A Word of Friendly Warning
Film essay by: Witney Seibold
“How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation: life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So if any of you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to— well… we’ve warned you.”
-Edward Van Sloan, introducing “Frankenstein” (1931)
For two decades, Universal Pictures decided exactly what monsters are. We know exactly what vampires look like, exactly how Frankenstein’s creation speaks, exactly how a Wolf Man is made, exactly where mummies come from. We even know about the moral bankruptcy of Invisible Men, and the dangers of swimming in Black Lagoons. We know about castles, the crackling thunder, the ominous moonbeams. We know about blood sucking, resurrecting of dead flesh, horrifying transformation, and animal carnage. Every modern American could probably kill a vampire, were they faced with one (and had a stake and hammer nearby).
As a lover of Halloween from an early age, and a morbid child intensely interested in monsters, I am intimately familiar with the so-called “classic” monsters. I am having trouble remembering a time when I wasn’t familiar with them. I have a three-year-old nephew who is already intimately familiar with these creatures. He hasn’t seen any Universal films yet, yet he knows about Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, his bride, and the Wolf Man.
Back in the late 1920s, Carl Laemmle, Sr. owned the then-nascent Universal Pictures. He was aging, and was all set to give his business over to his son Carl Laemmle, Jr. Carl Sr. didn’t bother with horror films at all, thinking them unpleasant and preferring comedies, but Carl Jr. was an enormous fan of spook entertainment after having seen a stage production of English author Bram Stoker’s famous potboiler “Dracula” starring an unknown Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi. It took some pushing, but Carl Jr. convinced his father that a film production of “Dracula” was a good idea. Carl Sr. resisted, but eventually allowed him to produce a “Dracula” movie.
That “Dracula” movie ended up being one of the studio’s biggest moneymakers. It still is, to this day, making millions for Universal. It also started the ball rolling on an entire 20-year-long series of monster pictures produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.
This entire series of films not only introduced popular entertainments to the world, but managed to change the entire cultural landscape. Horror became mainstream. Monsters became widespread. An entire industry of film fright and haunted houses began to appear. Other studios around the world stopped dismissing the “fright” film as a trifle, and embraced them as pop art (not to mention excellent moneymaking “B” cheapies). Halloween had been celebrated in America before, but the popular Universal films catapulted the holiday to a popular maelstrom of monsters and fun. Halloween is currently enjoying a status as the second most expensive holiday in the country. Now every child, adult, costume-maker, and costume-wearer, knows what Dracula dresses like, where the Frankenstein monster keeps his bolts, and why Wolf Men don’t wander around in full moonlight. We Halloween lovers, and we three-year-olds who love the “Groovy Ghoulies” (Hi, Jordan!), owe a large debt to that reluctant decision made by Carl Laemmle Sr. over 75 years ago.
Eventually, the Universal monster renaissance (1930 to about 1949) gave way to cheesy imitations, endless sequels, and a turn to ridiculous nuclear fears that created less memorable creatures like giant mantises and spiders. The genre would rise and fall, but the genre as we know it today would not even be in place were it not for “Dracula,” Bela Lugosi, Tod Browning, and the morbid fandom we horror buffs share with Carl Laemmle Jr.
I’ll have more to say about “Dracula” in another essay. The subject of this essay is what is probably the best of the Universal monster classics, “Bride of Frankenstein.”
“Frankenstein” (1931), directed by James Whale and based on the novel by “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley,” was imitating the success of Tod Browning’s “Dracula.” They are both based on classic literature, were both already somewhat buried in the collective unconscious, and both featured a central horrifying supernatural creature. But while Dracula was a deadly and charming lothario, the creature created by the title character was a misunderstood brute. Thanks to the success of “Frankenstein,” and the growing popularity of their monster stock, Universal started plans on a sequel to “Frankenstein.” The film’s star, Colin Clive agreed to return. The uncredited British actor who famously played the creature also agreed. It took some ding, but eventually James Whale also decided to make a sequel (he had already made “The Invisible Man” and “The Old Dark House” and was trying to bet beyond doing sequels and fright films; he eventually would with films like “Show Boat” and the war film “The Road Back.”).
