BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) 9th July 1977 22.50-00.00
‘Alone Bad. Friend Good.’
The Creature (Boris Karloff)
Now I was hooked. Dracula had been a glorious surprise, Frankenstein a missed opportunity; it was with a week’s wait and Bride that I truly succumbed to obsession. I suppose it was inevitable, though I do sometimes wonder what might have happened if the following week’s offering had been instantly forgettable – one of the largely undistinguished and indistinguishable Mummy sequels for instance. Would Dracula have forever remained an extraordinary one-off in my mind? I doubt it. I think I’d have persevered; the grounds for symbiosis between the awkward, uncomfortable adolescent and the awkward, uncomfortable genre were almost certainly too fertile to have dried up so easily, but you never know. As it was, however, the possibility never arose, since the next Saturday served up what is widely regarded as the very best horror film ever made.
Bride of Frankenstein is exceptional in many ways, not the least of which is in being a sequel which surpasses the power of the original – not a claim anyone is likely to make for Halloween 3: Season of the Witch or Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, say. It’s also unusual in the degree to which it has gained an audience beyond fans of the genre – there’s even an extended reference in the film of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Mainstream critics have always been more than a touch sniffy about horror movies, but Bride of Frankenstein is the exception, receiving almost universal acclaim as the foremost example of its kind and one of the most important films of the 1930s in any genre. Perhaps this is because the distinctive characteristics and idiosyncratic vision of James Whale, the film’s director, are so clear for all to see here that Bride can be regarded more as an auteurist masterwork than a production line genre piece. Rarer still though, in the light of this wider acceptability, is that the film never condescends to its genre; never appears to be craving the more rarefied air of critical respectability at the expense of its deliciously perverse horrors – no-one could accuse Whale’s masterpiece of being a horror movie for people who don’t like horror movies.
What makes Bride so special is difficult to define, but perhaps it lies in the fact that no other film within the genre represents quite so perfect a commingling of so many disparate elements. There’s a literate and subversive screenplay; beautiful cinematography and lavish set design; Whale’s incredibly deft blend of sly, dark humour and absolute, unbearably touching sincerity; Franz Waxman’s majestic score which is by turns lush, romantic, witty and profound (the earliest horror movies having been slow to pick up on the possibilities of the soundtrack, both Dracula and Frankenstein presenting the audience with only diegetic sound and beyond this unfolding in eerie silence); Jack Pierce’s makeup designs scoring a fantastic double whammy with both the reprise of the Monster and Elsa Lanchester’s extraordinary Bride; and of course Ernest Thesiger’s arch, bravura, scene-stealing performance as Dr Pretorius.
Even so, the film isn’t quite perfect. I for one could happily do without the excruciating Villa Diodati ‘how I wrote the monster’ prologue with Gavin Gordon’s agonisingly ill-judged Byron desperrrrrrrrately r rolling and ‘enunciating’ in a toe-curling attempt to connote…something, though I’ve never been quite sure what, and Una O’Connor’s shrill comic turn as housekeeper Minnie grates more than it amuses.
Nonetheless, the film’s pleasures are endless and immaculate, and chief among them is the pathos and beauty of Karloff’s performance. For me, no-one can top Lugosi and Vincent Price for presence and charisma, but if, rather than these qualities, one values range and subtlety and nuance then, along with Peter Cushing, Karloff was the finest actor to be associated with the genre, and he’s never better than here. It’s a commonplace to suggest that the Universal films create pathos: a sense of their monsters as victims, but in fact in the later films in the Frankenstein cycle it’s very hard to see the truth of the claim. No disrespect towards Lon Chaney jr., or Lugosi, or Glenn Strange who between them filled the role of the Creature (the term Karloff always preferred to the M word) from Ghost of Frankenstein onwards, but in those post-Karloff films the monster is largely seen as no more than a snarling signifier of ‘danger’, to be brought to life, smash something, or someone, before a handy fire disposes of him all over again. Or perhaps a handy swamp, to avoid appearing overly formulaic. In Karloff’s delicate hands, however, the creature is truly an innocent; child-like in his helpless, hopeless capacity for destruction and always, irrevocably and tragically, more sinned against than sinning.
