Perhaps none of the original suite of Universal Monster films has such an enduring reputation as James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It is frequently highlighted as the high point in this series of iconic films.
Narratively Bride of Frankenstein plays almost like an early example of fanfic. It is a story “suggested by” Mary Shelley’s novel, functioning as an extension of it. The film opens with Mary Shelly and Lord Byron inserted into the film. This leads into a pretty incredible early example of structurally recapping the first film, as Shelley goes over the events of Frankenstein (1931) with cut scenes from that film playing onscreen. Unfortunately though, after this quite inspired beginning, the narrative is pretty unsatisfying, mainly because of where attention is focused. Namely, the focus is more on the human characters and elements of the story rather than the monsters. Frankenstein’s monster is denied agency throughout, which is generally not how these characters are treated in the Universal canon. The very basis of the plot – a bride for the monster – does not come from the monster. Some scientists just decide to make one for him, denying the character the agency to determine their own path. The story being driven by the humans, makes the plot drag badly, rather than the more kinetic progression that would have made the film stronger. On a much more simplistic level, this film needs way more bride of Frankenstein. She shows up with maybe six minutes to go. We’re are talking Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) levels of not giving the people what they want. It’s a bummer too because she is such a great character, both in terms of appearance and what she brings to the story.
The film is at its best when being unique and quirky, rather than the more stock horror elements. There is a wildly fantastical touch when some miniature people show up. Similarly fantastical are the scenes of the monster walking through the woods as a mythic feeling soundtrack plays. It appears James Whale was experimenting with the content and form of these films, and his boldest expressions work the best. The main joy that I took from the film came from these little touches. Boris Karloff is now billed simply as ‘Karloff’ whilst the iconic ‘?’ credit now goes to the monster’s mate. Also, like all these Universal films, it looks great. Such a creativity to the set design and the film always feels so atmospheric even when the story fails to deliver.
Boris Karloff is such a cerebral actor and this may be one of his best performances, even though the film is weaker. He has such a physical presence. And it is not just that he looks hulking, but also in the way that he acts with his whole body. The performance is even more impressive given the character is much more ill-defined than in the first film. At times he is tender, at others viciously murderous, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why he acts a certain way at each point. Perhaps the major misstep is having the monster talk. It is totally unnecessary as the character was already iconic without that ability. This choice amplifies a broader clumsiness in the film, that is the characters speak the themes, rather than the story embodying them in any coherent manner. In addition to Karloff, the other standout performance comes from Colin Clive as Dr Frankenstein. He is able to convincingly convey the experience of a beaten, battered man going through torment. A man torn apart that provides a solid emotional core to the film.
Verdict: I had high hopes going in, but I have to say Bride of Frankenstein is unfortunately one of the lesser Universal Monster flicks. The choice to deny the original monster of any real agency, and the bride of any real screentime, means we are stuck with less interesting human characters to accompany through the story. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Of all the iconic entries into the series of Universal Monster films, probably none can match James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) on that front. Of course starring Boris Karloff as the monster, the film is one of the earliest examples of turning an intelligent source into an intelligent, yet at times rollicking, genre film.
Frankenstein takes Mary Shelley’s rather large scoped source novel and extracts from it a taut tale, covering off on the most cinematic aspects of the novel. We see Dr Frankenstein, beset by a kind of madness, give life to his monster. We see the ‘humanity’ of this monster. Which is perfectly encapsulated in a heart wrenching, and really quite confronting scene, that is perfect in its performance and execution (I won’t spoil it, but if you have seen the film, then you should know the scene I refer to). Then we see the horrors that the created creature can reap and in a brilliantly shot finale the village folk gain their revenge, but it is safe to say that you won’t be cheering at the sight (I wonder if people did when the film was first released?). The script of the film enhances the gothic elements of the piece, which is one of the film’s strengths and also manages to be populist without being mind numbingly dumb. Watching this film does deliver a real sense of nostalgia, though that is not to say that it is a dated film. It still feels relevant and still works as a piece of cinematic enjoyment too. Perhaps it is a little nostalgic for me in particular as it beings back memories of my iconic turn as Igor (Fritz in the film) in the Mudgee High School year 7 stage production of the Frankenstein story (a production that also famously starred Josh Jordan as baby Frankenstein).
Whilst obviously not as detailed as in the source novel, there is a lot of thematic exploration in this one. Most prominently is the notion of what it means to be a god and what it means (from a very standard Christian standpoint) to toy with that. The thematic focus is on Dr Frankenstein as the man corrupted by his own intelligence and more importantly power. The themes explored through this character are universal ones, both obvious analogies such as the use of scientific progression, as well as more subtle ones such as everything from world affairs, to the use of information to really anywhere that a power structure exists and is exploited (so everywhere basically). There is so much detailed craft and imagination in this film. One of my very favourite touches comes in the opening credits where the monster is listed as being played by ‘?’ (Karloff is listed in the closing credits). Despite looking like it was modestly budgeted, the sets lend the entire film a real gothic quality. Like all of these Universal films, the filmmakers did so much with so little and the design of the sets really transcends the budget. Though some sequences do feel a little like they are taking place on a theatre stage, it is never distracting and is really as much to do with the writing as the sets.
