It was such a pleasure to see James Whale’s two Universal Frankenstein movies at the Picture House over the last couple of weeks. Watching films on the big screen which you are personally familiar with, and whose plots offer no surprises, you tend to focus on incidental details or on forgotten moments and supporting characters. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Dwight Frye in both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. His scuttling, bug-eyed Fritz in the former is hugely entertaining, and certainly far more interesting than Colin Clive’s dull Henry Frankenstein, from whom he takes his orders. The mad, grinning glee of his face as he peers above the railings in the graveyard from which he and Henry are observing the burial of the body which they are waiting to resurrect is a delightful introduction. Henry just calls his loyal toady a fool and pushes him down again.
The accursed stairs - Fritz answers the door, eventuallyThere’s a wonderful moment during the storm-lashed creation sequence when he hobbles down the winding, gothic stone staircase in Frankenstein’s ruined watchtower laboratory with his stick and lantern to answer the echoing knock on the door. Muttering all the way about the unreasonableness of calling at such an hour and the inconvenience of descending such unsafe and oversized stairs he gives them an abrupt dismissal, even though its absolutely teeming it down outside. Turning to climb all the way back up again (muttering still) he pauses on the bottom step to pull up his sock. This small gesture, combined with his disconsolate complaints, make him an appealingly human henchman, and it’s rather sad when he’s strung up by the monster (echoing the fate of the hanged man he’s earlier cut down from the gibbet). We can assume that the bullying cruelty which provoked his murder was a redirection of the kind of treatment he’d received in plenty, not least from the contemptuous Henry.
Fritz enjoying his workFrye turns up once more as Karl in Bride of Frankenstein, a completely different henchman, his hair flattened and teeth given rotten discolouration. Whilst Fritz was a hunchback, Karl suffers from a disparity in the length of his legs, the shorter shored up with a hollow platform which is oddly modernist in its spare, elegant functionality. Whilst we can feel some sympathy for Fritz, Karl soon earns our revulsion. He ensures the ‘freshness’ and youth of the replacement heart for the female monster demanded by Henry by heading straight into town, lurking in the shadows and murdering the first suitable, ill-starred soul who passes by. Karl and Fritz are in many ways the shadowy Hyde sides to Henry’s bland, simpering Jekyll, extensions of his hidden impulses manifested as twisted homonculi. They carry out the unsavoury tasks which are essential for the furtherance of his experiments, but which he is unprepared to sully his hands or conscience with. As Stevenson showed with his doubled character, Henry’s respectable surface of moral rectitude is a thin façade papering over the violent appetites of the untamed id, which are just waiting for the cue to be unleashed. The Hyde persona, in film incarnations from the 1920 John Barrymore version onwards, tends to crouch down into a hunched stoop, adopting a lurching primate gait. This suggests a devolution towards atavistic urges, a shedding of the constraints of civilisation.
Ygor contemplates further evildoingFritz and Karl follow this pattern, and set the template for the Universal mad scientist’s assistants, and for the many subsequent emulations of the type. An unfortunate offshoot of this is the equation of physical disability with moral turpitude and brutishness, a bent posture read as a backward slide down the evolutionary slope. In the follow-up to Bride of Frankenstein, a natural extension of the family tree giving us Son of Frankenstein, the moral evil associated with the henchman’s hunched posture and limping gait is given direct causation. It is the result of his execution by hanging, which he has somehow survived; he’s as tough as the gnarled trees spiking the dead landscape which the young Baron Frankenstein passes through on the train to his ancestral home. He’s a semi-wild hermit, with more than a touch of Rasputin about him, who haunts the ruins and forests beyond the edge of town, a barbarous ghost feared by the locals. Played by Bela Lugosi, who brings a wily and calculating ruthlessness to the role (this may in fact be one of his best performances), the henchman is here elevated from a put-upon lackey to an active, coercive and highly dangerous force. He is the evil twin of the benign, saintly hermit who befriends Karloff’s monster in Bride of Frankenstein. He’s also given the henchman’s signature name – Ygor. It’s a name which has become comically associated with the classic mad scientist’s assistant, as witness Viv Stanshall’s spoken query in the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s version of The Monster Mash: ‘have you watered the brains today, Igor?’
