Edited May 2016
Preface: Now that I’ve finally decided to go “old” with the blog, I’m doing it in style with not just a regular “old” film, but two, and two that have ripened with age. For this week’s Midnight Screenings, the ’90s, ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, ’50s, and ’40s wouldn’t do. I’m taking it back to two of the granddaddys of filmmaking from the early ’30s, two of the earliest “talkies” and two supreme influences on Midnight Cinema from a time where films could be more openly playful and subversive as filmmakers were still trying to prod and poke at the medium to expose its limits and possibilities.
After the monstrous (I couldn’t resist) success of James Whale’s extremely influential 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein, production on a second film was almost a sure-thing (after all, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the book, had yet to be wholly adapted). As the first film was loved even in its day, one would assume re-creating this formula with slight changes would be sufficient for another success – a sure-thing, in other words. Taking a good, long four years to release it however, Whale and new screenwriter William Hurlbert had something else in mind. Bride of Frankenstein is less a horror movie than a Gothic playground hopped up on psycho-sexual energy, a carnival of camp and winking terror, a delightful parlor-trick of a film spreading its wings and exploring every nook and cranny of the human condition it can find, and doing so with such a sheer sense of joy it can’t but be contagious. It is a film mirrored by nothing before and, quite possibly, nothing since.
The core of Bride of Frankenstein, an empathetic film in the end, is not humanity’s ego, as in the first film, but humanity’s eternal longing for compassion. The Monster (Boris Karloff), having survived his apparent death at the end of the previous film, escapes the ruins of the old windmill and explores the rural world around him, while Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive), who has survived as well, finds himself recapturing an essence of his old life. Both are exploring the world and, above all, learning to come to terms with human company…the Monster famously befriends an old hermit, while Dr. Frankenstein is betrothed to his wife-to-be Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). In comes Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), Dr. Frankenstein’s former mentor who tempts the good doctor with his own desire: to re-create not a sole individual, but a pairing, a loving twosome, by creating in their laboratory a Bride (Elsa Lanchester) for the Monster, who they feel perhaps can be controlled and domesticated with the touch of love.
One could read this as a sort of ghoulish romance, with the Monster and the Bride coming together at the end to prove or disprove human kindness and love. But it’s not necessarily romance that the Monster desires, nor is it romance that the Bride has to desire either. After all, the most touching relationship in the film is between the Monster and an old hermit, who shares several meals with the Monster and gives him a sense of identity. While Frankenstein and Pretorius are alone in the lab creating life, the Monster is more interested in finding his own life in others who largely disown him as an “other”. Except of course for the blind Hermit who knows not the artifice of superficial appearance and remains an “other” for it himself. The two, in a world where tragedy would not enter and where people try not to destroy anyone who looks different from them, could be the best of friends.
Much has been written about a homosexual interpretation to the film, largely related to the film’s camp attitude, a tongue-in-cheek questioning of what gender, romance, and appearance “norms” are supposed to look like. The film isn’t content with normality; it wants to bend things, it wishes deeply to divulge an un-domesticated view of the world and break free of the shackles of convention. Dr. Pretorius desires to make life with Dr. Frankenstein, albeit a life not rooted in conventional procreation. Together they create a child here, a child, the Bride, whose own view of the world is potentially non-gendered and doesn’t conform to normative sexuality in her famous rejection of the Monster at the end of the film. Not to mention, as has been written before by others, Pretorius quite literally takes Frankenstein away from his fiancé to create their own version of life together.
But the implications of the film are more general than Whale’s implicit homosexuality; representationally tracing straight lines from the film to “homosexuality” flattens the mystique and bull-in-a-china-shop anarchy of a film that is more vested in upending and questioning normality, opening itself up to new experiences, rather than stitching itself back up with closed answers and specific readings. A more apt phrase for the film might be that it is sexually curious, or experimenting, rather than specifically homosexual. But then, the film’s undyingly oddball sensibility and proclivity for experimentation defies notions of sexuality altogether.
