If you're of a certain age—say, over 30—and grew up in the States, you've at some time encountered those TV programs that feature vintage horror movies. You know the gist: There'd be a horror host clad in cape and Kabuki make-up who'd present a B-movie monstrosity, or maybe a Hammer gore-fest slathered in color, or perhaps an offering from the classical Universal black-and-white canon.
One of my most soul-drenching early memories involved walking in on the scene in 1931's Dracula when monster hunter Van Helsing, peering over the outstretched neck of a female corpse, identifies two tiny pin-pricks. This was akin to voyeurism for a kid, looking in on a world that was so off-kilter, a world that you weren't supposed to see.
Much as I loved Dracula, I knew, even at an early age when I first saw it, that there was no horror film like James Whale's Frankenstein, from that same year of 1931. Whale was far more artful of a director than Dracula's Tod Browning, and Boris Karloff's performance as the monster was why everyone would go on to conflate scientist and creation. So it was with even more amped-up excitement that, a year or so later, I first viewed Whale's follow-up, Bride of Frankenstein, on Creature Double Feature, my local horror host program.
For starters, Bride of Frankenstein, which is now marking the 80th anniversary of its release, was funny, and yet scarier still. That unnerved me. The film opens with Elsa Lanchester's Mary Shelley saying, to a recumbent Lord Byron and her husband, that she's not quite done with the whole monster deal after all—there's more to tell. Everyone rolls their R's with great overemphasis in this reimagining of one of literature's greatest nights, a sleepover party on Lake Geneva that led to a writing contest that birthed both the Dracula—with Byron and his physician, John Polidori, handling vampire duties—and Frankenstein archetypes.
Whale didn't want to return for Bride. Karloff, in keeping with that theme, also didn't wish to come back if the Monster was going to talk. Never mind that in Mary Shelley's novel, the Monster is the very picture of loquacity, equal parts Proust, with his love of talking in periodic sentences, and Silicon Valley's Erlich Bachman, for his attendant bullshitting. All this only makes it more unlikely that Bride is that one horror film that can stand blow to blow with American cinematic heavies like The Searchers, Vertigo, and The General.
Colin Clive, who is wonderful, reprises his Frankenstein role as Dr. Henry Frankenstein (it's Victor in the book, but, ah, screw it; the Bride novelization, which adds a goodly amount of backstory, retains Henry). Clive hated horror films, too. And it's that attitude that is apt in conveying distaste in doing what he's put upon, in character, of course, to do. Which is to say, give the monster what he wants: a mate, similarly made of dead tissue.
Paul Morrissey's 1973 Flesh for Frankenstein would take the idea to its visual conclusion, after stating its infamous line about how if one is to know death, one must fuck life in the gallbladder (which is even acted out). But this unhinged dead versus living setup of Bride works because of Ernest Thesiger and his necrophiliac pederast Dr. Pretorius.
Dr. Pretorius is easily one of 1930s cinema's most shocking characters, which is no small accomplishment. Back then, censorship was inconsistent and dodgy, but it was a good time to be an envelope-pusher if you were clever enough. Thesiger did a variant on the Petrorius role in 1951's Scrooge as a zealous undertaker. But in Bride, he is the film's warped conscience, its motor, the tempter of both the Monster and Henry. He's a man so at ease with his plans that in a world of stranglings and attempted crucifixions and marauding villagers and stitched-together hunks of human flesh, he might as well be settling in for an evening of Downton Abbey viewing.
He has some homunculi in jars, and if the sex wasn't overt enough, there's a libidinous little king who is constantly trying to mount the other little beings that Pretorius keeps in these bloated test tubes. Henry, who you'd think had seen it all, is repulsed, but Pretorius has a way of saying, basically, "Come on man, calm thyself. We all know what we're doing here."
Not a lot of films make you feel all-in. But Bride does. The more it goes along, the more the comedy gives way to the twisted, and what Karloff, not being a fan of the term "horror," would describe as outright terror. It's very Shakespearean, really, with the porter going to answer the knock at the gate while joking about having to relieve himself, before the laughs chill, and the spirits sweep in.
In what may be the most outrageous scene in a film full of them, Pretorius meets, and has a kind of business meeting with the Monster in a crypt, where he is hanging out, drinking, and getting himself bombed. The ghost-story writer M. R. James was a master at suggesting the olfactory unpleasantness of the tomb, conjuring the very specific odor of damp earth mingled with limestone. It's that that Jamesian smell that permeates this scene and the rest of the film.
The laughter is over at this point. Elsa Lanchester, stripped of her Mary Shelley garb, now makes her return in the laboratory as the brought-to-life, shock-haired Bride, a doozy of a dual-role. We've had our comedy, we've seen how it can feed into terror, and now we move from external terror to a terror of a different kind: the ones that affect the heart. For the Monster's would-be Bride wants nothing to do with him, and Lanchester—who took her inspiration from a pissed-off cat—hisses her complete repulsion, as though the Monster is not even worth a garbled sentence or two.
The Monster then refuses to even try to argue, essentially telling his creator to get the hell out of Dodge before he blows everyone up—himself, the Bride, and Pretorius. The knock on the film—such as there is one—is that after being so desperately insistent on finding something even a reanimated corpse could call love, the Monster makes his deathly decision in an instant. Which is to say, his actions give voice to the feelings so many of us have had, that emotional explosion from which it feels there is no return. The unpredictable nature of the human heart is, sometimes, the scariest thing of all.
Colin Fleming's fiction appears in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Boulevard, and Black Clock, and he also writes for the Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and the Boston Globe. His newest book, The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, is out from Dzanc, and he's also a regular contributor to NPR's Weekend Edition.