Bride of Frankenstein
It’s quite appropriate that Joe Dante should have introduced the documentary on the disc release of Bride of Frankenstein, since the film represents the original free-for-all sequel, one where the director gets away with perhaps not doing anything he wants, but far more than one would have expected within a studio structure. Dante would later achieve the same thing with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, of course. Bride of Frankenstein is held up as a horror classic, and understandably so; it’s a far superior picture to its predecessor. But it’s also a picture, consequently, that is far more memorable for its idiosyncrasies and foibles than for succeeding as lucidly considered narrative.
Which fully ties in with James Whale’s designs for the picture, that it should be a “hoot”. The concept duly went through a series of screenwriters before arriving at the final prospect of a mate for the monster, although it’s one of the picture’s peccadilloes that Else Lanchester only has about five minutes of screen time as the Bride; indeed, but for her iconic design, her dual role as Mary Shelley in the entertainingly affected opening sequence would surely be regarded as the more notable one.
There’s not that much of Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein either. At least, not that much that’s engaging, aside from the obvious and oft-used visual quote “She’s alive! Alive!” Mostly, he frets over what he has done while Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson replacing Mae Clarke) tenderly rebukes his “insane desire to create living men from the dust of the dead”.
Instead, we focus on by far the film’s best character – Karloff’s monster has nothing on him – in the form of Ernest Thesiger’s magnificently camp Doctor Pretorius, intent on dragging Frankenstein back into the creation business. Thesiger had appeared in Whale’s The Old Dark House three years earlier, and Universal apparently wanted Claude Rains (who is just as fantastic, in his own way, in The Invisible Man), so we have Whale to thank for persevering and securing this miracle of hilarity.
Pretorius, a professor of philosophy, was booted out of his university position “for knowing too much”, and in the most bizarre sequence in the film, we’re privy to the evidence of this. He too has created life, in the form of miniature “people” in glass jars (“I grew my creatures, like cuttings”), suggesting Frankenstein “leave the charnel house, and follow the lead of nature”. For his part, Frankenstein protests “This isn’t science. It’s more like black magic”. And something we’d be more likely to find in a Ray Harryhausen film.
Elsewhere, Pretorius is simply flamboyantly overripe (one could quite imagine a better version of Carry On Screaming with Kenneth Williams as a Pretorius type). At various points, he asks “Do you like gin? It’s my only weakness” and then “Have a cigar. They’re my only weakness”. When the Monster comes across him, having set up an impromptu picnic in a crypt (“I rather like this place”) with a skull as the centrepiece, he is quite unflustered (“Oh, I thought I was alone. Good evening”). The only disappointment is that the Monster singles him out for a fiery end while letting Frankenstein go free.
As for the Monster, the script is, shall we say, opportunistic about his presence, spending much of its time granting him a showcase travelogue as he happens across various types – kind, indignant or otherwise distressed – during which there’s precious little plot to be tracked. Most famous is OP Heggie’s blind hermit, memorably spoofed by Gene Hackman in Young Frankenstein, but really, there’s more than enough amusement here anyway to render Mel Brooks’ sendup slightly redundant. He’s definitely vastly over-starved of company (“I have prayed many times for God to send me a friend”).
The sequence also leads to the Monster speaking, something Karloff wasn’t keen on. Certainly, the talking version is much more Herman Munster than the original’s impassive creation, and with comedy hijinks of him eating, drinking and – very amusingly – smoking a cigar or two, Whale has to continually throw in moments where he menaces children, gypsies and shepherdesses to maintain any sense that he is a threat. But there’s already a sense of sendup here, with only his second appearance, an attitude that wouldn’t be uncommon in sequels of many and varied properties going forward, where filmmakers struggled to find anything to enthuse them in going back to the well, so understandably opted for levity as a balm.
A dozy man-child the Monster may be, but it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the big lug when his carefully-coiffured intended point blank spurns him. You can’t get much more emphatic than screaming at the sight of a suitor. Still, it feels to me that a chance was missed for more humorous unfolding at this point, rather than instantly moving on to blowing everything up.
Notable too is Una O’Connor, essentially playing the hysterical landlady part she did so memorably in The Invisible Man again. You can see where the late great Terry Jones got his eccentric lady act from. I suspect most would proclaim Bride of Frankenstein as the peak of the Universal horror cycle, and Thesiger certainly does a huge amount to credit that position, but I have to admit I find The Invisible Man the more satisfying picture overall.