Tuesday, January 19, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

My next film is certainly something that might be more typical for me to write about, given that I run a blog called The Vault of Horror. I'll admit I'm a little more in my element, but I'd go further than saying Bride of Frankenstein is one of the finest horror movies ever made--it is without question one of the finest movies ever made, period.

As horror films go, this could very well be the most skillfully made of them all--certainly of the so-called "classic era" of horror movies, in which, very often, they were treated as mere children's fare. Bride of Frankenstein is so much more than that. It's a sublime expression of cinema as art, wrapped subversively in the guise of a monster movie. And it is without question the finest hour of James Whale, the man I consider to be the greatest horror director who ever lived.

Whale's original 1931 Frankenstein was a masterpiece in its own right, but this was an improvement in almost every way (except sheer ability to terrify), making it perhaps the first sequel to surpass the original. With a much larger budget, and studio confidence on his side, Whale weaves a lush tapestry, giving greater license to Universal set designer Charles D. Hall. It's bolder and more impressive than its predecessor, with a script that's smarter and richer.

I won't be the first one to point this out, but the film is also tinged with a daring Christian allegory that only adds to the viewing experience. Who would've thought that the Frankenstein monster could become a Christ figure, yet this movie does it--having the creature literally descend into the grave and "rise again", associating him with a blind man in a scene which plays to "Ave Maria", and of course there's that iconic moment of the monster "crucified" by the townspeople. This is heavy stuff for a creature feature!

Boris Karloff gets to speak as the monster, and delivers a performance that is packed with power and pathos. Colin Clive, aged considerably by the rigors of alcoholism in the four years since the original, puts in another terrific performance as the good doctor, as well. But it's Ernest Thesiger who steals the picture as the one and only Dr. Pretorius--perhaps the greatest non-monster role of any of the classic Universal horror films. He also gets one of the great movie lines: "Here's to a new world of gods and monsters!"

Beautifully lit and shot by John J. Mescall, who had previously shot Karloff in The Black Cat for Universal, Bride of Frankenstein is filled with unforgettable scenes. Chief among these is the rightfully famous log cabin scene with the blind hermit. Parodied in Young Frankenstein almost as famously, this is nevertheless one of the truly immortal film scenes, and for my money may be the most emotionally moving one I've ever seen in a horror film. It's for moments like this one that the film totally transcends the genre.

Ironically, despite the genuine sincerity of the cabin scene, much of Bride of Frankenstein actually plays for laughs, which is pretty bold in and of itself, given the somber gravity of the first film. The incomparable Una O'Connor is on-hand to make sure things never get taken too seriously, and even some of the monster's violence is given camp value. Yet it never feels forced, or a betrayal of the source material. This is also part of Whale's genius, and the genius of William Hurlbut and john L. Balderston's screenplay.

And then there's that incredible score. German film composer Franz Waxman was one of the most acclaimed and prolific of his day, and Bride of Frankenstein was the first American movie he got a chance to work on after moving to Hollywood. It may very well have remained his greatest. Filled with themes instantly recognizable to any vintage horror fan, the score is as much a character as any actor in the movie, conveying the dread as well as the light-heartedness. The actual theme of the Bride herself is an exotic and beautiful bit of music that represents a high watermark for horror film scores.

Bride of Frankenstein is a film that is far more sublime and wonderful than it has any right to be. Filled with remarkable imagery and delightful performances, it is the kind of film you show to someone who has yet to appreciate the finer points of what genre entertainment has to offer. Plus, it all climaxes in the highly awaited reveal of the Bride herself, portrayed in her brief appearance by the beautiful Elsa Lanchester. With Clive, Thesiger, Karloff and Lanchester all together in this scene, it becomes the kind of thing you don't want to take your eyes off for all the world.

There is a handful of horror films of such high quality that one can literally classify them among the greatest movies ever made. Bride of Frankenstein is one of them. It's the shining triumph of the beloved Universal cycle of monster films, and in this writer's opinion, the best horror film made in Hollywood's "golden age" of the 1930s-1950--which covers a hell of a lot of ground.

NEXT UP: Bringing Up Baby (1938)


James Gracey said...

I love this film - and after reading your fine review B-Sol, I may have to watch it again over the weekend! Its been a while. Thanks - this is a cool wee blog you and Nate have here.

B-Sol said...

Thanks, James. Glad I could inspire you to re-watch James Whale's masterpiece!