Lord Byron: “Astonishing creature.”
Mary Shelley: “I, Lord Byron?”
Lord Byron: “Frightened of thunder, fearful of the dark. And yet you have written a tale that sent my blood into icy creeps. Look at her, Shelley. Can you believe that bland and lovely brow conceived of Frankenstein? A monster created from cadavers out of rifled graves? Isn’t it astonishing?”
Mary Shelley: “I don’t know why you should think so. What do you expect? Such an audience needs something more than a pretty little love story. So why shouldn’t I write of monsters?
Lord Byron: “No wonder Murray’s refused to publish the book. He says his reading public would be too shocked!”
Mary Shelley: “It will be published, I think.”
Percy Shelley: “Then, darling, you will have much to answer for.”
Mary Shelley: “The publishers did not see that my purpose was to write a moral lesson. The punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God.”
Lord Byron: “Well, whatever your purpose may have been, my dear, I take great relish in savouring each separate horror. I roll them over on my tongue.”
Mary Shelley: “Don’t, Lord Byron. Don’t remind me of it tonight.”
Lord Byron: “What a setting in that churchyard to begin with. The sobbing women. The first plod of earth on the coffin — that was a pretty chill. Frankenstein and the dwarf stealing the body out of its new-made grave. Cutting the hanged man down from the gallows, where he swung creaking in the wind. The cunning of Frankenstein in his mountain laboratory, taking dead men apart and building up a human monster so fearful, so horrible, that only a half-crazed brain could have devised. And then the murders. The little child, drowned. Henry Frankenstein himself thrown from the top of the burning mill by the very monster he had created. And it was these fragile, white fingers that penned the nightmare.”
Percy Shelley: “I do think it a shame, Mary, to end your story quite so suddenly.”
Mary Shelley: “That wasn’t the end at all. Would you like to hear what happened after that? I feel like telling it. It’s a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters.”
Lord Byron: “I’m all ears! While heaven blasts the night without, open up your pits of hell.”
Mary Shelley: “Well, then, imagine yourselves standing by the wreckage of the mill. The fire is dying down. Soon the bare skeleton of the building rolls over, the gaunt rafters against the sky……”
That is the fantastic opening scene of what is considered by many to be one of Universal Pictures greatest horror films: “Bride of Frankenstein”.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton), and mutual friend Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), are spending a stormy evening indoors together. The weather prompts a conversation about Mary’s yet-to-be published horror story, “Frankenstein”.
This opening is a prime example of the perfection that was Universal horror. There’s no action in this scene at all. Nothing’s going on. It’s three people in a room, chatting away and remarking about the weather. But the set is gorgeous. It’s immaculate and screams opulence. The actors are delivering their lines crisply, clearly and with feeling, and Elsa Lanchester is absolutely adorable as Mary Shelley. She truly is. The personification of innocence, veiled in a hint of mystery.
These were the days when movies had substance and flair. Take a good story, create a lovely backdrop, and hire decent actors. No need for flash-bang tactics, or nudity, or gratuitous language or violence. It’s just a GOOD movie all on its own. Like the other great horror films of the day, Bride of Frankenstein is theatrical and highly stylized. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I shouldn’t just say “horror” films though. As strange as this may sound, there are moments in this film that are very reminiscent of my favourite Christmas movie (yes, I went there, sorry! Only one more day till I can start decorating! :D), the 1938 MGM version of “A Christmas Carol“. It’s the way it feels, the way it sounds, the way it all comes together so beautifully.
One moment in particular stands out for me. After the lightning strikes and doctors Frankenstein and Pretorius unwrap and dress their new creation, Elsa Lanchester assumes a very traditional bridal pose and Doctor Pretorius announces her in minister-like fashion, arms flourishing and everything, “The bride of Frankenstein!”
And the music swells, the church bells ring out, and man, oh, man, talk about dramatic impact! They just don’t make movies like they used to anymore.
The Woman Behind the Monster
In 1818, the real Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published what was to become one of, if not THE, greatest horror novels of all time when she was just 21 years old. It was published anonymously, though many assumed it was the creation of her husband, Percy, considering that he penned the introduction. I’m sure Bride of Frankenstein‘s opening dramatization wasn’t too far off the mark. How could a young, beautiful girl in the early 19th century be responsible for writing such a tale of terror? Such an unassuming woman, the mother of the monster of all monsters? Surely it was difficult to believe.
