“I hope her bones are firm.” – Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).
Some creative endeavors tell you something about their creators just by watching them. If a guy named Sam makes a movie like The Wild Bunch, or a guy named Russ makes a movie like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, well, we kinda know what kind of guy we’re dealing with. At the same time, when a man named John makes a movie like Polyester or a man named James makes a movie like Bride Of Frankenstein, we can logically infer at least the one thing about them as well. Even Homer Simpson could eventually figure it out.
American culture has advanced (somewhat) since the days of “not that there’s anything wrong with that” – I shouldn’t have to qualify how I do not at all make this observation as any kind of a slight, how gay men and women are responsible for just as much wonderful art as their straight counterparts, or how I adore the work of James Whale apart from any matters of sexual orientation. But none of that changes the fact that Whale’s 1935 follow-up to Frankenstein, the equally renowned Bride Of Frankenstein, is as obviously gay as two guys talking showtunes on a Pinkberry date.
Bride Of Frankenstein is campy, theatrical, broadly comedic, and daringly weird, particularly when viewed next to its darker, far more ominous predecessor. Whereas 1931’s Frankenstein had scarily murky compositions, unsettling framing, and a scene of a child getting murdered, Bride Of Frankenstein is weirder, campier, and quite frankly, livelier, which is no criticism whatsoever. As a more recent example, it’s like the difference between Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2: Both are terrific horror films, but the tones are drastically different.
The opening scene of Bride Of Frankenstein is rather strange – again, horror movies hadn’t quite learned to start with the scares. With a storm going on outside, the real-life poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, having just heard the story of Frankenstein’s monster from Shelley’s wife, are told a follow-up tale by Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester).
It turns out that Dr. Henry Frankenstein (the brilliantly over-wrought Colin Clive) did not perish alongside his creation in the blazing inferno at the end of the first movie. In fact, Henry survived, and is tended back to life by his devoted fiancée (Valerie Hobson), who is horrified to learn that Henry hasn’t learned jack-shit from his experience. He hasn’t given up on his deranged experiments; all that’s lacking from a full-blown mad-scientist relapse is just a gentle nudge.
Cue Doctor Pretorius.
By far the movie’s most memorable character if you’ve seen it (and I say this about a movie that includes two Frankenstein monsters), Doctor Pretorius is twice as insane as Henry Frankenstein, with wilder hair, a nattier wardrobe, and even more nimble diction. This guy loves to talk. He chews on words like an elderly dachshund masticating on Kibbles ‘N Bits. He also loves creating unholy monsters. And he’s good at it too.
In an indelibly eerie scene, jarringly scored to jubilant orchestral music, Pretorius (inexplicably wearing what looks like a yarmulke), show Frankenstein his latest creations: miniature human beings who he keeps in jars. There’s a king and a queen, a pope, a man Pretorius refers to as “a devil”, a ballerina, and a mermaid who lives in a bottle of water.
Instead of being totally weirded out like any rational human, Henry is inspired, and the two decide to collaborate. Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s Monster, still played by Boris Karloff and still on the run from a world that fears and hates him, has also survived the events of the first movie.
In a very bizarre scene (it’s a trend!), the Monster happens upon Pretorius in his laboratory, sans Henry, and they share a smoke, some booze, and a whole mess of conversation.
The Monster, once a grunting beast, has now become a regular chatterbox. This is the “Fire Bad!” Frankenstein Monster we all know and love. So interestingly enough, Bride Of Frankenstein is more about the business of these three guys hanging out and creating the Bride, than it is about the Bride itself. The Bride doesn’t even show up until the movie’s almost over – not an exaggeration – and when she finally arrives, it doesn’t go well. It’s kind of a mismatch. The Bride is played by Elsa Lanchester, in a shocking dual role for those who remember the movie’s opening scene, and she’s terrific (and a total babe, for the record), iconic and striking, but The Bride kind of spends her whole screen time shrieking a bunch, and just generally bumming out the Monster.
This isn’t exactly a movie that promotes healthy heterosexual relationships. Between Henry and his constantly beleagured fiancée, and the Monster and his Bride, there ain’t no happy romance to be found, not that this is necessarily the agenda at play. It’s just something interesting to note in a movie which, once again, seems to be one of the first not-so-subtly gay films of American cinema. For Doctor Pretorius alone. I mean seriously, if Helen Mirren got acting awards for playing a queen, so should Ernest Thesiger have.
But listen fellas, don’t let any of this gay subtext scare you away. I’m as straight an arrow as anyone there is, and I will continue to gladly admit that Bride Of Frankenstein is so much fun. I’ve never seen it with a crowd, but I’d love to. James Whale is one of the most accomplished directors of horror films, so the movie is creepy where it’s intended, but it’s also a total riot, intentionally funny all the places where it’s meant to be. It couldn’t be more different from the monument of classic horror which precedes it, but it’s just as much worth your valuable October viewing time.