In fact, as has been pointed out before me, a strong reading can be made for the Monster’s own asexuality in his eternal search for a non-gendered “friend”. If anything, the film quite clearly prods around with the idea of sexuality and gender as constructed rather than innate. It can be read, perhaps, as a pro-universal-bisexuality film, or a film more interested in questioning the idea of sexuality than in any one specific reading of it. It defies expectation, and limiting it to a reductionist commentary on Whale’s homosexuality seems paltry and incomplete for the ever-elusive Bride of Frankenstein, a work that is just dying for a more open-ended, fluxional, mobile interpretation that always slips away from singular, static readings based on narrative. What matters here is not the answer the film finds, but that the film is always interrogating and discovering new possibilities for itself. It’s a restless sort of cinema, and we’d do best to treat it restlessly.
Besides, where the film ultimately arrives thematically is less important than how it gets there, and Bride of Frankenstein gets there on a train of prismatic visual and aural fantastique, a train of pure lightning-bolt energy. It comes wrapped in a gloriously macabre, surreal vision of the world, the kind epitomized by the German Expressionism of the ’20s and still leaving an impression here in 1935. We’re treated to elongated shadows and angles and sets that go on forever but don’t seem to make any sense, all of which match the wildly exaggerated mannerisms of the characters. Here though, it’s played with a less disconcerting attitude than many German Expressionist films, replaced by, of all things, human warmth and a delicious, chaotic energy for playing around with sets and angles just for the hell of it. What we get here, as with the film’s humanization of the “Monster” as the “other”, is a playful attitude toward reality, an exaggerated implication that what we know to be human, or to be reality, is itself the product of stagecraft like this film. In this regard, Bride’s scenery is an extension of its characters, or perhaps they are just extensions of the dementedly loopy world around them. We half expect it will be openly revealed as a theater production, with everything so obviously distorted and the actors so self-consciously hamming it up.
We would expect this, had the film not actually revealed as much in the opening scene: a rather posh parlor scene with Lord Shelley, Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein, upon which the films are based), and friends enjoying their time and recounting stories they’ve fabricated. Here, if anywhere, the film openly lays out its hand for all to see it as the self-conscious, obviously constructed fantasy story it knows itself to be. But it wouldn’t be Bride of Frankenstein if it just laid down the hand. So it’s more a theatrical endeavor, embellished with all the hyperbole and oohs and ahhs, and even a spooky twiddling of the fingers, we expect from a good yarn. As such, the film doesn’t so much have a narrative as it has a mood and a collection of scenes designed to convey this mood, one which combines playful energetic camp, knowing artifice, human tragedy, and garish expressionism. It is unlike just about anything else one can find in the film world, very distinctly a melding of mid-’30s social moorings blockading and barely containing one of the most perplexed, clamorous, scorchingly invasive and speculative minds in all of film history.
Fittingly, Boris Karloff, for all his horror-credentials, essays the Monster as an innocent being enraptured and confused by the world, struggling to make his place within. His character is, as much as Dr. Frankenstein, a proxy for Whale, a man with a buoyantly expressive and quixotically innocent idea of film forced and crammed into Hollywood, trying to do anything he could to tease and play with Hollywood and exploit its money for his own personal fixations and aesthetic interests. Trying, in other words, to use cinema as his toybox where he could create his own world as he saw fit, to imagine an alternate vision of reality where people like him, like Dr. Frankenstein, like the Monster, could roam free. Ultimately, the chiefest joy of Bride of Frankenstein is the liberating experience of the world from the eyes of someone growing up, from a child granted the toybox of the world, or the toybox of cinema, gifted with the insouciance to see the world anew again unmitigated by society or convention.
But boxes have walls, and growing up entails having to fit into a place, to adopt a social role weighing down on a person. As much as Whale does to break down those walls, society was always pushing down on him and limiting his inner mind. It is unavoidable then that the film’s core is tragedy, the central tragedy of a world trying to cram square social roles into round people. The film’s sense of incandescent play, then, is always undercut by an icy mournfulness, a sense of temporality that cuts short the exploration of new possibilities for human life and human connection right as they’re first coming into their own. That sense of incompleteness is one with the film’s indefinable nature; a film daring to test the waters and defy the reality principle can’t but butt heads with the fact that its journey to discover new modes of existence is always fundamentally incomplete. The central tragedy of the Monster’s story is so devastatingly thorny because it is inextricably one with the character’s essential joie de vivre. This is the daily dialectic of a film, and of all life, that can’t separate the wonder of possibility from the weight of knowing about unfulfilled possibilities in the first place.