Attempts to revive sympathy for the henchman were made in House of Dracula, one of Universal’s later, slightly desperate multi-monster packages. Here, the hunchbacked assistant is a woman, Nina, who has been promised some radical treatment by kindly scientific genius Dr Edelman, whose unorthodox practice is located in a large gothic castle (so the film should really be entitled House of Dr Edelman). In return, she acts as his lab assistant under secretive and frequently unsavoury working conditions. Alas, her fate, in common with all henchpersons, is an unhappy one; she is killed by the very doctor who has given her hope for a cure after she stumbles across him during one of his twitchy mad scientist turns attempting to revive Frankenstein’s immortal monster once more. Karl too suffers an ignominious end, casually tossed off the roof of the laboratory tower by the monster in the midst of harvesting the storm to awaken the bride. The horror henchman’s calling invariably invites doom.
The pampered prince (or baron) - Elizabeth attends the ailing HenryDwight Frye’s richly eccentric characters have many rivals in Bride of Frankenstein. In the first film, the tone is more sober. It is struck by Edward Van Sloan, who reprises the kind of rationalist, paternalistic character he played in Dracula (as Van Helsing) and would go on to portray in The Mummy the following year. Exuding scholarly gravitas, he is ponderous, deliberate in speech, and much given to gesticulating with his spectacles to emphasise his point. The latter part of the film does have an enjoyable performance from Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s father, a blustering old buffer first encountered in smoking jacket and tassel-topped cap. He too complains about the uneven, winding staircase up to Henry’s laboratory, grumbling at its lack of a handrail. It’s a light mockery of gothic heaviness which anticipates the tone of Bride of Frankenstein. The nominal leads are terribly insipid, though, and you suspect that Whale is surreptitiously mocking them throughout. Henry is such an unlikely object of romantic interest, his face never losing its fixed grimace of sweaty anxiety, that the long-suffering Elizabeth is given an alternative, pencil-moustached beau to be by her side throughout. He’s rather obviously sticking around to be there at the moment she realises what a wet blanket Henry really is. In Bride of Frankenstein, Elizabeth (technically speaking the title character) has married Henry and been incarnated by another actress, the young Valerie Hobson (who would go on to star in some classic British films by the likes of Powell and Pressburger and David Lean in the 1940s). She’s also acquired a more voguish 30s wardrobe. Her role is wholly subsidiary, however, and Hobson has very little to do other than react to peril with an appropriate level of hysteria. However, she does deliver the absurd line ‘I do hope he doesn’t upset Henry’, spoken to herself whilst pausing at the door of the bedroom in which she’s left him with the sinister Dr Pretorius, with a knowing quality which suggests she may have been in on the joke.
Una O'Connor prepares to let flyBoth Hobson’s Elizabeth and Colin Clive’s Henry are crowded out by a succession of overpowering character actors. The first to appear is Una O’Connor, who plays the Frankenstein’s housekeeper Minnie as a shrieking gossip. She’s bold when all seems safely under control, but always ready to run flapping and caterwauling into the distance at the first sign of trouble. It’s a great, broad comic performance. When the Monster comes face to face with her, it seems stunned into a state of temporary stasis. Its murderous rage is suspended whilst it just watches her fly, bemused and a little dazed at such an energetically cacophonous outburst. Una O’Connor was an Irish actor, but this is very much a comedy Cockney turn, something you can imagine her having perfected on the variety hall circuit. But here she is, stranded in the middle of what is supposedly a middle-European country. The peasants in Hammer films a few decades on would also tend towards the London vernacular. The Bohemia of Bride of Frankenstein is certainly a very polyglot place. Hans, the father of poor, drowned Maria, has a wife who pleads with him not to descend into the ruins to seek the monster’s remains in a soft Irish brogue. One of the grave robbers who assist Dr Pretorius also has a noticeably Irish inflection. Henry’s accent is an absurd, tormented variant on the twisted vowels of English received pronunciation, whilst Ernest Thesiger employs his wonderfully articulated thespian delivery, richly rounded and waspishly patrician, every syllable dripping with contempt for lesser mortals. Elsa Lanchester’s vocalisations as the female monster come from somewhere entirely inhuman, but her accent in the prelude, in which she plays Mary Shelley, is precious, sharply etched home counties. Above all, this is a very British cast (Karloff included, of course), reinvented Midlands boy Whale gathering around him a fellow troupe of strangers in a strange land.
