Sunday, November 1, 2009

Don't Make a Scene: The Bride of Frankenstein

The Story: This is either the best sex scene in horror movie history, or simply the worst first date in horror films. Depends on how deep you want to read it—as allegory or as reality.

For the reality, we have this: the child-bride of Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) and Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is awakened from her lightning birth and immediately rejects her intended, the monster Henry created in the first film (Boris Karloff). The Monster can now talk, albeit with a limited vocabulary, though he gets by. Like most men, he communicates by grunts and groans, usually. But when he sees The Bride, he immediately becomes a simpering wreck, forlorn and love-sick, a parody of the romantic male, offering tender caresses initially, but eventually, when he can't get what he wants, violence. The Bride can't stand to look at him, emitting first a strangled shriek and then when it's obvious what his intentions are, a blood-curdling full-throated scream.

Director James Whale shoots her the way he introduced Frankenstein—full-length, then a series of jumping close-up's until we're right in her goggle-eyed face. Whale spends a good deal more time on film examining her than he did Karloff's Monster (who got only three shots), giving her more than a once-over, lingering over her, showing her from many angles. Karloff made an appearance on "The Entertainers" once (with Carol Burnett) where he comically lamented the new horror movies: "In the old days, they lovingly applied every stitch." Whale provides more than a chance to examine Jack Pierce's subtle (the dainty jaw-line stitches) and not-subtle touches (do we dare call it a "shock" of hair?)

Elsa Lanchester who played "The Bride" based her characterizations on swans--graceful, lovely, but spitting-mean. That's why the quick, unnerving head-pivots she makes, as she takes in her new surroundings. If she looks unstable on her feet (and Whale choreographs an unnatural wobble that nearly plummets her into Dr. Frankenstein's arms), it's because the 5' 4'' Lanchester is standing on stilts strapped to her legs to appear 7' tall.

Messages in horror films burble up subterraneously from approximately six feet under and take root in our subconscious. You may think there's something very disturbing, even radical about "Bride of Frankenstein" without being able to rationalize what it is about it.* It's certainly different in sensibility than Whale's first "Frankenstein" film—this one abounds with camp humor, and plays with religion at the same time it sees compassion and companionship as a Holy Thing. It mocks matters sexual between men and women with its foppish poets and a boyish Mary Shelley in the prologue, the over-sexed miniature people of Thesiger's experiments and the rejection of "The Bride" to "The Monster." Given carte-blanche on his "Frankenstein" sequel, James Whale, gay and ostracized, made a continuation of The Outsider shunned by society, and subjected it to more rejection of a humiliating variety. That the story is of two men, Pretorius and Frankenstein, who conspire against God and Nature to create children is right there on the surface, a homosexual sub-text.

So, when it comes to this scene of "Bride" and "Monster" squaring off between a phallic "lever" that he "mustn't touch," and choosing "death" that produces an orgasmic reaction from the "Bride" and the collapse of a tower...well, you see where I'm going with this—this sexual act leads to "Death" and not just "the little death" of French culture. That the Monster allows the "breeder" couple to flee, tears running down his face in sorrow, while he blows everybody to atoms (to use Pretorius' phrase), puts the tragedy into perspective**

In looking for an on-line script for "Bride of Frankenstein," I noticed one of the writers calling it a "straight sequel." "Denial's not a river in Egypt, honey."

Camp, over-the-top, melancholy, but stylish to a fault, "The Bride of Frankenstein" is one of the greatest of Horror filmsas well as the sub-category of Gay Cinema.

The Set-Up: After coercion, blackmail and the threat of his own Monster (Boris Karloff) being set loose upon him, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) agrees to co-operate in another experiment in regenerating dead tissue with the insane Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Their co-creation: a mate (Elsa Lanchester) for Frankenstein's original Monster.


Note: I've tried to approximate the dialogue between The Monster and The Bride to the best of my ability, but the vocal subtleties of such lines as "Aa..!" and "N-gah!" get a little lost.

Frankenstein and Pretorius remove the Bride's bandages, allowing her to stand on her feet.

Dr. Pretorius: The Bride of Frankenstein!

The stunned "Bride" takes a tentative couple of steps forward, her gaze darting about the room in quick "takes."

Unstable on her feet, the now-living woman wobbles and sways back and forth.

The Monster returns from the Tower, and is aware of another presence in the laboratory.

As if by instinct, the Bride reacts to the Monster's presence, but he approaches warily and tentatively asks:

The Monster: Friend?

At the sound of his voice, The Bride turns to look at the Monster and a strangled shriek escapes her throat...

The Bride: ....Aa...!

The Monster: Friend?

The creature extends his burned, melted hands to The Bride, who acts repelled by him, and then...

...when he reaches out to touch her arm.

...She emits a full-throated terrified shriek.

The Bride pulls away, and turns to Frankenstein, who takes the Bride and sits her down. Pretorius, meanwhile, tries to calm the Monster, who insists on following The Bride.

Pretorius: Stand Back! Stand back!!

The Monster: Gnah!

The Monster brushes Pretorius aside and sits next to The Bride.

He takes her hand and caresses it,

...The Bride reacts in horror and emits another more intense scream.

Frankenstein pulls her away. The Monster is hurt, then angry, realizing:

The Monster: She hate me. Like others.

Broken-hearted, the Monster goes beserk, determined to destroy everything around him in a rage.

He stops at a control panel, one that contains a handy (and very large) "Destroy Everything" Switch:

Henry: (yelling) Look out! The lever!

Pretorius: (warning) Get away from that lever.

Pretorius: You'll blow us all to atoms.

Dr. Frankenstein's betrothed, Elizabeth, manages to escape from her bonds and runs to the tower door which she pleads for Henry to open the laboratory door.

Elizabeth: Henry!

Elizabeth: Undo the door! Henry!

Henry: Get back! Get back!

Elizabeth: I won't, unless you come! Henry!

(Henry opens the door and embraces Elizabeth.)

Henry: I can't leave them, I can't.

Frankenstein must choose: his work or his life. The Monster, however, makes the most compelling argument, giving Frankenstein and his bride a chance to escape.

The Monster: Yes, go!

The Monster: You live!

The Monster: Go!

The Monster: (To Pretorius) You stay!

The Monster: We belong dead!

The Bride throws a passionate hiss at him.

A final tear rolls down the Monster's sorrowful face.

The Monster grasps the lever and pulls it down, starting a series of explosions that destroys the lab and everything in it.


"The Bride of Frankenstein"

Words by William Hurlbut and John L. Balderston

Pictures by John J. Mescall and James Whale

"The Bride of Frankenstein" is available on DVD from Universal Home Video.

* The gay aspects of "Bride of Frankenstein" have become a part of the culture, due mostly to Bill Condon's "Gods and Monsters"—his bio-pic of Whale—but I'll always remember the film-class where this theory was first laid out. The Rosetta Stone for the discovery was the peculiar Una O'Connor's line describing Pretorious: "And a very queer-looking fellow he is..." The instructor went through his dissertation and when he was through, he found himself no longer in the usual room of unforthcoming students "with attitude," but a bunch of open-mouthed geeks, stunned, like "The Bride" at her unveiling. "I've shocked you into silence," he said. "Well," one of the students meekly offered, "It's kind of a mind-blowing theory." And with exquisite comic timing and a professor's active restraint said, under his breath: "...I'm glad you said mind-blowing

** Presumably, after the tower collapses, everyone smokes (sorry).

*** Notice in this shot of the collapsing lab, Dr. Frankenstein is the fellow cringing against the wall. "Saved by a re-write..."

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