Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: James Whale
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester
“We belong dead…”
There’s not many horror films that are as heartbreaking as Bride Of Frankenstein. James Whale’s sequel to his 1931 classic hits all the marks you want from a film like this, it’s macabre, it’s visually stunning, it’s wonderfully shot and the casting is superb. It’s damn near perfect (but not quite, more on which later), but more than anything else, it’s a film that properly breaks you every time you watch it at the sheer tragedy of it all.
It’s a masterpiece, no doubt about that.
On a dark and stormy night, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) are told by Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) that the story of Frankenstein and his Monster was not over at the end of her infamous book…
Crowds are still gathered at the ruins of the burning windmill where it seemed both Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his Monster (Boris Karloff) perished.
Both have survived however, with the Doctor’s body being taken back to his castle to be discovered still breathing, while the Monster wreaks havoc making his escape from the mill, murdering the parents of the little girl he had previously drowned.
Frankenstein is traumatised by what he has experienced and swears off trying to ever create life again, despite pressure by his former mentor, Doctor Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).
Meanwhile, his creation rampages across the countryside while being hunted by a mob of villagers befit finding solace and friendship in the home of a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie).
Before long though, the Monster is on the run again, bringing him into contact with Pretorius, who uses him to threaten his creator into resuming his work. This time though, he will not create a man, because the monster desires a mate…
Wow. Where to begin with this one?
Well, maybe that genius beginning? Starting the film off with Mary Shelley herself telling the story is a masterstroke, both in framing the tale as a morality play and in facilitating a flashback scene that shows everything that’s came before, but smartly never letting us see the Monster.
The whole film treads a fine balance of horror and gallows humour, setting its stall out from the off with the hags standing outside the fire, like the crones who took the front rows at the guillotine, uttering the gloriously lurid line “that’s his insides, caught at last! The insides are always last to be consumed!”. They’re ghoulish voyeurs, revelling in the horror they are watching unfold. Sound familiar?
The Monster’s reappearance covers both bases too, with his first two killings being played for scares then laughs. There’s a nice callback to the first film too when he sees the young goat herder and rescues her from the water (unlike the unfortunate little girl previous) but naturally it ends badly for the unfortunate creature when he tries to muffle and/or smother her when she rebuffs his friendly advances.
It’s the first instance of a theme that will inform the entire narrative, that of the gentle and childlike monster who just craves love and acceptance, but learns to hate and kill when he’s met with nothing but fear and violence himself.
Karloff is just as astonishing here as he was first time around, imbuing his Monster with all that silent pathos and emotive physicality as before, bug this time round he gets to expand even more, as the creature slowly learns to speak. Again, it’s another masterstroke as not only does it allow him to articulate the pain of his existence, but we realise that he’s far from the basic brute he appears. Through his interactions with the hermit, we find out that not only is he capable of speech, but he understands everything that’s going on around him. Every action, every word. It’s a real gut punch and the more you think about it, the more devastating it is. By the time he’s had any potential happiness snatched away again and is saying things like “Made me from dead. Love dead. Hate living.”, it’s almost unbearable.
Colin Clive gives us a different kind of Frankenstein this time, though. He’s scarred and lucky to be alive, less manic and driven, more horrified by the results of his hubris and determined never to try again.
The whole plot rotates on the new element of Pretorius and Ernest Thesiger gives a deliciously conniving turn in bringing him to life. He’s not outrightly villainous, but he’s a reprehensible character all the same and Thesiger draws him brilliantly.
Saying that, he’s complicit in Bride Of Frankenstein’s one major, howling flaw. Pretorius’ previous experiments are completely and utterly wrong-headed and stick out like a badly stitched-on thumb even in a dark fantasy like this one. It just doesn’t work and is the main reason this sequel isn’t quite as perfect as it’s predecessor.
The other factor is that we just don’t see enough of the eponymous Bride. Okay, the story isn’t about her, but when she finally makes an appearance, she’s an incredible screen presence with Elsa Lanchester bringing an electric mix of vulnerability and otherworldliness to her. It says a lot about just how much of an impact her 5 screen minutes has in how much of an iconic image she has to this day, it’s just a shame there isn’t more of her on screen.
James Whale really achieved something special here, there’s no doubt about it. Taking his original film and not just trying to replicate it was a bold move, but in creating a film that many feel is actually superior to that classic (though I’m not one of them), the director caught lightning in a bottle yet again. It’s an astonishing piece of work, and one that deserves every bit of its lofty reputation as a classic of the genre.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy