, in a fiery inferno sending his soul back to hell.

Then again, we 21st century media-savvy types (which is pretty much everyone, more or less) know that no creature dies in a first film, no matter how much its makers want you to believe it -- no matter how hot the burning mill, no matter how many citizens saw the structure burn to ashes. We of course know that no alien, no mummy, no Jason or Freddy or Michael will be dead when the credits have left a first film's screen. You can't have a second Creature Feature if you haven't got a creature to feature.

There is genius found in moments of Bride of Frankenstein. I love how they kept the creature alive, escaping the tormenting flames in a mote below the mill. And the final act is any film lover's delight.

I also thoroughly enjoy something as simple and fun as the opening credits, which piggyback off Frankenstein's use of "?" for The Monster, using "?" once again for The Bride. There are so many moments where Bride of Frankenstein gives its all in being just as good as the original, you've got to love it for its heart alone.

Author Mary Shelley, played by Elsa Lanchester (who also plays the impressionable Bride in the outstanding final chapter), sits cozily indoors with a couple of highbrow if not caricatured gentlemen, the wind whistling and the thunder crashing outside. One of the men, claiming the status of "England's greatest sinner," considers how warm and safe it is inside the house, while an angry Jehovah viciously thunders outside. "How beautifully dramatic," he says. "The crudest savage exhibition of nature at her worst without, and we... within..." He claims his head is unbowed to the thundering God outside. But who would fear a supposed God if kicking back by a comfy fire was all it took to protect you from his wrath?

The men talk highly of the creepy chills of Mary's original Frankenstein story. They narrate over images of the film (blogged about Here), a brief recap for the sake of the audience's memory from four years before. (There were no television premiers or TiVo in 1935.) They implore Mary to share the rest of the story, so she launches into the sequel, the story of the creation of the Bride. It's an almost perfect beginning to the film.

Almost, because as her story emerges there's an immediate disconnect from the original, quite noticeable within seconds. The medium of filmmaking changed quickly in four years, the times obviously persuading director James Whale to stuff oodles of musical score in the background. It's interminable presence is constantly noticeable, a never-ending standout out like a splinter in one's thumb. It nulls the tension so easily relayed without filler in the original film.

The writing and dialogue are so dark and crisp that seeing it 80 years later and complaining about the score seems unfair. But the problems don't end with the score. We're immediately introduced to a side character, Minnie, played by Una O'Connor, used mostly for comedic effect. She is agonizingly horrible, not funny for a moment. She brings camp to a film that wishes to reject her and her whiny voice and its shrieking screams. She is truly the most awful thing in Bride of Frankenstein, and watching her made me think the person responsible for casting her hadn't seen the original. Then I found out James Whale casted her.

There's but one line that may have worked for O'Connor as a decent foreshadowing to the rest of the story: "Oh what a terrible wedding night!" she cries, in regard to the botched wedding plans of Dr. Frankenstein and his bride. But after the brittle scream that escaped the woman just moments before this interesting sentence, all you wish is that the creature had killed her when he had the chance.

The film is a much bigger production than the original, but missteps like these keep killing it when it almost gains a foothold on tension.

Bride of Frankenstein desperately tries to deal with the same gripping religious themes the first film took on, and if these particular scenes were viewed on their own they might be as meaningful and powerful as they were there. But in the context here, with attempts at humor included (and a ridiculous scene of miniature royalty in jars, only there for a 1935 special effect), scenes of the creature tied to a stake and mocked like Jesus on the cross, or of him partaking in a sort of bread and wine communion with a blind old man he calls "Friend," are short-lived, momentary, mixing horror and camp horribly and accomplishing neither one.

Bride of Frankenstein follows two basic story lines until that final, superbly cinematic moment at the film's end. The first is the creature itself, captured and kept in a dungeon in shackles, easily escaping, and left to wander the countryside until meeting the blind old man. He's generally in trouble with all mankind until once again meeting up with his insane maker.

The parallel story follows Dr. Frankenstein, who at the beginning claimed to his would-be bride he'd had enough of trying to be a mad scientist: "I've been cursed for delving into the mysteries of life." But then he's lured by a colleague, the similarly crazed Dr. Pretorius, and the two carve out the ultimate plan for a race of living creations. A female version of the creature is a necessary first step, and hopefully the two will like each other.

With the grande finale culminating in the creatures, the psychosexual, symbolic gender relations and the tensions therein, I kept wondering if the film would have worked a bit better as a short film, or perhaps by simply adding this story to the original. But that is not the answer. The films each suit their length at 70 and 75 minutes respectively, and the idea of putting the bride in the original would have ruined what is already a masterpiece.

The bottom line regarding Bride of Frankenstein is that it was either over-developed, or just plain developed wrong, even though there are moments, particularly in its end, that are triumphant.

It's a mish-mash. A hodgepodge. A motley assortment that shifts between genius and utter stupidity. But it brought us one of history's most perfectly climactic moments when the Bride is finally and awfully revealed.

Sometimes you have to wade through the gunk to get to the cinematic gusto.

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