Is the film scary? Not in a conventional sense, but Bride is a film that lives to upend and bend emotion in the first place. “Scary”, or any singular feeling, would be too limiting. Anyway, the essence of horror, that of the surreal and uncanny questioning of reality, remains. And in the possibility that we are all eternally unloved, Bride of Frankenstein sends a chill down the spine. But it’s a big, glorious, campy, humorous, zany, openly artificial, depraved, anxious, weird chill, the kind we can’t really make sense of but turn to anyway because it simultaneously puts all of human emotion on display and then zaps it with electricity. It is a mischievously abnormal electrified monster of a product designed to tease and to test, the image and sound of something distorting and expanding the boundaries of cinema and abolishing and deconstructing the conventions of the time at every turn. This anarchic screw-the-rules sense of Bride feeling out the waters of existence and social convention is the uncontainable genius of Whale’s incontrovertible masterpiece.
As Susan Sontag notes in “Against Interpretation”, “none of us can ever retrieve (the) innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said”. Sontag’s writing is inimitable when discussing Bride because the film itself is in her spirit; let us not restrict the film to any specific social definition. Let us, instead, be like Whale, be like the Monster, and celebrate the unrestricted flourish of a work that defies interpretation altogether, even as it surreptitiously intimates its own awareness of the loaded social-convention barrel it’s facing down in daring to defy in the first place. Celebrating relentless openness to new experience is a recipe for disaster and death, the film is clearly aware, but its devious, defiant genius is in standing up for the people who would risk that social death to finally experience life for the first time at all.
Bride is altogether a rogue element, a thoughtful but not arcane rereading of Mary Shelley’s original text that treats her unfocused but intellectually probing writing not as a terminal point the film must punctuate with intellectual protectionism. Rather, the film sees itself as an outgrowth of insecurity and opportunity that pulses outward from Shelley’s original radicalism, but which Whale must not rest on or treat as hallow ground. For Whale, the original text of Shelley is foundationally disruptive, dismantling the edifice of rationalist empiricism and Enlightenment thought, tearing open its progressive facade to reveal its corrupted underground roots in the masculine compulsion to categorize and command all knowledge and, in a progenitor to Foucault’s bio-politics, to structure and control the very form of life itself.
Arguing that the Monster is gay intractably reduces the film’s advancement of Shelley’s original vision and Whale’s restless fantasy to throw conventions of innate and un-constructed sexuality into the imaginative and social hinterlands of Shelley’s original novel. Bluntly, then, the homosexual line is a slight vulgar bastardization of Whale’s achievement, an argumentative or theoretical equivalent of a back-of-DVD pull-quote that catches the eyes and then quickly dissolves upon further prying. What Whale does is treat sexuality and humanity as analytic categories that are fundamentally open, fluid enough to be dangerously and oppressively assimilable into wider society and fugitive enough to grace us with the possibility of genuinely reimagining that society via their alterity.
Even bracketing sexuality, Whale finds beauty in Shelley’s Dark Romantic skepticism about modernism and rationalism; he reintroduces estranging elements, engaging in imaginative symbiosis not only with Shelley but those with a more optimistic attitude toward the possibility of genuinely decolonizing the mind and proliferating strange, roving visions of existence that unsettle the very moorings of Western society via their restlessness. Effusing from a notionally decisive and fixed world, Whale, reintroduces not a pre-mixed, ready-to-microwave horror show but a genuine monstrosity, a film that asks us how to incorporate discordant elements into society and then stains us – the every-person – with the blood of our failures to be sufficiently open and radical to new elements. The real achievement of the film is not that the Monster is such a radical creature, but that the film so palpably adores him that his alienated bewilderment and gorgeously beguiling possibility effuses into the film itself, unshackling it from normality, reintroducing the demimonde, and assaulting us mentally with the force of something so un-clarifiable that it can only be labelled for what it is: a happening.