Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Comedy in Horror: A Review of 'The Bride of Frankenstein' (1935 film)

Camp ages better than seriousness. Subjected to the ironising current of time, straight-faced gothic horror becomes ridiculous. James Whale prevented The Bride of Frankenstein suffering this fate. He makes his film ridiculous to begin with.

One night, Mary Shelley reveals to Lord Byron and Percy Shelley that her tale, Frankenstein, had a second part, that of the bride of Frankenstein’s monster. Henry Frankenstein has put mad science behind him. He’s settled down in his massive castle, and all’s right with the world. That is, until an even madder scientist, Dr Pretorius, drags him back into the game. They will make a female monster. And it turns out the original monster is alive and well. 

The Byron and Shelleys framing device cleverly flips-off Frankenstein purists. The previous Frankenstein film did not faithfully adapt the source material. This sequel is even less faithful, and yet here Whale forces Mary Shelley to say, ‘This is my story.’ Whale even puts in Mary Shelley’s mouth that most platitudinous reading of Frankenstein: Frankenstein should never have tampered in God’s domain. Whale is saying, ‘I know this is nothing like the book, and I don’t care.’

In that spirit, I will not compare this to Mary Shelley’s work, spare for one area. I feel the film has filled in one of Shelley’s plot holes. In the book, Frankenstein fears building the monster a bride, because he thinks they’ll breed a race of monsters. The prospect is as horrible as its solution is obvious: don’t build the bride with a womb. When you’re building a human from the organs up, wouldn’t you have to intend to make it fertile.. Whale’s film corrects this. Frankenstein fears the monsters breeding, but Dr Pretorius intends it. He wants the bride to bear children.

Whale has forgone straight horror, and has instead made a horror comedy. The archness of the acting and tone teeter between gothic and hilarious. Dr Pretorius’ old-queen mad-scientist shtick nails the archetype far better than Frankenstein. And the Bride, when she darts her head around in stupefaction, can either unnerve or tickle. But The Bride’s comedy does not limit itself to exaggerating the gothic. It has comedy elements which are plainly and solely comedy elements. The scene where Pretorius shows Frankenstein his ‘experiments’ cannot be taken seriously. He has miniature, Tudor-era homunculi living in jars. None of them seem particularly miffed about their imprisonment. They do not bang against the glass while silently screaming, in some darkly comedic way. No, this is just a weird, light-hearted comedy beat.

Not to say that all the comedy’s surreal brilliance. Una O’Conner fills a far more conventional comedy role, the shrieking servant woman. She was neither funny nor necessary to the plot.    

The Bride of Frankenstein is a decent comedy, even if it pretends to be a horror film. It may have flaws, but it does plaster over some of the Mary Shelley’s flaws. Give it a watch.

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