Can you imagine what she must think now? 197 years later, her “Modern Prometheus” has exploded into a pop culture phenomenon that shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Countless movies and TV shows have been filmed, books and magazine articles have been written, and mounds of monster memorabilia has been produced. And all in the name of her creation. I can’t even imagine how she feels. Honestly? I hope she’s incredibly proud.
Whether you’re a fan of horror or not, the Bride of Frankenstein is recognizable to just about everyone. She’s a woman created from stolen bones and scavenged body parts — the experiment of two men who would be gods. Doctor Henry Frankenstein had already tasted the consequences of, as movie Mary Shelley puts it, “a mortal man who dared to emulate God,” in the 1931 monstrous hit Frankenstein. But the ability to harness life and death is a powerful thing. So is blackmail. And it’s a little bit of both which lands poor Henry in the laboratory once again in the Frankenstein sequel film Bride of Frankenstein in 1935.
This year we celebrate the 80th anniversary of this classic horror film. For eight decades, fans both young and old have been fascinated by the love story that was simply not meant to be. The Monster and his mate. We’re captivated by the idea that even a monster just wants to be loved.
Boris Karloff reprises his role as Frankenstein’s Monster. In my previous post, “Why We Love Frankenstein’s Monster and Hate Michael Myers“, I discussed how the Frankenstein Monster is believable as a sympathetic character because he’s merely the product of his surroundings, rather than being inherently evil. Most crimes he commits are the result of basic human instinct. Fear, pain, or by accident. And no one embodies this sympathy better than the great Boris Karloff.
Look at those eyes. Karloff was truly one of the greatest actors who ever lived. His face is so expressive. Even under the grotesque makeup, he was able to capture the Monster’s humanity — the key to us loving him in spite of his actions.
The Monster we see in Bride of Frankenstein is very bitter. He’s been scarred. He’s tasted much more of the world’s hatred of him, being nearly burned alive (if you can call him that) at the end of the first Frankenstein film. He’s lonely and angry, and when Doctor Pretorius offers him the companionship of a mate who’s “dead” like himself? Well, how could any of us resist that.
Doctor Pretorius: “Do you know who Henry Frankenstein is? And who you are?”
Monster: “Yes. I know. Made me from dead. I love dead. Hate living.
And if you don’t feel bad for the poor ol’ Monster when the villagers catch him, strap him to a pole, and drop him backwards into a wagon, then you really don’t have a heart. Boris’s performance is just so good. In many ways, he’s like a child; frightened and in pain. And then the way he smiles as he stumbles through the forest, clutching his injured arm, when he hears violin music coming from a cabin? Breaks my heart.
This brings us to my favourite scene of Bride. The Monster and the blind man. I don’t know if the real Mary Shelley ever said what Elsa Lanchester does at the beginning of the film. That she meant “Frankenstein” to be a moral lesson. Whether she did or not though, there IS much to be learned from this story from a moral perspective.
This scene beautifully illustrates how quick we are to judge someone based on how they look, and also how easily we condemn what we don’t understand. The people in the film immediately react to the Monster in a negative way. Screaming, mobbing, being completely overtaken by bloodlust. Their first instinct is to kill the Monster (not unlike the villagers in Twilight Zone’s “The Gift”). But the blind man is different. “You’re welcome, my friend, whoever you are,” the blind man says as he welcomes the Monster into his home. Karloff holds out his hands in the most pitiful way imaginable. I’ll admit, I tear up at this point every time I watch the film.
“It’s strange, perhaps… perhaps you’re afflicted too. I cannot see and you cannot speak. Is that it? If you understand what I’m saying, put your hand on my shoulder. That is good… We shall be friends. I have prayed many times for God to send me a friend. It’s very lonely here, and it’s been a long time since any human being came into this hut. I shall look after you, and you will comfort me.”
The hermit tells the Monster to lie down and rest. Taking his hand, he prays.
“Our Father, I thank thee, that, in thy great mercy, thou hast taken pity on my great loneliness. And now, out of the silence of the night, hath brought two of thy lonely children together, and sent me a friend to be a light to mine eyes and a comfort in time of trouble. Amen.”
