Friday, November 1, 2013

"...OR GOD, IF YOU PREFER YOUR BIBLE STORIES"

My first encounter with both FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND magazine and the classic 1935 horror film, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN occurred simultaneously. FAMOUS MONSTERS #21, pictured above, was one of the first three issues of FM (along with #24 with a Werewolf of London cover and #25 which featured a KING KONG film book) I ever saw. They were on display in a five and dime store (I forget the name) in the Allandale Shopping Center on Burnet Road in Austin. Much to my eternal regret, I didn't purchase any of the magazines but I soon sent in a coupon, which came in an Aurora plastic Monster Model Customizing Kit, and received via the mail my first ever issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS. It was #26, with a terrific OUTER LIMITS cover. My life has never been the same since.

Over the years, I read about BRIDE in the pages of FM. I bought, painted and built the Bride of Frankenstein Aurora model kit (which was subsequently and appropriately enough, blown to bits by Black Cat firecrackers). But it was years before I saw the film itself.

I was in junior high school and Ricky, my brother's roommate from junior college, had moved in with us for a semester. He brought with him a small, portable black and white television. Late one Saturday night, when both my brother and Ricky were out on dates, one of the local television stations broadcast BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Here at last was my chance to see this legendary film. Ricky kept the television set at the head of his bed and when he watched it, he did so on his stomach, his chin propped on his pillow, his face inches away from the tiny screen. He wore sunglasses to cut down on the glare from the tube. This was certainly not the most optimal way in which to watch anything on television (then or now) but since it was the way he had things set up and I was using his television in his absence, I opted to watch BRIDE the way I'd seen Ricky watch other shows. And so, flat on my stomach, my chin and arms resting on a pillow, a pair of sunglasses protecting my eyes, I watched BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN for the first time. My life has never been the same since.

I've lost track of how many times I've seen the film over the last forty-some odd years. My buddy Kelly Greene and I showed it to our class when we co-taught a short course on the history of horror films through Austin Community College back in the early 1990s. I've introduced it at the Paramount Theatre. I own it a copy of it on DVD (VHS before that). In short, I've seen the film many times and I never tire of watching it. It is without a doubt my favorite Universal horror film and in my estimation, the greatest horror film ever made.

Watching BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN on Halloween night is becoming a tradition here at Casa Campbell. Judy and I watched the film again last night (as we did last Halloween). We started off the evening with fifty-cent corn dogs from the local Sonic, then settled in to view the film. Our porch lights were off to eliminate interruptions from trick-or-treaters.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is such a thematically rich and visually imaginative film that I pick up something new almost every time I see it. To begin with, there's the question of just when and where this film is taking place. Although filmed in 1935, BRIDE opens with a prologue set sometime in the 1800s. The prologue features Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester) the author of the original 1818 novel, FRANKENSTEIN, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. While a fierce storm rages outside, Lord Byron recounts events from the story (illustrated by scenes from the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN) after which Mary Shelley precedes to tell them, like a Gothic Paul Harvey, "the rest of the story".

 But if the action in the introduction takes place in the early 19th century, exactly when does the subsequent narrative of BRIDE take place? Some of the characters are seen wearing contemporary, 1930s style fashions, while others are clothed in what look to be 1800s Middle European garb. There doesn't appear to be widespread usage of electricity (expect in Frankenstein's castle laboratory) as candles can be seen in many of the interior shots. The telephone appears to be an exotic instrument when it is used in one scene to allow Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive)  to communicate with his human bride-to-be Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). No motor vehicles are seen in the film, but horse drawn carriages, carts and wagons figure in several scenes. All of the castles, cemeteries, villages, huts and forests look like something out of a fairy tale and certainly do not accurately represent Europe in the mid-1930s.

But that's okay because they're not supposed to. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is a dark fairy tale that exists outside of the space and time in which it was made. It is clearly taking place on an alternate earth in a parallel universe that while similar to our reality in many ways, is radically different in others. The film takes place on what I like to refer to as "Earth Universal", a realm in which all of the classic Universal horror films take place.