James Whale, as a person, must be one of early cinema’s most interesting characters. An openly gay (very rare for the time), English migrant and former WWI prisoner of war who played a major role in the early invention of the horror film in the American industry with films such as this one, its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Invisible Man (1933). Like many American directors of the time, Whale seems to have been particularly influenced by the work of early German directors such as Fritz Lang and you can clearly see the influence of films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) on this film, with plenty of canted shots playing up the gothic aspect of the film. As the monster, Karloff again shows that he is more than just a vehicle for physical transformation. Just like in The Mummy (1932), Karloff brings so much emotion to the role of Frankenstein’s monster and along with the script helps to convey humanity in this creation that makes the film far superior to how it would have otherwise ended up. The acting style across the board works well. The mannerisms are quite over the top without ever becoming distracting. But the performances always feel like they are at the service of the plot and the themes, rather than the actors aiming to steal scenes. I have already mentioned that Dr Frankenstein is the thematic focus of the film and this is assisted by Colin Clive’s intense performance. A performance that culminates awesomely in the famous “it’s alive” sequence, which delivered by a lesser actor would have been cringeworthy to the point of being unwatchable.
This is the second time I had watched this film and strangely it felt less dated to me this time. The acting is better than most films of the vintage, particularly genre ones and of all the Universal monster films, this one excels the most at iconic scenes and also probably at thematic exploration.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
2014 Progress: 13/101
Bram Stoker’s brilliant classic of English literature Dracula, first published in 1897, has produced numerous film adaptations – from the sublime, like Nosferatu in both its 1922 and 1979 iterations; to the garbage, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for example. Though I acknowledge my views on the latter are not universal.
Arguably no film adaptation of the novel has produced a more iconic interpretation of the novel’s central character though than Tod Browning’s Bela Lugosi starring Dracula (1931). Browning’s is a Dracula tale full of towering castles crawling with terrifying life forms (including somewhat absurdly an armadillo), an incredible orchestral score, those iconic Universal Horror sets (which intriguingly hosted the shooting of a Spanish Language version of Dracula at night at the same time this film was being shot) and plenty more that brings the atmosphere. The film is just so wonderfully staged. Apparently it is based heavily on a play based on the book and that sort of shows in the construction of the film as a whole, especially the way in which characters are introduced and plotlines set up. In comparison to most adaptations of Stoker’s novel, Dracula spends very little time in Transylvania, rather getting rather more quickly into the London set part of the story. The Transylvania set part still contains some of the most fun parts of the film. The scene where Dracula first sees his houseguest’s blood is pretty fantastic, with a dynamic camera zooming in to emphasise Dracula’s bloodlust. Before Lugosi comes out with the zinger “I never drink… wine”. It is undeniable that this 80 odd year old film does clunk at times. There seems to be a particular obsession with close-ups of Lugosi’s face shrouded in darkness, with only a strip of light over his eyes.
It is impossible to talk about this film without discussing in depth Lugosi’s turn as Dracula. Indeed when most people think of Dracula, the image they have is not Stoker’s Dracula, it is Lugosi as Dracula. Look no further than last year’s fun animation Hotel Transylvania (2012), a film where Dracula as voiced by Adam Sandler looked a whole lot like Lugosi. Initially when watching the film this time around (I had seen it about 10 years ago), I was wondering if Lugosi’s performance was so iconic because of the actual performance itself, or just because of how his character looks. But it is immediately clear that Lugosi’s actual performance is really ace too. He has this shtick which he works throughout the film that just makes him seem to truly inhabit the role of Count Dracula. His Dracula is the bogeyman, both literally and figuratively, the dark force lurking in the shadows outside of a woman’s house in the darkness of night. It is easy to see why when so many people think Dracula, they think Lugosi. There is somewhat of a paradox at work here though. Because whilst Lugosi’s performance is stellar, he is not given the chance to show off his chops too much. Indeed Browning seems content to predominately focus on his (admittedly awesome) iconic look. Lugosi has some excellent support from other actors in the film too. In particular Dwight Frye as Renfield is really something else. Initially he hams it up wonderfully as the stranger in Transylvania who finds himself the houseguest of Dracula. Once he is sent mad by whatever occurs in that castle though, Frye’s performance becomes even better, as he is transformed into a Peter Lorre-esque force of nature. His performance is probably the most horrifying aspect of the film, at least it was for me.
Dracula is a very clever version of this ubiquitous tale that has stood the test of time and definitely deserves to be watched. It has to be seen to witness what is the most famous interpretation of the character of Dracula. But rest assured there is plenty else here to hold your interest as well.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
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