Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Film review of the camp horror movie

Bride Frankenstein scars
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Film review by Jason Day of Bride of Frankenstein, the 1935, camp horror movie about scientists who create a woman from the dead. Starring Boris Karloff and Colin Clive and directed by James Whale.

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Synopsis

The Monster (Boris Karloff) created from the parts of dead bodies by Dr Victor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has been killed within the remains of a burning windmill, satisfying the village locals whom he had been terrorizing.

Then, when the excitement has calmed down, he emerges, murders more people and enrages the populace again. The Monster hides out in the home of a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) and learns many things: how to speak, enjoy a drink and a smoke and to trust people.

His domestic bliss does not last for long and he is on the run again, accidentally bumping in to deranged scientist Dr Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger). Pretorious uses The Monster to help create a new female life, a mate for The Monster, enlisting Henry’s help against his will.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

Film poster for Bride of Frankenstein by Martin Ansin
Image credit: Martin Ansin / Mondo.

Do you like gin? It’s my only weakness.

Dr Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger) raises a toast.

So much has been written about British director James Whale’s camp tour de force – before and since the release of biopic Gods and Monsters (1998) – that writing my own review feels like I am treading on hallowed and well-trodden ground.

So, I’ll get to the point – this superb movie (technically a horror, but more like a baroque, gay comedy) is one of those rarest of cinematic creatures: a sequel that is better than its excellent predecessor, besting Frankenstein (1931) on a number of fronts.

Firstly the narrative which, like the monster, has matured. We no longer have a lumbering, grunting, murderous bulk terrorising the Bavarian countryside (populated by British accented locals).

After only a few minutes since the windmill fire the monster survives, he swiftly acquires new talents and develops rarified tastes. With the help of blind hermit (O.P. Heggie)* his speech, reasoning, spatial visual skills and the capacity to form what could be lasting friendships come along in leaps and bounds. He also enjoys puffing heartily on a cigar.

Giving the monster intelligence and feeling allows us to not only identify with the plight of this poor creature, but ratchets up the drama a few notches. Whale can explore the more emotive themes of his shunning by society and desperate need for “friend” much more sensitively. Despite the laughs and silliness, Bride is nuanced here where the original movie was more bluntly interested in the terror the monster wreaked on those around him (it also means Karloff gives an indelible, moving performance).

*NB, Peter Boyle and Gene Hackman lampooned this scene to perfection in Mel Brooks’ merciless send-up Young Frankenstein (1974).

Secondly, the filming style and production; Whale is more confident the second time around and has more cash to flex his muscles.

Yes the opening sequence, depicting a fictional historical moment as author Mary Shelley (played with elfin, girlish delight by Elsa Lanchester) discusses a sequel novel, is disposable but it is also lavish with a huge set. Many of the others even have ceilings, as rare as hens’ teeth in Hollywood movies of this time.

Pricking her finger whilst embroidering, her enamoured guests Percy and Lord Byron each takes one of her hands, stretching her dress and providing a visual link to the film’s conclusion (the camera, sensing the weirdness she will relate, quickly pulls back as if we are naughty servants rushing away from listening through a keyhole).

Famously of course, this is the spectacular, 15 minute long ‘resuscitation’ scene in which the monster’s promised mate is brought to life, filmed with technical elan and with canted camera angles to bring us in to this most abnormal birth.

Thirdly, the perfomances are fabulous. The mate is billed in the credits just like Karloff in the first film, with only ‘?’ but she is played by Lanchester in a highly stylised manner.**

A former dancer who studied with Isabella Duncan, it’s no surprise that her performance is physically remarkable.

Revealed to a peal of wedding bells, Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and the gayly gruesome Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) hold out her surgical smock, just as enraptured with her as Shelly and Byron were with Mary.

She is wild eyed as the takes in her surroundings for the first time, her senses flooded, moving her head with spasmodic tics as if electricity from the machinery that jump-started her is still firing inside her.

Walking, she teeters and totters like Bambi on the ice, she shrieks and flees in terror when her intended lopes adoringly toward her.

Trying one last time, she hisses at him. Those hisses are her own and she used the geese she and husband Charles Laughton would see in Hyde Park as vocal inspiration.

Even the newly reanimated flee the poor monster who by now must be seriously effed off with the human (and inhuman) race.

“I am never blind-dating again.” The mate (Elsa Lanchester) sees the monster (Boris Karloff) for the first time.

Clive, off screen an alcoholic, rants and raves as the most famous mad scientist in the movies but, tragically, died two years later aged only 37.

Devilish Thesiger is a delight throught, as queer as a “queer fellow” could be, rolling his ‘Rs’ with glee and ruining Frankenstein’s wedded bliss.

Director Whale was openly gay in Hollywood at a time when it was better to be discreet than sorry. With his casting of gay Clive and Thesiger and the decidedly camp humour (such as tiny, twittering Una O’Connor as housemaid Minnie) and use of phrases such as ‘queer fellow’, it’s tempting to see a gay subtext to the proceedings.

But those who knew Whale say that he never produced the movie with such a slant to it, so perhaps film writers are seeing the movie through lavender tinted sunglasses.

Enjoy it for what Whale intended it to be, a supremely entertaining camp comedy with a soupcon of ghoulishness.

**Mae Clarke, who originally played the fiancee of crazed, amateur scientist Frankenstein (Colin Clive), was unwell so Clarke replaced her with the considerably younger (18) Irish-born actress Valeria Hobson.

She’s no better value, but is noteworthy for her later film roles in Great Expectations (1946) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)…and for being married to Tory Minister John Profumo at the time of his catastrophic fall from grace.

Cast & credits

Director: James Whale. Universal. 1 hr 15 mins/75 mins. (PG)

Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr.
Writer: William Hurlbut, Edmund Pearson, Morton Covan.
Camera: John J. Mescall.
Music: Franz Waxman.
Sets: Charles D. Hall.

Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester, Gavin Gordon, Douglas Walton, Una O’Connor, E.E. Clive, Lucien Prival, O.P. Heggie, Dwight Frye.

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