Dr Pretorius and Devilish CounterpartThesiger is marvellously fruity as the Mephistophelean Dr Septimus Pretorius and he is, in many ways, the star of the show. When he first encounters the monster, he has made himself comfortable in a vaulted catacomb, and he observes, with indifference shaded by mild annoyance, ‘oh, I thought I was alone’. It’s a remark delivered with a camp offhandedness which might equally have come from Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey in a Carry On film. Henry is soon under Pretorius’ spell, and the Doctor loses no time in separating him from Elizabeth. As many have commented (including Mark Gattiss in his book on Whale, who calls Pretorius a ‘dessicated homosexual imp’) Bride of Frankenstein has a gay subtext which is so evident to the modern sensibility that it’s not really ‘sub’ at all. It was recently included in a BFI list of ten great gay horror films. Whale, an out gay man entirely at ease with his sexuality in a relatively tolerant Hollywood environment, had great fun with the film’s pointed humour and mockery of conventionally sappy romantic mooning, with his friend Thesiger as co-conspirator. Pretorius’ proud claim that he has grown the miniature people he paraded before Henry from ‘seed’ is one of several highly suggestive lines which he managed to smuggle past the Catholic censors, who were generally more fixated on the blasphemous self-comparison of Frankenstein to God (although they allowed Pretorius’ demi-urge toast ‘to a new world of gods and monsters’ through). The source of the seed is left to the imagination. Evidently something of a misogynist (as his loftily dismissive treatment of Elizabeth makes clear), Pretorius has invented a male means of parthenogenetic reproduction which excludes women from the process of creation. This is perhaps the film’s greatest blasphemy. The bride’s blinking horror and implacable hostility at the end of the film may be seen as a reaction to this attempt to co-opt the processes of life.
A beaker of gin - his only weaknessPretorius is fooling no-one when he offers Henry a gin and proclaims it to be ‘my only weakness’. He later makes the same claim for cigars, and could, we imagine, progress through a whole series of ‘weaknesses’. You can’t help liking Pretorius. He takes such evident delight in his wickedness and wonders ‘if life would not be much more amusing if we were all devils’. His dressing up of his squeaking and jabbering miniature creations in the appropriate robes of establishment pomp shows a playful and sharply sceptical sense of humour. Unlike everyone else, he revels in impracticable gothic excess and decay. Climbing the perilous stairs of the laboratory tower, which almost everybody has had a moan about, and which Henry issues an apologetic warning about (‘they’re a bit slimy, I expect’), he cheerfully remarks ‘I think it’s a charming house’. He also finds the sepulchral gloom of the graveyard catacombs homely, the perfect place to unpack a picnic. Whilst everyone beyond the town dresses in contemporary 30s garb (the locals favouring traditional Alpine fashions), he shows his true colours (if such can be said of someone who favours black) by sticking to a sombre Victorian formality. At the end of the climactic creation scene, he acts as splendidly dramatic MC, ushering the ‘bride of Frankenstein’ onto the screen with a sweep of the arms which invites gasps and wild applause. His announcement incidentally helps to create the persistent confusion between monster and creator.
Elsa Lanchester's Bride gives some profileElsa Lanchester creates an electrifying effect in her few moments onscreen as the monster. Her jerking, birdlike movements show off every facet of her stitched-together face and white-streaked shock of gravity-defying hair. She looks like an undead model striking a series of Vogue poses, turning her profile to one side, tilting her head up and giving the camera a direct, open-mouthed stare. She’s sensational, and the hissing swan sounds she produces give her an aura of untouchable, bristling strangeness.
Walking and Falling - the monster as giant toddlerThen there’s Boris Karloff, of course, in the role which defined and in a way confined him, establishing at the pinnacle of the horror pantheon, where he remained stranded for the rest of his career. His performance brings profound depths of pathos to the creature, but he can equally well portray snarling, wildly stomping and thrashing rage with frightening intensity. His pathetic, pleading smile, seeking for love and acceptance, transforms in an instant into a teeth-baring, animalistic growl when he doesn’t receive it. Similarly, his circling, imploring hand motions turn into violent, clawing swipes when he feels threatened. He is essentially a giant child, new-born into a world whose most fundamental laws remain a mystery to him. He walks with a tottering toddler’s stumble, leaning forward into his next step and looking as if he might topple over at any moment. His tentative walk reminds me of Laurie Anderson’s spoken word song Walking and Falling, from her Big Science album. She observes that ‘with each step you fall forward slightly, and then catch yourself from falling. Over and over, you’re falling, and then catching yourself from falling. And this is how you can be walking and falling at the same time’. The creatures childishness is combined with an uncontrolled and unconsciously brutish strength, which makes the scene by the lake, in which the game he plays with his new friend Martha goes horribly wrong, all the more poignant. A significant part of Bride of Frankenstein concerns the education of the monster. Under the tender tutelage of the blind hermit who takes him in, he learns about some of the finer things in life: food, wine, cigars, music and, most of all, friendship. He even comes to entertain the possibility of finding love. He also learns the fundamentals of language and through it reason and moral philosophy. This is the closest the Universal monster ever comes to the articulate creature of Mary Shelley’s novel. With the knowledge of self and of basic moral distinctions, as well as the development of his own voice, the creature approaches the condition of being human. He is now accountable for his actions, which can no longer be considered the instinctive reactions of an unthinking brute, but rather a matter of conscious choice. This new level of awareness makes rejection all the more painful, however, and creates the possibility of real tragedy rather than mere pathos.
