Real quick before I continue on about one of my favorite horror movies ever, I need to share my excitement over Cinefamily and their lineup this month. I already have planned in my schedule their triple feature of Hellraiser (YES!) but I think I may have to go to this as well:
OMG. Yes. Please. Amazing.
Bride of Frankenstein! I love the Bride of Frankenstein! Have you seen it yet? Why not? It’s wonderful! Maybe not exactly scary but James Whale definitely knew what he was doing with this one. It’s moody, beautiful, and hilarious. For an interesting read into some of the back story and issues with censorship, check out The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror; Revised Edition with a New Afterword by David J. Skal.
I had a bit of a hard time figuring out what to write for Bride of Frankenstein. It’s been interesting with all of this writing, I’ve had a much harder time with the movies that I’ve seen and know and love than with the ones I’m new to. I suppose that makes a bit of sense. When I love a movie mostly all I want to say is “I LOVE THIS WHY HAVEN’T YOU SEEN IT YET GO SEE IT NOW!!!1!@!!” Which while great for enthusiasm, is not necessarily the most interesting for reading.
But thanks to my friends Joshua for giving me the idea to talk a bit about James Whale and how he’s amazing and Matthew for making sure I didn’t ramble on too long about nothing.
I’ll leave you to it now. The Bride of Frankenstein. (OMG WHY HAVEN’T YOU SEEN THIS YET GO SEE IT RIGHT NOW!!11!!@!#!@)
The Bride of Frankenstein – USA, 1935. Dir. James Whale. Starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, and Colin Clive.
A Coffee Shop Conversation about the Bride of Frankenstein.
I sat there at the small corner table, staring into my iced tea. It was late September but as I’ve always said about this time of year in LA, September is still sunny. It was hot outside and my glass was sweating, the ice cubes melting quickly.
“How’s the horror movie thing going?”
I looked up at my friend. I think he may have been reading my thoughts, I was lost somewhere between the vampires and the werewolves.
“It’s going well I guess. I’ve watched maybe a dozen movies now. Written about four to the point where I’m happy…” It didn’t really feel like it was going well. Only four completed pieces out of a dozen possible. The movies were getting ahead of the writing. My thoughts were getting muddled. The vampires were chasing the werewolves. Or was it the other way around?
“What have you watched so far?”
“Oh you know, I started with my childhood classics – The Exorcist, Poltergeist, Alien. That sort of thing. I’ve also gone back to the older stuff with Nosferatu, some of the Universal monsters like Wolfman and The Bride of Frankenstein…” The Bride of Frankenstein. I sighed. “I’m having a really hard time trying to decide what to write about Bride of Frankenstein.”
“You should write about James Whale! That guy was amazing!”
“I should totally write about James Whale!” I laughed, I couldn’t help it. I love James Whale.
“He was so gay! And The Bride of Frankenstein is full of it!” Now we were both smiling. It’s really very true.
James Whale was gay and he was out in time when that was rare. I mean, we’re talking the 20’s and 30’s. He lived with a man for over twenty years. He also fought in WWI, directed a number of plays, dabbled in art. He was, you could say, something of a renaissance man. Even after his film career came to an end, he stayed active in theater and other artistic endeavors. He’s a fascinating character himself but speaking about him as a filmmaker, he’s wonderful.
Whether or not you want to read his films as “gay” they are most certainly camp. They’re also a lot of fun. Looking at just at his classic horror films (which he would probably hate, he didn’t like being pigeonholed) you’ve got titles such as Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and my two favorites – The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein.
Bride of Frankenstein is, quite simply, delightful. It’s campy. It’s funny. It’s scary. I love Whale’s style: the mobile camera, the visible influence of German Expressionism. Go watch Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu and then watch Bride of Frankenstein. Note the set design, especially of Frankenstein’s house, the play of light and shadow, even the Monster’s make-up. It’s great.
I also like how this is more a movie about the Monster trying to find his place in the world than necessarily a story about him being, well, a monster. Sure he acts like the Monster he’s meant to be. He murders hapless villagers, attacks a pretty shepherdess in the woods, throws a man off a high tower to his death… but that never really feels like the point. When the Monster is on his murder spree, Whale doesn’t even show us either the acts or the bodies. Which I’m sure was as much a result of the censorship board as it was a desire for subtlety but still, it’s effective.
The Monster reacts to fear with violence but he’s also capable of gentler emotions. When he’s not attacking people, he’s kind of sweet, really. When he meets the hermit in the woods, the first man to treat him kindly, the Monster responds to it. The two become friends and this brief experience of friendship becomes the Monster’s motivation for the rest of the movie.
The film is full of irreverent religious imagery which is not meant to be taken seriously. One of the best examples is that wonderfully excessive scene in which the Monster is captured by the frenzied mob in the woods; he’s caught and as they tie him to the post then hoist him into the cart, it’s impossible to not see the Jesus on the cross symbolism. This is why I call this movie camp.
And that’s the fun of it.
Then there’s Dr. Pretorius and his bizarre relationships with Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster. Or his weird suitcase of miniature people. While I don’t necessarily buy all of the criticism that’s been written about this film (I don’t know if Whale’s intentions were always that obvious), one description of Dr. Pretorius as a “gay Mephistopheles” does seem pretty appropriate (Skal, The Monster Show).
Neither Frankenstein nor the Monster are able to resist what Pretorius offers. Dr. Pretorius is able to tempt Frankenstein by appealing to the same desires that led to the creation of the Monster to begin with. It’s hard to feel sympathy for Frankenstein when it’s his own ambitions that lead him towards downfall. The Monster is more sympathetic. A monster he may be, but he’s also something of an innocent. Pretorius seduces him with the simpler offer of “a friend.” A friend is all the Monster wants.
The Monster’s Bride doesn’t actually come around until fairly close to the end. But when she does… it’s pretty epic. I don’t want to spoil too much but let’s just say that I think the ending fits in quite nicely with the rest of the film and the tone that Whale has set from the beginning. It’s campy, it’s melodramatic, it’s violent and explosive, and, I’ll say it again, it’s fun.
I didn’t know anything about James Whale the first time I watched Bride of Frankenstein. Even so, I was enchanted. Then I learned more about the man behind the movie and it only added a poignancy to the horror story.
The Bride of Frankenstein is the story of a misfit: a creature who is rejected by the world, a creature who is just trying to find his place, find a friend. And whether that friend is a lonely old man in the woods or a bride made just for him, all the Monster really wants in the end is relief from the loneliness that defines his existence. Maybe Whale was a misfit because he was openly gay during a time when that was even harder to be than it is today. Or maybe it had more to do with his upbringing in the lower class that made him extremely aware of class differences. Maybe, along with most of the world in 1935, he was exercising demons from his time in WWI and the years spent in a German POW camp. Or maybe it was all subconscious. Maybe all he was trying to do was make great art and put a little of his soul into his films during the process.
Whatever he was trying to do, he succeeded in giving us a great film. The Bride of Frankenstein is a horror movie that continues to influence the genre today.
It’s a movie I can watch over and over and enjoy just as much every time.
“Josh, you’re brilliant! You just helped me crack The Bride of Frankenstein!”
“Aw, yay! And you know, if you’ve watched The Wolfman already, you know what you should watch next?”
“An American Werewolf in London.”