Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Cinema Bestius: The Bride of Frankenstein

This week, we take a loving look at a film that has been a part of The Pope’s consciousness for more than forty years.

#35 – The Bride of Frankenstein

I cannot remember the first time I saw The Bride of Frankenstein. I’m guessing it was an afternoon screening on WFLD, Chicago’s UHF powerhouse station in the 1960s. Was I seven or eight when I first chanced upon it? During the twenty-five years I taught film, every semester included a screening. Given that during the class’s heyday there were three or four sections a semester, I have probably introduced more than 2500 teenagers to this incredible film.
The Plot in Brief: A prologue featuring Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Shelley’s wife Mary assures us that the narrative of Frankenstein did not end at the old windmill. Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is carted home, presumed dead. The Monster (Boris Karloff) is left in the ruins of the burned windmill, also presumed dead. The good doctor makes a magical recovery; the Monster survives the fire and begins to terrorize the countryside. Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) pays a visit to Dr. Frankenstein, blames Henry for the Monster’s shenanigans, and wants to build a female creature with Henry’s help. When Henry refuses, Pretorius kidnaps his young bride Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) and forces Henry to join him in his experiments. The two men work in Frankenstein’s old laboratory, fashioning a mate for Henry’s original creation.

This film celebrated its eightieth birthday last year, and yet it is still as creepy, irreverent, and twisted as it was the day it was released. Universal’s original Frankenstein was such a hit in 1931 that director James Whale was given carte blanche when making the sequel, which features boatloads of macabre humor and twisted innuendo. From the little “bottle creatures” that Pretorius shows Henry to prove he has also created life, to lab assistant Karl’s lusty assurance that the heart he has just procured “is a very FRESH one,” James Whale made the film with tongue firmly in cheek.
The performances are all pitched to the second balcony. Between Colin Clive’s agitated, apoplectic Henry; Ernest Thesiger’s truly evil Dr. Pretorius (“Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if we were all devils, with no talk of angels or being good…”); Valerie Hobson’s hysterical Elizabeth; Una O’Connor’s shrieking Minnie; and Elsa Lanchester’s screaming, hissing Bride, the film resembles a contest between five British actors vying to determine who can out-act the other four. Interestingly enough, it is amidst these crazed performances that Boris Karloff does his best work as the comparatively understated “monster.”

James Whale uses the form of the horror film to speak eloquently about a number of things, but I often think this film is most about loneliness. “It is bad to be alone,” the blind hermit warns us, and we see this theme expanded upon in the rest of the film. The characters seem to come in pairs: Henry and Elizabeth, Pretorius’ tiny king and queen, the temporary pairing of Pretorius and Henry—even Karl is given a partner with which to do his grave robbing—and it is no accident that the two most effective and memorable dialogue scenes in the film involve the Monster trying to find a friend, first in the blind hermit and then in Pretorius himself. The Monster and Pretorius share a memorable supper in a tomb—the coffin forming an impromptu dining table—where the Monster confides to his new friend over a glass of wine, “I love dead, hate living.” Pretorius responds, “You’re wise in your generation.” Karloff perfectly conveys the miserable loneliness of the Monster’s fate; it becomes the emotional core of the film.
The musical score by Franz Waxman is rich and evocative. As Scott MacQueen points out in David Skal’s documentary She’s Alive! Creating the Bride of Frankenstein, which accompanies the film on DVD and Blu-ray, Waxman came up with a musical motif to accompany each character. MacQueen theorizes that Waxman was first shown the film and based the Monster’s musical signature on his signature growl. Pretorius’s theme is playful and loping and seems inspired by “Danse Macabre” by composer Camille Saint-Saens. The Bride’s theme, which is first introduced when her creation is only being discussed, is a rising, romantic Hawaiian-tinged string piece; I have always thought it sounds a lot like “Bali Ha’i” from the musical South Pacific. Of course, Waxman wrote his first.

Watching the same film so many times in class, I began to notice things. When Dr. Pretorius shows Dr. Frankenstein his little creations, there is a fleeting glimpse of one creature that was edited out of the film, a “baby” in a tall high chair. I was always obsessed with the Bride’s hissing when first introduced to her presumptive mate. I later learned (from one of William Gregory Manks’ invaluable books) that actress Elsa Lanchester had based this on swans she had seen in Regent’s Park in London. Whenever anything or anyone got too close to the baby swans, the mother would let out this hiss!
Still, the most interesting thing, which I always discussed with the class after the film concluded, was the strange case of the changed ending.