Religious themes abound in BRIDE. There are constant allusions to the monster's Christ-like status, especially when he is "crucified" by the villagers in the forest. There's a crucifix image in the blind man's hut that is optically highlighted while the scene fades to black and the monster rampages through a cemetery in which a statue of Christ is prominently displayed.

And then there's Dr. Pretorius. Superbly played by Ernest Thesiger, Pretorius is a mincing, effeminate, Mefistophelian presence in the film who mixes science and sorcery to his unholy ends. In his first onscreen appearance, he's wearing a collar that resembles that worn by the clergy while he's later seen wearing a yarmulke while displaying his bottled specimens to Henry. It's as if he's a mad rabbi using ancient Hebrew mystic texts (ie, the Kabala) to work his magic. Pretorius blasphemes both Jewish and Christian theology in his attempt to play God and create life. And it's no accident that the first encounter between Pretorius and the monster occurs in an underground crypt. These two characters belong in the underworld, the land of the dead, the home of fallen angels. 


Judy and I both noticed some minor continuity errors in the film and during the kite sequence, some of the actors become momentarily transparent, their images clearly optically imprinted into the castle roof set. I also realized for the first time that several of the magnificent sets are clearly used more than once. For instance, the pool at the bottom of the windmill at the beginning of the scene appears to have been redressed for the scene where the monster encounters and kills a young shepherdess alongside a waterfall and pool. The interior of Castle Frankenstein may have done double duty for the crypt robbing sequence while the towering dungeon in which the monster is temporarily imprisoned is clearly used later for the castle laboratory. 

There are unanswered questions and things that are just plain odd in the film. Where did the screeching magpie Minnie (Una O'Connor) come from? Her character does not appear in the original film. Why does Castle Frankenstein have a doorman who speaks like he's on loan from a Warner Brothers gangster film? And what's going on with Karl (Dwight Frye)? When the monster escapes from prison and rampages through the village, at least three murders occur. However, we do not see anyone, human or otherwise, commit these crimes. It's implied that the monster did it but according to what I've read about the film, Karl is the actual killer and he uses the monster as a convenient patsy. Scenes explaining this bit of back story were never filmed which causes a bit of narrative disruption.

As mentioned above, the sets in BRIDE are magnificent and director James Whale sends his camera on the prowl throughout each one. The mobile camera work here is fluid and extremely accomplished. And during the creation of the bride sequence, the camera angles go askew (reminiscent of the old BATMAN television show), as Whale rapidly cuts back and forth between Pretorius and Henry, the off-kilter horizon representing just how much these characters are unhinged both psychologically and morally.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is a remarkably fast paced film. Whale orchestrates the action well and moves smoothly and quickly from one classic scene to another. By the time we get to the lab in the third act, the action is almost non-stop and it's underscored by a relentless heart-beat, a tympani drum acting as a metronome of impending doom.

Memorable moments abound. The blind hermit sequence (which was savagely and hilariously parodied in Mel Brooks's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN) remains powerful and full of genuine human emotion. The creation sequence is spectacular and Lanchester as the hissing, spitting bird-like bride becomes an immortal horror icon while appearing on screen for less than five minutes. "Don't touch that lever! You'll blow us to atoms!"is a line I heard Forry Ackerman repeat when I toured the Ackermansion in Los Angeles in 1994. And has there ever been a finer coda for a horror film than "we belong dead"?

Sexual themes are rich and abundant in the film and it's impossible to ignore the fact that three gay men (Thesiger, Clive and director Whale) team-up in the film to create a woman in their own image. And let's not forget the music which contains several great motifs and cues, among them a theme that I believe was later appropriated as "Bali Hai" in Rodgers and Hammerstein's production of SOUTH PACIFIC.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN mixes humor with horror to create a wonderfully perverse and subversive film that works on many different levels. It's simply a great film and if you've never seen it, I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

And next Halloween, I'll watch it again. Sonic corn dogs optional.


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