The power of Bride doesn’t only lie in the exceptional quality of the text itself, of course; the social context of the film’s production lends it a greater resonance. Horror movies have always been closely attuned to their own particular zeitgeist, holding a distorting mirror up to the events and anxieties of their times, from Lon Chaney’s post WW1 studies in disfigurement and amputation to the cold war fears of the 50s atomic age monster movies, and it’s easy to see Karloff’s 1930s monster as a veiled comment on a tormented and vengeful proletariat in the midst of the Great Depression. The costume design, with those ill fitting clothes and asphalt-spreaders boots, underlines the metaphor persuasively, and its tempting to see the monster lumbering disconsolately across the landscape as the carnival reflection of Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (a part which, in a pleasing co-incidence, first made the name of Universal’s soon-to-be monster of choice for the 1940s, Lon Chaney jr.); a portrait of rootless, hopeless, itinerant labour, shambling and lost, unaware of its own strength and innocently, mindlessly destructive; an archetypal role filled for many of us in the ugly 80s by Alan Bleasdale’s Yosser Hughes.
And it was, of course, in the 1980s that class as a concept and a social reality became a very vivid and immediate issue for me. For one thing, Thatcher made it an issue, placing her own psychotic, pathological hatred of we proles at the heart of the political agenda of the day and politicising an otherwise apathetic generation as a result. But it wasn’t a battle that was only fought on the picket line at Orgreave or in the burning inner cities. For me it was more personal than that. A fully formed product of the Welfare State and the first member of my family to go to university, I found myself surrounded, for the only time in my life, almost exclusively by the middle classes.
I’m pleased to be able to say that I never tried to hide or deny my class and my background; less pleased to have to admit that I rather exaggerated my working class credentials, wearing them like another badge alongside the shiny tin circles declaring my support for CND, the Anti-Nazi League and The Clash which adorned my student duffle coat. Lacking the self-confidence to compete on a level playing field with all those Guys and Jeremys, I used my class as a readymade shortcut to ‘cool and interesting’, cultivating a vocal chip (or perhaps a pomme frite) on my shoulder, and created a not completely fictitious but still essentially fraudulent identity for myself as working class hero and angry young man.
Cringing inwardly each time my friends exposed a little more of my working class lack of sophistication – each time I didn’t know the difference between Caerphilly and Camembert, Muscadet and Chablis, or Bensons and Gitanes – I’d defend myself by adopting an increasingly Stalinist party line on what kinds of knowledge were bourgeois and trivial, revealing not my basic ignorance but my housemates’ pampered incomprehension of what real life was like out there in the real world (or Norwich, as I like to refer to it). ‘Mushrooms are middle class,’ I once declared decisively, arbitrarily condemning them with ruthless politburo efficiency to the same gulag to which I’d previously exiled wax jackets and champagne and caviar and Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. The basis for my anti-mushroom edict was that we never had them at home (the ultimate arbiter of all class matters), although I later discovered this was due to a bout of food poisoning suffered by mum and dad before I was born, rather than anything intrinsically anti-proletarian in the hapless fungi themselves. I think it’s fair to say I was not a fun guy (see what I did there?) to be with at the time.
All this formed the spine of my academic career and focus – angered by what I saw as his patronising and sentimental approach to his working class characters, I wrote a snarling and superficial attack on Dickens, a writer I later came to love passionately; an undergraduate dissertation on Orwell, surely the most class conscious of all novelists; and for my MA turned my attention to Robert Tressell’s wonderful and still too little-read radical novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Oh, how the Establishment trembled. I made sure that my well-thumbed copies of Marx’s Early Writings, Das Kapital and Communist Manifesto sat snugly between my big red-spined biography of Che Guevara and my copy of Mao’s little red book in the most prominent and easily noticeable section of my bookshelves – nudging Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies and Alan Frank’s Movie Treasury Horror Movies onto the next shelf down. And of course, as a Literature student in the 1980s Terry Eagleton and Marxist Literary Criticism became second nature to me. Or almost, anyway.