A few words on Mr. Whale: Thanks to the 1998 biopic “Gods and Monsters,” and the book on which it is based, many now know that James Whale was not only a homosexual, but was openly gay in an era when most homosexuals working in Hollywood chose to remain closeted. He was bravely out, and didn’t seem to care who knew it.
Audiences in the 1930s may have been unaware of this, or perhaps largely and actively ignored it, but modern audiences can see clearly how Whale’s bravely open sexuality shows up in “Bride of Frankenstein.” Some of us almost snicker at the camp overacting, the implications of hot monster-on-monster lovin’, the obvious romantic undertones between Dr. Pretorius and Dr. Frankenstein. To many young horror buffs seeing it for the first time, it may seem like unintentional campiness, but, looking back, it seems clear to me that the camp and gay subtext of the film is every bit deliberate. Consider that Frankenstein and Pretorius are almost like same-sex parents of the bride.
The film opens the way “Frankenstein” should have: in the drawing room of Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), on a stormy night when he and his colleague, Percy Shelley (a dandyish Douglas Walton) and Shelley’s quiet and girlish wife Mary Wollstonecraft (Elsa Lanchester). This is based on the real-life story of Frankenstein’s authoring: the three aforementioned did indeed meet at Byron’s mansion, and did indeed have a playful writing contest to see who could come up with the best horror tale. Mary’s was deemed the best.
The three authors talk about the stories they’ve written, and how preposterous it is that Mary, so frightened by the storm, could have come up with such a horrifying tale as “Frankenstein.” We then flashback to the 1931 film, how the monster was made, how the good doctor lost control of himself and his experiment, how a little girl was drowned, and how the mute monster supposedly died in a burning windmill. We now see the parents of the drowned little girl picking through the ruins looking for a body. The man falls in the water and when his wife goes to help him out, she accidentally clasps the monster’s hand instead. It strikes most of us as silly these days, but it’s a grim and deathly scary moment. The monster storms into the woods.
Dr. Frankenstein (Clive) is, meanwhile, recovering from the first film with his loving fiancée Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), and is staying in an inn under the watchful eye of Minnie (the very, very, very shrill Una O’Connor). Frankenstein is approached by a creepy old man calling himself Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) who knows all about the good doctor’s experiments with electricity and grave robbing. He proposes that, having made some little bits of life himself (he reveals miniature humans in jars, calling them homunculi), that he and Frankenstein join forces to make the monster a mate. They toast “to a new era of gods and monsters.”
The monster has, meanwhile, stumbled into a cabin in the woods occupied by an old blind hermit (O.P. Heggie). The hermit thanks God for sending him a companion. He befriends the monster, teaching him to speak, to appreciate good wine, to appreciate good friendship. In the first “Frankenstein,” the monster was seen as a brute. A misunderstood one, to be sure – drowns a little girl entirely by accident – but still a lumbering oaf enslaved by its violent passions. When the monster begins to speak in “Bride of Frankenstein,” he moves past the realm of thudding beast, and further into the circles of delicate soul encased in a stitched up corpse. We can soon see that the monster realizes his own freakish place in polite society, and his immense loneliness. “Me want friend like me” he says.
Dr. Pretorius: “Do you know who Henry Frankenstein is, and who you are?”
The Monster: “Yes. I know. Made me from dead. I love dead… Hate living.”
Dr. Pretorious: “You are wise in your generation. We must have a long talk”
The monster grunts and lumbers, but has a tragic longing that, when looked at in the right angle, can make one cry.
Frankenstein and Pretorius make the monster a mate at the end of the film. The monster looks on. The bride herself only appears in the film for a few minutes, but her teased electrified hairdo, girlish face, and creepy birdlike movements allowed her to remain embedded in the popular consciousness for decades.
The bride spurns the monster; she hisses and shrieks at him. After a few moments thought, the monster claims “We belong dead,” and destroys the lab. The living humans escape. The dead humans perish.
Of course this was not the end of the early Frankenstein films. Bela Lugosi cropped up in “Son of Frankenstein” as Ygor, a mad lab assistant who wanted to be made a monster himself under the misguided apprehension that it would mean immortality. He also showed up in “Ghost of Frankenstein,” and “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” ad nauseum. But “Bride’s” tragic ending, its heartfelt beast, its horror of necrophilia and resurrection, and its glorious window into camp of the past make it an indelible classic.
