Make no mistake: these two films are masterpieces. Masterpieces of horror, masterpieces of cinema. And they are masterpieces fitted together by a jigsaw of damaged human beings who continued the tradition, nearly 100 years on, of the outsider's love song that is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. And, believe it or not, here we are nearly 100 years later, looking back at these films. As I write this, the first film will soon be 88 years old. When I looked at the novel, I discussed some of the ways in which we are still wrestling with the themes that animated Shelley's 1818 work. When it comes to the films, though, the actual documents have less on the surface to do with ongoing human struggles of privilege, responsibility, accountability, and monstrosity, but many of those topics still roil under the surface of these films. What elevates the movies, in my mind, are the performances of Boris Karloff and Colin Clive under James Whale's direction.
|Ernest Thesiger (L) and James Whale (R)|
I wrote a song about it.
|Boris Karloff and Colin Clive|
Clive's quiet intensity exists only in the first film, however. By 1935, the actor's alcoholism had purportedly advanced to such an extreme state that it isn't any wonder he spends most of The Bride of Frankenstein propped up in bed. He died less than two years later, at only the age of 37. As a result of Clive (and his character) being sidelined, much of the heavy lifting in the movie falls on the very odd shoulders of Doctor Pretorius, played by Ernest Thesiger. Pretorius is a deeply strange character, who I admit has grown on me, but it took a minute. What has not grown on me is the shriekingly hysterical performance of Una O'Connor. She was a longtime friend of James Whale, so I appreciate him giving her the work, but almost the first ten minutes of Bride revolve around her shrieking from one person to another about this and that. I'm reminded of the line in Ed Wood when Ed's financiers ask why he gave Tor Johnson all the lines, and Ed replies, "Lugosi's dead and Vampira won't talk. I had to give the lines to somebody." I cannot help but wonder what that film might have been with a more-active Frankenstein, but then, who knows? Maybe we would not have gotten the charming introduction featuring Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley herself, explaining that the story continued past the burning windmill. Who can say?
|My favorite picture of Elsa Lanchester|
In the end, I confess I enjoy the Universal Frankenstein movies, even those that came much later, and after a few other actors donned the flat head and neck bolts. I find Bela Lugosi very fun to watch as Ygor in both Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein, and enjoy spotting the same three or four actors cropping up in different roles throughout the series. But it's the first two films that created, cemented, and deserve the legacy of the Frankenstein tale. While shaving off some of the thematic elements that I think make the book resonate even today, they nevertheless provide a relatively faithful adaptation that succeeds on its own substantial merits.
Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012.