Something in me held back, just a little. The strictures and tenets of an exclusively ideological analysis of Literature always felt somehow inhuman, dehumanising, and blinkered to me. Something in me always wanted to shout ‘there’s more to the book than base and superstructure!’ For all its innate conservatism, mainstream criticism always felt much closer to the true heart of why I loved books and stories than the Marxist or Structuralist terminology I found myself trying to ventriloquize. Perhaps it came down to the fact that I could imagine actual flesh and blood proletarians like my dad, who, without the benefit of a university education had a wide but patchy reading history that took in Shakespeare and Wilde and Dickens and Sterne alongside sea stories and cowboy books and Howard Spring and Leon Uris, reading, understanding, and even enjoying F.R. Leavis, but there was no question of the same being true of Eagleton. And as for Barthes! The rigid, impenetrable language itself formed a block, which suggested to me the formation of a new elitism, and which was simply not shaped to catch a sense of what it was to love, to feel, to be fully human in the way in which you can through and within literature.
This is perhaps partly why, persuasive though it is on some levels, the ‘Monster as proletariat’ reading of Bride of Frankenstein doesn’t quite work for me. For one thing, the Universal movies are filled with representations of the working class, and by and large they’re the ones brandishing the pitchforks and the burning torches and baying for Karloff’s blood. At best I think you could argue that the monster represents the abyss of dispossession and underclass despair which, in their worst nightmares, the respectable working class fear tumbling into. And of course it’s at times like these, and like the 1930s, and like the 1980s, times of recession, and depression, that the nightmare comes closest to the surface. Karloff’s shambling giant is the homeless, friendless, penniless monster we might become if the bank forecloses and the factory shuts down, if the multinational downsizes and we’re undercut by third world sweatshops, if we’re made literally and figuratively redundant by austerity budgets and Brexit and public spending cuts. Of course the truth is we’re always skating on thin ice, but in days like these we can feel the chilly water nipping at our toes. It was this kind of combined working class fear, and pride, which sent my poor old parents almost apoplectic with worry every time I exceeded each new student overdraft limit, wringing their hands with anxiety as each new threatening letter from the bank manager slapped onto the doormat when I escaped my debts by running home for the holidays.
For all that however, I still don’t feel that the resonance of the film and of Karloff’s performance in particular, is ultimately to be defined in terms of class anxieties or class consciousness. It’s a broader, more universal sense of longing which pulls so relentlessly at me. In the end Bride of Frankenstein carries the power it does because somehow, mysteriously, it puts me in touch with the yearning that seems to me to be a central component of the human condition.
I’m not ashamed to say that, sentimental and religiose though it may be, the blind hermit scene (parodied so beautifully by Mel Brooks in his affectionate pastiche Young Frankenstein) moves me profoundly to this day, and that Karloff can bring me close to tears with the simple movement of his hands as he sees his newly animated ‘bride’ for the first time – so full of tenderness and loneliness and hope. The point, in the end, is that Karloff’s monster is us, all we ordinary types, we who Nietzsche called the bungled and the botched, that great mass of unfiltered humanity, filled with failure and defeat and self-loathing and cursed with hopes and dreams and empty wishes.
I’m as moved as I am by Karloff’s pitiable little circling of his hands in supplication and shy welcome towards Elsa Lanchester’s Bride because I’ve felt the intensity of that simultaneous hope and trepidation and fear in the face of longing and desire. I am the monster in those moments. Not that I was stitched together with spare parts from stolen corpses and animated with a brain handily labelled ‘abnormal’, although as I move into my fifties this seems increasingly possible each time I look in the mirror, particularly on a Monday morning. Nonetheless, awkward and clumsy and naive, helplessly hopeful, I am the monster. And so are you. And this is the true secret of this most enduring of all horror movie icons. A creature from the wildest realms of fantasy, a half man with a flat head and electrodes through his neck who becomes, in Karloff’s tender care, Everyman.