Entering the underworldChristian symbolism which runs throughout the film, either offering the monster the possibility of redemption or identifying him as the suffering Christ-like figure. This symbolism finds its ironic centre in the meeting with the blind hermit. He thanks God for answering his prayers and sending a companion to ease his loneliness. The camera focuses on the crucifix on his wall (crucifixes of one kind or another are a recurrent motif in the film) which remains illuminated for a second whilst the rest of the screen fades to black. Ecclesiastical organ music adds to the sanctified mood. But we know that this new companion is a monster created from dead body parts in a laboratory who has just been on the rampage through the local town, leaving in his wake a dead woman and child. This new friend is also scoffing bread and guzzling wine, which runs in rivers down his chin, whilst the hermit prays. The creature’s eventual discovery will lead to the hermit’s hut being burned down, thus making him homeless and bereft of money or possessions. The God who has answered his prayers moves in perversely mysterious and frankly unhelpful ways.
Expressionist titlesWhilst there is a great deal of continuity between Whales’ two Frankenstein films, there are also marked differences in style and emphasis. Frankenstein is more solidly gothic, and its barred shadows, acute angles and exaggerated set design bear testament to the influence of the German expressionism with which Whale was familiar. This debt is made explicit in the titles, which are set against a spinning, kaleidoscopic backdrop of collaged eyes above which a fierce face stares out with hypnotic fixity, very much in the manner of a Dr Mabuse, Caligari or Rotwang. The gothic fixation with the iconography of death is also strongly present.
Symbolist art - death in the classroomIn the lecture room from which Fritz steals the brain, there is a charcoal sketch of dark socketed skull which could have been produced by one of the Symbolist artists of the late 19th century – Odilon Redon, Arnold Bocklin, Alfred Kubin and others. The film begins with a funeral in a wonderfully atmospheric graveyard. A grim memento mori funerary statue of a cowled death, resting on his reaping sword, leans in the background. It is surrounded by a pale of spiked iron fence posts which look as though they’re intended to pen it in as much as keep others out. Neither the gravedigger nor Frankenstein and Fritz, who lurk within death’s pale waiting for the moment when they can dig up the fresh corpse, have any respect for the dead. The gravedigger sidefoots an avalanche of earth into the grave and, when he has filled it and tamped it down with the flat of his shovel, lights his pipe and chucks the match over his shoulder onto the raised bed of soil. Frankenstein frantically shovels the soil back out, flinging it with careless abandon into the face of the statue of death. This irreverence, combined with an aesthetic fascination for the rituals, markers and symbolic representations of death, sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Lauging in the face of deathIn Bride of Frankenstein, the irreverence is given greater emphasis. The monster angrily knocks over a tombstone statue of a saint, and Dr Pretorius uses a sarcophagus in a burial vault as a table on which to set out his picnic. He cheerfully munches and sips in the company of the skull and bones his gravediggers have just unearthed for him. The vault is a beautiful set, and it rings to his infectious laughter, which is thrown in the face of death. The youth of the deceased from whom the bones derive is emphasised. Her 19 years correspond with Mary Shelley’s age when she wrote Frankenstein. Pretorius’ supper with the dead may also serve as a reminder of the proto-Goth trysts which the young Mary (Wollstencraft as she was then) enjoyed with Percy Shelley by the grave of her mother in St Pancras churchyard.
The monster in ArcadiaIf Frankenstein is classic gothic, from its lonely ruined tower to its mist-shrouded graveyards, timeworn stone stairways and even its gloomy, creaking hilltop windmill (a touch of agricultural gothic), then Bride of Frankenstein has more of a fairy tale air bout it. Terence Fisher would later claim that he thought of his Hammer films as adult fairy tales rather than horror stories. His observation could equally apply here. We begin in the distinctly ungothic setting (thunderstorm notwithstanding) of a Regency sitting room in which Mary Shelley proceeds to unfold her tale. With this ‘are you sitting comfortably’ prelude, we are given the impression of being told a story, a written fiction (or at least one composed within Mary’s mind). The Ruritanian light opera backdrop is perfect for a fairytale, and the picturesque town square is complemented in Bride of Frankenstein by lightly wooded hills in which a hermit’s hut nestles and sheep graze by gentle waterfalls. The monster is the lumbering giant terrorising this otherwise peaceful Arcadia.
