Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Infamous progeny (Bride of Frankenstein)

As part of SPOOKTOBERFEST, as well as my ongoing quest to surmount the full list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, I watched James Whale’s 1935 gothic horror masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein this week. The name “Frankenstein” appears on the 1001 Master List three times: 1931’s Frankenstein, ‘35’s Bride, and ‘74’s Young Frankenstein. As with many things canonical, I have gone about the consumption of that unofficial trilogy completely backwards: I saw Young Frankenstein many times growing up (I think I’ve mentioned before that my dad was a huge Mel brooks fan), the first time probably when I was ten or eleven. I still have not seen the original Frankenstein film (though I read the novel a couple of years ago).

I bring up all of the above to kind of contextualize this installment of the usual analysis of a Must-See film’s merits. There’s achievement, and then there’s influence. And in terms of influence, I now realize but never really knew before just how much of Bride of Frankenstein is in Young Frankenstein. The visuals come in for a punchline very late in the comedy, when Madeline Kahn appears onscreen wearing Elsa Lanchester’s iconic hairdo, and of course you’d have to be wildly uninformed not to get the connection there. But Cloris Leachman’s scene-stealing Frau Bl├╝cher is all but a dead ringer for Una O’Connor’s Minnie from Bride of Frankenstein, and of course the entire scene with Gene Hackman as the blind hermit is lifted almost completely intact from Bride, as well.

Bride of Frankenstein is generally regarded as a shining example (one of the earliest if not the very first) of a sequel outdoing its predecessor, so maybe it’s no surprise that it provided so much usable material to Mel Brooks. Of course Young Frankenstein isn’t the only example of Bride’s influence, either. In Mary Shelley’s novel, the creature is tortured with existential crises because he is highly intelligent, and can speak eloquently to that point (and frequently does). In the original Frankenstein film, the creature is a shambolic force of nature, nearly mindless and definitely dialogue-free. Bride of Frankenstein gives the creature a limited vocabulary, and to a certain extent that’s the version of Frankenstein’s monster in the popular consciousness, the monosyllabic simpleton. At least, it is if your slice of the popular consciousness was at all influenced, as mine was, by Phil Hartman on SNL.

And then there’s Doctor Pretorius, whose portrayal by Ernest Thesiger stands out amongst all the Hays Code era artificiality for chewing the scenery with diabolical relish. Henry Frankenstein is conflicted, but Doctor Pretorius is evil incarnate, and at a minimum the name of the character has been kept alive in various genre stories ever since he was invented for the movie. Pretorius alone makes for a compelling case to ask the question of why no one has undertaken a modern remake of Bride of Frankenstein, particularly in the scene in which he reveals his experimental homunculi in their jars; a cute bit of film compositing which with modern special effects could be that much more unsettling and horrifying.

Bride of Frankenstein really is all about invention, despite the fact that it can trace its genesis back to a subplot from Shelley’s original novel, where Victor Frankenstein contemplates but ultimately decides against reanimating a female corpse as a companion for his misbegotten creation. The movie of course reverses that choice, adds Pretorius, makes Karloff’s monster more sympathetic, even noble … these are all movie-making, franchise-building choices which no one in Hollywood but bat an eye at today. And yet, Bride of Frankenstein opens on the exterior of a castle in a thunderstorm, only to reveal that within the castle are Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Percy’s wife Mary. They get to talking about Mary’s novel Frankenstein and then Mary shyly asks if Byron would like to hear what happened after the final page of the book. It’s almost as if Universal were attempting to proactively legitimize the expansion on (and departures from) the source material, which speaks to a kind of reverence for the literary classics that honestly blows my mind.

It also creates the possibility of having Elsa Lanchester play both Mary Shelley and the Bride, but it might just as likely be a case of padding out the feature. It’s a fairly slight movie, barely clocking in at an hour and a quarter including the “real world” prologue. Plus the aforementioned scene of Pretorius showing off the small imitations of life he has grown, which borders on comical and has no real bearing on the plot (except that it somehow sets the audience up to believe that pretorius could grow a full-sized dormant brain in his lab). Similarly, there’s a sequence in which the creature is captured, taken to a dungeon and chained, whereupon the creature immediately uses his brute strength to pull the chains from their anchors in the stone and escape. It’s a circular narrative detour at best. All of this to delay the promise of the premise until basically the end of the flick! It’s not until the final reel that the Bride rises, and when she does she expresses utter terror and revulsion in response to the creature’s advances, which prompts the creature to destroy the lab, with just enough time for Henry Frankenstein and his wife Elizabeth to flee, before an explosion razes the tower and (presumably) kills the creature, his ill-fated bride, and Doctor Pretorius. The End (...???, he adds, ominously)

Make no mistake, the scene in which the as-yet-lifeless Bride is raised above the topmost battlements in the midst of flashing lightning is a virtuoso sequence, with fast-cut editing between the storm and the fantastical scientific equipment and oddly-canted, chiaroscuro-lit close-ups of Henry Frankenstein and Doctor Pretorius, all while the score gnashes its instrumental teeth. If there’s any element of the film that is worth discussing as an aesthetic triumph, it’s that climactic yet interminable moment of anticipation.

But I keep coming back to this idea that the true legacy of Bride of Frankenstein is in laying the groundwork for formulaic sequels. I’m not accusing the originator of the formula of being formulaic; on the contrary, back in the mid-30’s saying “Let’s give the monster a mate! Do whatever it takes to bang out a script that ends up with a girl-monster!” was positively bold, brilliant and innovative. It worked, and it stuck, and here we are today, for better or worse, til death do us part.

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