At university, as a pale student of the Arts (unhallowed or otherwise), I knew a breathtakingly beautiful girl named Evelyn Wilson with hair the colour of falling leaves and eyes bluer than summer, the girl that all the songs and poems are about. She wasn’t my dream girl, as it turned out, as I’m one of the tiny percentage of the population in the fortunate and – if we’re truthful, exceptionally rare – position of ending up married to my dream girl, but in quite another sense Evelyn was my dream girl – the one who seemed to have stepped, fully-formed, out of my dreams – though never into my arms, sadly; a figure from a fantasy world. There’s an achingly poignant moment in Citizen Kane where Orson Welles’ old editor Mr Bernstein describes a girl in a white dress with a parasol he once glimpsed, for a few seconds only, on a passing ferry. ‘I don’t believe there’s been a month gone by since then that I haven’t thought about her,’ Bernstein concludes wistfully, the rapture of the memory serving to underline his idealisation of not only the unknown girl, but of his own lost youth.
I did get to know Evelyn a bit better than Mr Bernstein and his mystery girl – by now I was nearly twenty so this wasn’t quite the Shirley Chambers in double art scenario any longer – and I even shared a house with her for a little while. Not as intimate as that makes it sound I’m afraid, since there were four or five other people in residence at the time, but there’s something pleasing about being able to say, however misleadingly, that we lived together. Still, for all that, Evelyn never became completely real to me – she always carried a hint of the impossible and the insubstantial with her. I wasn’t in love – I now realise I didn’t know what the word meant at the time, although I spent quite a lot of time spouting rather drunkenly and melodramatically about it – but it wasn’t a question of lust either. It was more like an odd and distant and strangely spiritual sort of worship – closer to the courtly than the romantic concept of love.
Whenever I picture myself back then, and recall the rare occasions I was in any way close to her, I also see Karloff’s little circling palms-up hand gestures and soft, pleading half-moan. However inarticulate and however naïve, they seem to express a universal wonder at the possibility that the dreamed of and the longed for might actually be, or become, in this moment real – and touch, and connect, and fill the gaping empty hole at the heart of everything, and also the dawning, ever-present foreknowledge that such a thing can never be, or at least never for the likes of us. Never for the bungled. Never for the botched.
Believe me, I can be as cynical as the next man if he’s a particularly cynical sort, and like you I have my own bullshit detector for the cloyingly sentimental and self satisfied, and I find it making me hesitate before adding this last thought. But one of the lessons I’ve been taught by some of my favourite things – like Dickens and his pitiable infants so easily and cheaply mocked by Wilde, or Blue Velvet with its achingly sincere teenagers dreaming of the robins of hope, so often and so wrongly assumed by overly knowing audiences to demand an ironic reading, or Bride of Frankenstein itself come to that – is that we need to understand the place and value of sentiment when it’s an expression of truth, and to deny ourselves that truth and that joy for fear of appearing somehow simple or smug or schmaltzy is to deny ourselves a huge part of what makes life worth living.
It’s now almost thirty years since I was that callow student, and almost forty since I first saw Bride of Frankenstein, and I hope I’ve attained a modicum of greater maturity than I was capable of at either point, but I never cease to wonder at my own good fortune – that in this most real of real worlds I have found absolute contentment and love in the central relationship of my life, that such a thing actually can be for one as bungled and botched as me (take that, Nietzsche), and I never fail to marvel at the world of truth and hurt and yearning and despair that a man whose real name was William Henry Pratt understood so perfectly and was able wordlessly to convey in the gesture of a second or two.