Sleeping BeautyAt one point, Karloff’s creature throws off the lid of a sarcophagus in the burial vault, uncovering the translucent, perfectly preserved features of the young female corpse lying within. Her face softened and rendered spectral by a veil of gauze, she looks like a Sleeping Beauty waiting for an awakening kiss, or a Snow White in a witch-cursed coma. After his recovery from the travails of the first film, we discover Henry propped up in a bed with an absurdly oversized and fussily baroque headboard. He’s like a big baby in its cot, or a pampered prince liable to throw a tantrum or fall into a sulk when things don’t go his way. Pretorius is a wizened, beaky Rumpelstiltskin, a wily and persuasive trickster. His tiny homunculi, imprisoned beneath their private bell-jars, are miniature fairytale characters in themselves. There’s a little mermaid, a Thumbelina ballerina and a besotted king and disaffected queen. And there’s a devil, that mainstay of many a folk tale, a pocket-sized chip off the old block. Elsa Lanchester’s bride, dressed in her stiff white robe, and with her jagged frosty bolt of white hair, is like an ice queen, or a swan temporarily transformed into human form. With her limbs moving in sudden jerks, she also resembles a puppet brought to awkward life.
The town's gothic undersideIn Frankenstein, there was a definite divide between the gothic world which Frankenstein inhabited and the light operatic set of the town, in which festive dancing is always on the verge of breaking out and steins of foaming beer are swung in time to a lusty chorus. This divide seems less definite in Bride of Frankenstein. The town is even revealed to have its own gothic corners in the form of a grim dungeon with a monumental throne on a stony dais ready for the monster to be chained upon. This is a place stuck in a fantasy of 18th & 19th century feudalism, even though we are supposedly in the 20th century, a fact marked by the loosely hanging suits of Henry and Victor and Elizabeth’s ‘30s wardrobe. The age of technological modernity takes refuge in the unlikely gothic surrounds. In locating the Tesla coils, transformers and resistors of the scientist’s lab in castle vaults and crumbling towers, Whale and his Universal successors make the link between Frankenstein and the alchemists and necromancers of bygone centuries. The gothic is the form in which the past returns to haunt the present, and it does so here with crackling surges of electric current. Fritz Lang made a similar connection in Metropolis, locating the scientist-mage Rotwang’s laboratory in a medieval hovel crouched idiosyncratically amongst the gleaming modernist towers of the future city. He has a cabbalistic pentagram etched onto his wall to mark his intellectual ancestry even more plainly. Pretorius is aware of the shadows of their ancient progenitors too. As he jovially remarks to Henry whilst they are preparing for their great work, ‘it’s interesting to think, Henry, that once upon a time we would have been burnt at the stake as wizards for this experiment’.
Art Deco laboratoryThe vaulting lab set is magnificent, and the way the creation scenes are shot further illustrates the difference in tone between the two films. In the first, expressionist lighting is the key, given a logical source in the actinic flashes from the sizzling machinery. The filming is fairly conventional, with the impressive set and props allowed to carry the dramatic impact through a measured observation of their operations. In Bride of Frankenstein, the emphasis is much more on the editing, which shows the experimental influence of Soviet montage techniques. There is a tilting of the space within the frame, dramatically uplit close-ups of faces, sometimes shot from above, sometimes below, and a juxtaposition of human effort with the dynamic motion of machinery. The lab is noticeably better equipped the second time around, too. Art deco technology makes the contrast between modernity and ruinous antiquity even more evident. This sequence is masterfully achieved, and its swelling rhythms (much enhanced by Franz Waxman’s stirring score) create a mounting sense of anticipation which leads to the triumphant climax of the unveiling of the bride.
Goooooood!Seeing these films in beautifully restored clarity on the big screen, a few slight infelicities inevitably showed through. The backdrop of the overcast sky definitely could have done with a thorough ironing. But with a little imaginative readjustment, those wrinkles and folds become shafts of rain or sunlight. In the scene on the laboratory rooftop in Bride of Frankenstein in which the monster pursues the torch-waving Karl up the Escher-like stairway to nowhere, the two figures are evidently projections. But their spectral transparency gives the scene a haunted, slightly hallucinatory cast which enhances its nightmarish quality. These are minor matters, anyway, and in no way mar these undisputed masterpieces of the horror genre. Any chance to see them in the cinema is a privilege and an unalloyed pleasure. To a new world of Gods and Monsters!