Friday, October 16, 2009

“To a new world of gods and monsters!”

It was only in 1935 that a sequel to Frankenstein was made. The first was a hit and the follow-up, Bride of Frankenstein, boasted a bigger budget, a full blown score, and the return of its two main actors and director. Proving to be as ambitious in its reach as the doctor himself, this film would introduce the most iconic female monster of all time.

Strangely enough, we start in a luxurious house populated by the Shelleys and Lord Byron. Byron (Gavin Gordon) chews up scenery praising the night and thunderstorms and also Mary Shelley’s novel. Mary (Elsa Lanchester) tries to downplay things, but eventually tells Byron and her husband that the story did not end with the burning of the windmill in the first movie.

Now the movie kicks into gear with the mob leaving the smouldering wreckage of the windmill. Two villagers stay behind to “make sure” he’s dead, and guess what, the Monster is alive and well except a little singed. He clamors his way out and runs off into the wilderness.

We move to the village, where Dr. Frankenstein recovers from the physical beating he got in the last film and is nursed back to health by his new bride. However, the peace does not last long, as the Frankenstein residence receives a visitor: a certain Dr. Pretorius, a former teacher of Frankenstein’s and a man who’s been drummed out of academia for…unorthodox methods. Pretorius tries to convince the doc to get back into the mad science field since there is so much more work left to do.

Baron Dr. Henry von Frankenstein: Colin Clive returns as the troubled doctor. Now married and inheriting his father’s lands, you’d think that he’s put his mad science days behind him. Well, Pretorius comes by and just keeps luring him back and back into it with promises of the challenge and of unlocking the secrets of the universe. How could he resist that? Still a tortured soul torn between the two worlds he inhabits, now he’s kind of playing second (but genius) banana to a more motivated man who is the real villain. This will likely become a theme in further films.

Elizabeth von Frankenstein: Valerie Hobson is a new actress, but in the same role: Frankenstein’s very worried wife. Eventually she gets used as a bargaining chip for Pretorius to get Frankenstein’s help in creating a new creature.

The Monster: He was so successful in the first film that now he’s just billed as Karloff, no first name necessary. The monster’s even more pitiable in this film, he just wants to be left alone, but people keep running up to him and trying to kill or restrain him. The monster eventually stumbles upon an old blind hermit that takes him in, feeds him and teaches him how to speak. Oh yes, the Monster talks in this one, and it just heaps on the pathos of the character. Incredibly sympathetic, incredibly well developed character by Boris Karloff.

Minnie the Housekeeper: Una O’Connor plays the character in the film that annoyed me the most. She’s a comic relief housekeeper in the Frankenstein residence, and one of the “common folk” that gets a lot of screen time. At first, its kind of funny and she had a great range of facial expressions, and I’m sure she was a fine actress, but the character just didn’t work for me (and that voice just…grates on the ears after a while).

The Hermit: O.P. Heggie plays a character who only shows up in one sequence, but he’s pivotal to the story. Blind and lonely, the Monster stumbles upon his remote cottage and he welcomes the Monster as a new friend with open arms, teaching him about the finer things in life, like speaking, food, wine and cigars. The Monster really seems to like cigars. It’s a touching sequence, especially since you know its going to end badly, and sure enough, a couple of villagers out hunting for the Monster inquire at the hermit’s cottage and push comes to shove and the place gets burnt down. Poor Monster just can’t catch a break.

Dr. Pretorius: Ernest Thesiger is the movie’s villain. Sinister, flamboyant, rail thin and arrogant, he doesn’t have Frankenstein’s compunctions about recreating the experiments. He’s already been conducting experiments of his own, which leads to one of the most bizarre (in a good way) segments of the movie where he shows off tiny people in bottles he’s “grown.” Pretorius has no regard for society, God, man, woman or whatever. All he wants is power and knowledge and to become like a god himself. It’s a tough call, but he’s the movie’s badass.

Karl: Dwight Frye is back, this time as a small time crook and murderer who gets hired by Pretorius to do dirty work for the doc. Kidnapping, murder, grave robbing, all that stuff. Frye just keeps impressing me with his versatility. I’ve seen him as a henchman in three movies, and each time it was as a completely different but insane character. Mad props, as the kids used to say.

The Monster’s Bride: Elsa Lanchester (credited as ?) transitions from Mary Shelley in the prologue to a character in “Shelley’s” tale. She’s really only the Bride for a few minutes in the film, has no dialog and screams a couple of times at the Monster, but the entirety of the Bride’s screen time is awesome. Incredibly attractive but also obviously stitched together, she’s got a jerky, disoriented quality to her movements that adds a layer of sympathy to her character. She was constructed as a companion for the Monster, but when she sees him, she screams and tries to move away. Man, poor Monster just can’t catch a break.

James Whale returned to the franchise and his effort here is probably even more impressive than in the first movie. The film continues the feel of a German Expressionist work, but the scale has been made grander, with more varied sets than before. In terms of visual effects, Jack Pierce returned as the makeup effects guy and the work on both the Monster and the Bride is fantastic with subtle little details like the scar under the Bride’s chin and the Monster’s singed look. However, the special effects of the scene where Pretorius shows off his “bottle people” is absolutely mind blowing at how well the antics of the tiny people were integrated into the scene with Frankenstein & Pretorius. Its just so smoothly integrated into the scene that it works brilliantly.

Screenplay by William Hurl but (and a host of other unaccredited writers that I don’t have the room to list in this space) really goes for ambition here. Directly picking up where the first movie left off, it follows through on character development, introducing great new concepts like the Monster learning how to talk, and just flows brilliantly from start to finish. Great stuff.

Franz Waxman delivers a gloriously grand score for the film. Sweeping and operatic, noticeable themes are woven into the film, from the bombastic moments to the tender ones. When the Bride is finally dressed in her white robe before she meets the Monster, the music soars to Wagnerian heights with a wedding bells infused variation of one of the movie’s central themes. I can’t praise this score enough. While other horror scores from this period were generally good but rather generic, Waxman (a big name in the golden age of Hollywood) brought out something that echoed in the mind after the movie ended. Probably the best Horror Movie soundtrack I’ve heard so far in this project, and not likely to be challenged for a long time.

In a lot of ways, Bride of Frankenstein is a superior film to the first one. Thematically ambitious and producing several incredible new characters, I see it not so much as a film that completely blows the first out of the water, but as one that serves as a great second half to the experience of the first film. While the Golden Age Universal Horror Films aren’t necessarily scary any more, they do go the distance for ambition, inventiveness and moments of sheer awesome. I’ve always felt that Horror isn’t about jump cuts and blood, but about presenting the audience with a taste of the forbidden world beyond the comforts of what nature and society generally operate under. A world that is both appealing in what it promises, but also incredibly disastrous to anyone who comes in contact with it (and just how it destroys the lives of those who dabble in it). What I’m trying to say, is that Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are two scoops of celluloid awesome.

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