SPOILER ALERT: There were a great many things Universal did not like about the film’s original script. As originally planned, grave robber Karl (Dwight Frye) was the actual perpetrator of all the murders in the town. This would have served to make Boris Karloff’s Monster all the more sympathetic. Later, when the heart that Dr. Frankenstein intends to transplant into the Bride proves useless, Karl is dispatched to fetch a new one. As originally scripted, Karl goes to where Elizabeth is being held, cuts out her heart, and delivers it to Dr. Frankenstein, who unknowingly sews his own bride’s heart into the new Bride he is creating with Pretorius. Irony. This was too much for Universal, which ordered reshoots. (Karl now gets the heart from an anonymous villager.) The problem was that Whale had already shot the climax with the laboratory blowing up, killing the Monster, his Bride, Pretorius, and Dr. Frankenstein. Universal felt no one would notice, as viewers would be too distracted by the explosions to perform an impromptu head count of the victims. New scenes were filmed, showing Dr. Frankenstein escaping the lab with the still kicking Elizabeth. Watch the scene again and with your handy remote and the use of freeze-frame, you can enjoy the spectacle of Dr. Henry Frankenstein literally running away from himself!
AN ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: I have loved this film so much for so long that it cannot help but creep into aspects of my personal life. When my own Bride and I first married, we bought a little house and the first party we threw was a Halloween Costume Party, which I still remember because it taught me just how difficult it is to throw a party. We invited a whole slew of people who all knew us but didn’t know each other. They came in wonderful costumes; I particularly remember a colleague and her husband showing up in elaborate Viking gear. Most of our guests didn’t drink, and someone brought some children. We had prepared no activities, save a videotape of horror movie trailers that played endlessly on the television. Everybody just sort of sat around our tiny family room in strange clothing. I was mortified, and it was years before we attempted to throw another party. The only things that sweeten the memory for me are the costumes my lovely wife and I chose—Frankenstein’s Monster and the Bride!
A few years later my love for The Bride of Frankenstein came to inform the yearly high school talent show I directed. I had a particularly strong group of kids that year, and we (that is I) decided that the show’s theme should be “The Movies,” and the show would climax with a recreation of the final scene from The Bride of Frankenstein presented as a MUSICAL. Obviously, we decided to use songs all written by Elvis Costello. We had a five-piece pit band that was willing to learn the songs, the kids sang live, and the school’s Technical Director, Kevin Holly, built us a set that was positively dripping with creepy nostalgia. The piece began with a cast member dressed as a 1930s movie theater usher inviting us into this “Black and White World.” When Dr. Frankenstein and Pretorius (played by F This Movie’s own Doug) stitched the female creature together, they sang “From Head To Toe.” When the Bride came to life, she sang “Baby’s Got A Brand New Hairdo.” The Monster (played by friend of the site Steve Inzerello) finally crashed the party just like in the film, and blew up the laboratory while singing “Getting Mighty Crowded.” It was an ambitious idea, to say the least. Is everyone tired yet of Hamilton? THIS COULD BE A THING. #FThisMovieOnBroadway

Ah, memories.

The Bride of Frankenstein’s Three Miracles: James Whale’s playful sense of humor (and deep understanding of loneliness), which inform every frame of the film; Franz Waxman’s majestic, creepy, funny score; and Boris Karloff’s singular performance as the Monster. We share his tears at the end of the film when he informs Pretorius and his Bride, “We belong dead.”

“In nomine Patrice, et Pretorius, y spiritu James Whale—Amen.”


  1. I was lucky enough to get to see this for the first time along with the original Frankenstein as a double feature that Patrick hosted a year back. It was fantastic. Part of me tries to hold back on watching classic films at home in the hopes that I'll get to see them for the first time in a theater. It was worth it.

  2. Awesome. Based on your recommendation, I watched this with my kids last Halloween. Though The Blob was their favorite, they loved this. Looking forward to picking your brain again soon for some upcoming horror intros for kiddos! Great read. Thanks.

  3. Seriously? It's taken JB this long to get around to writing one of these about Bride of Frankenstein? I somehow figured that would either be day one or not done at all because it's just a given. Great piece!

  4. This movie was a revelation when I first saw it. It was like someone put everything I like in a gorgous gothic blender, or more invented everything I like. My Universal Monster Blu Ray is one of my most prized possessions. Thank you JB.

  5. A real masterpiece. I used to show it in the college horror film class I used to teach. So glad to see it getting so affectionately written about. Great stuff! - Blake