The hermit lays his head down on the Monster and starts to cry. A tear runs down the Monster’s face as he puts his hand on the hermit’s shoulder in a gesture of comfort. And just like with the church scene in “A Christmas Carol”, I’m done. I’m just done. *grabs for the tissues*
Another nice touch here that you certainly wouldn’t see today is when the scene fades to black, the crucifix hanging on the wall stays illuminated for a few seconds and is the last thing to disappear. I love that. I just love it. Mercy, compassion, forgiveness and hope. These are what the crucifix symbolizes here.
And let the lesson not be lost on us. Before the Monster came along, the hermit too was alone. Ostracized and forgotten by society. Treated as if he were some kind of monster to be shunned and scorned. And all because he was blind. Because he was different. The poignancy of the tale of Frankenstein comes when we realize that Karloff’s Monster is not the monster Mary Shelley is warning us about. The book/film is called “Frankenstein” because the doctor is the real monster. The people are the monsters. They’re cruel, selfish and greedy. Running around in their self-righteousness and piety, inflicting pain on the innocent. It took a poor old blind hermit to show the Monster any kindness. And when he did? The Monster didn’t attack him. He reciprocated. Because he was a person too. A person who deserved to be loved.
The Monster’s Mate
Pretty little thing in her own way.
So where does the title star come into play here? The movie is called “BRIDE of Frankenstein”, so where is she? Well, as it turns out, there’s not really a whole lot of Bride in Bride of Frankenstein. In fact, in a film with a run time of 75 minutes, Elsa Lanchester gets roughly 10 minutes of screen time: 6 as Mary Shelley, and 4 as the Bride.
This film does boast some pretty cool credits. Lanchester is credited for her role as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, but “The Monster’s Mate . . .?” remains nameless even in the closing credits.
But of course, we all know that it’s Lanchester under those bandages, sporting the Nefertiti’s headdress-inspired hairdo. I wonder if there was really anyone watching this back in 1935 who didn’t recognize that the same actress played both Mary Shelley and the Bride?
This must have been fun for the actress — playing two parts that couldn’t have been more different. As Mary Shelley, Elsa was prim and proper, demure and sweet. But as the Bride, she’s very nervous and flighty. Her movements are jerky and bird-like, making her seem like a very primitive creature. Lanchester said that she based the Bride’s hissing and snarling on swans she had observed. And frankly, I think that’s very fitting, isn’t it? Swans are known primarily as being very graceful and elegant creatures. Yet they have this nastiness about them. The Bride looks for all intents and purposes like she’d be graceful and elegant, but appearances can be deceiving.
Lanchester does a wonderful job and it’s a pity we don’t get to see more of her. But her 4 minutes as the Bride of Frankenstein proved lasting. Her look was so striking that it became iconic, and is one of the most coveted looks for Halloween-goers of all ages. Her likeness has been reproduced countless times, and by many artists, including some of the greatest artists of the modern world.
Even I finally gave in to the temptation to paint this most recognizable of classic horror characters. I completed “The Bride: All is Vanity” just a few days ago. I’ll be devoting a full blog post to her in the near future.
I read that Bride of Frankenstein originally closed with an epilogue by Elsa Lanchester speaking in character as Mary Shelley. Such a pity that was cut from the final film. It really would have brought it all together so nicely. But the film still has a very poignant ending.
The Bride rejects her mate. She can’t stand to look at him or even be touched by him. The Monster is understandably distraught, and lashes out, threatening to blow the entire castle “to atoms”, as Dr. Pretorius says. But when he sees Elizabeth (Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée) at the door, calling for the man she loves, he does something amazing. The Monster implores the Doctor, “Yes, you go! You live! Go!” Then turning to Dr. Pretorius, he snarls, “You stay. We belong dead.” Once Henry and Elizabeth have fled, the Monster pulls the lever, destroying Dr. Pretorius, his Bride, and himself, the castle being obliterated in a fiery inferno.
In the end, the monster recognized right from wrong. And he showed compassion on the one man that he probably should have hated more than any other — Doctor Frankenstein, who created him. In the end, the Monster was the most human of them all, wasn’t he? Despite all the pain and suffering he had endured, he showed mercy. Even though he was never going to be happy, he offered someone else the chance to be. The Monster sacrificed himself. The best kind of story — where good triumphs over evil. And THAT is a lesson worth remembering.
And that’s it for this year’s fang-tastic horror-themed October posts. Hope everyone enjoyed the thrills and chills along the way. Happy Halloween, everyone!
Until next time, unpleasant dreams . . .