Watching “Bride” again, I was struck by how funny it was. Not only us Una O’Connor a broad comic figure, but the horror is constantly offset by the gesticulations and overacting of Dr. Petorius. Lurking in the sidelines is the indispensable character actor Dwight Frye, who played Karl in this film and Fritz, the hunchbacked lab assistant in “Frankenstein,” often misnamed Igor. His wide eyes and natural flair for twitchiness is a huge and wonderful addition to the proceedings. Frye also appeared in “Dracula” as the wide-eyed Renfield.
The films may be named after the doctor who made the monster, but it’s funny to see how insignificant Frankenstein actually is to “Bride.” He’s a weak-kneed obsessed fellow who puts off his relationship’s consummation to play with his corpses. He’s not seen as a creep, but as a wimp. Kind of like how Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays are named after the king, but have little to do with the milquetoast monarch.
No, we all know the main focus of the films is the monster. In the first film the monster was credited as only a question mark, even though audiences knew who the actor was. In “Bride” the first credit we see is a large-typed name: “KARLOFF.”
Boris Karloff was a bit insulted when he was asked to play the monster in an upcoming fright film, as he always saw himself a charming and suave British type. Luckily, he took the role, and created untold wealth for himself and unquenchable fame for his image. He also objected to the fact that the monster spoke in “Bride,” but without that halting dialogue, the film would never have had the power it does.
If the monster looks a bit less emaciated in “Bride” its because, thanks to that dialogue, Karloff has to wear his dental bridge to speak. Thus, he was not able to remove it and suck in his cheek like in the first “Frankenstein.”
The monster’s mate is credited as a question mark in this film, but if you look closely enough, you’ll see that the Bride is played by Elsa Lanchester, the same actress who appeared as Mary at the beginning of the film. She adds a grace and fragility to the Bride. She’s only onscreen briefly, but her face and wide eyes and fear are the fulcrum of the film, and Lanchester pulls it off with skill. The Bride holds the distinction of being the only classic Universal monster to have never killed anyone.
More and more monsters came out o the Universal machine for another 15 years. Carl Laemmle, Jr. enjoyed every minute of it. Some are classics (“The Wolf Man,” The Mummy,” “The Invisible Man”), many are not. However, one thing they all have in common is a sense of joy, a sense of freewheeling playfulness with fear, a sense of artistic daring that feels like the people involved are getting away with something. This is one of the wonders of the horror genre. While films today have edged toward a more and more realistic approach to their material, horror film still lean toward the shadows, still make the strange and bent and weird something beautiful to look at. It’s not until you get into a quality horror film that you can see true artistic experimentation taking place. Watch “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” or “Nosferatu,” or “Bride of Frankenstein” and see how reality is a bit more loosely moored than in the average musical, comedy, or chamber drama. The performances are not naturalistic or playful, but Bela Lugosi, Ernest Thesiger, Dwight Frye, Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester all push performances to an odd extreme that had yet been unseen in film acting and has yet to be surpassed. It’s only in horror where this sort of heightened acting can seem natural. Watch a Hammer film from the 1960s of you have any doubts.
Occasionally I sit down with my video copies of the Universal classics I have. It’s uncanny how much power they still have. Horror audiences have become increasingly jaded and more sophisticated, and often demand more blood, more shock, higher body counts, than the films for the ‘30s and ‘40s can provide. But watching “The Wolf Man” or “Dracula’s Daughter” or “Bride of Frankenstein” has everything the average gorehound needs: dead bodies, tragic deaths, burning buildings, creatures causing peril, and explosive overemotional finales. Come, gentle gorehound. Put down your copy of the remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and see that fear can be dark, subtle, ancient, and timeless. Watch “Bride of Frankenstein.” Laugh at the campiness, snicker at the familiar makeup effects, smile at the warming of the monster, and, ultimately, let the film get under your skin. The Universal monster films allow a wicked, fun, scary, and sophisticated joy.
If you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to—well… I’ve warned you.