There’s a special pleasure in a late night TV viewing of a widely acknowledged horror classic – especially when you know little about it. I had seen images of the bride’s white wave hairdo of course; had the idea that some sequences were mocked in Young Frankenstein. But I had no idea what to expect.
For instance, I assumed the bride would be the focus of the story. Not so much. Striking as she is, she’s consigned to a few jerking, screaming moments in the film’s last quarter.
Instead, this is the monster’s story, complimented by the most extraordinary performances from Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius, and Una O’Connor as Minnie.
These are not supporting roles you understand. ‘Supporting’ implies that they are lesser than the titular role, that their purpose is to help the lead’s story unfold. But there is no such heirarchy here.
Pretorius and Minnie are enormous performances, greater than if Whale had gone out and cast town criers in the roles.
Pretorius is a spidery ghoul portrayed with the most epic oily camp. Minnie is a shrieking, badgering busybody.
Each is at first jarring, occasionally too much, but always delightful, drawing incredulous chuckles every time they’re on screen.
Nothing like these performances exist today. And, just to beef up their presence, Whale close-ups on them at every opportunity, more than Frankenstein himself.
The monster of course, remains the star. He has to, because the film is essentially about the tendency of people to stupidity, panic and mob violence.
The monster, after all, is not so very different. He enjoys a smoke and a drink, is charmed by music, and craves freindship. It is people’s reactions to the sight of him, their screaming and flailing, that makes him “love dead, hate living.” The poor bugger can get no peace.
The townspeople are depicted entirely unsympathetically. They are hysterical, a crowd with an unhinged need to hunt and cage, led by idiots like the burgormaster. It’s a town that has a torture dungeon on standby for just this sort of occassion, a town where the pitchforks are at constant hand, a town that has no apparent interest in making Frankenstein pay for his crime, only the offspring of that crime.
Karloff is superb. His monster snarling is nearly too much, but never quite crosses over into the ridiculous. He well portrays a frightened child in the body of a beast, unable to control his power or his feelings. In his scenes with the blind man he’s both tender and potent with violence. It’s a great performance.
Another striking element of Bride is perhaps a quality of its time: the tone swings about wildly. Whale takes us from the most beautiful, haunting shot of the monster fleeing through night time woods, to a comedic, bickering exchange between Minnie and the idiot Burgomaster.
The film simply refuses to pick a mood. It turns on a dime. It wants to be terrifying, slapstick, surreal and moving all in one. It kind of gets away with it, even to a modern viewer.
It has no wish to be credible: it pulls the ultimate sequel taboo of simply having characters it killed in the first movie survive after all. This feeble device is crammed into the first five minutes so fast we don’t have time to scorn it. I mean, who cares anyway – just look at it.
Watching on late night TV is pretty much the perfect way to enjoy this picture, but I have to admit that I won’t truly be able to say I have seen this movie until I view it on the big screen.
It is just the most utterly stunning thing, and is doubtless astonishing on a cinema canvas. Whale’s black and white is the deepest darkness and the creamiest light. It is a film entirely of wonderful sets, both interior and exterior.
The greatest of these is the lab, a crumbling medieval tower given its own unnatural second life through electricity, decked out with switches, dynamos, bulbs and fuses, and the great diffuser lowered from the roof.
The film is coming up on a century old. I sat there gripped, not as a pupil of cinema, just as a delighted audience. Other than the ghastly opening framing device, I was never thrown by its age or appearance.
It is an immortal. It is a beauty. It’s alive!