Tag Archives: Universal Horror Movies

Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein: A Double Feature

When I originally saw The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Frankenstein (1931) I watched them in reverse order, with many months in between, so I thought it would be instructive this October to watch both of them in one day, in their correct order, and see how the two films held up as one continuous story. Most of the Universal horror sequels do not work well as sequels, but these two films actually have reasonable continuity, perhaps because both of them were directed by the same man, James Whale. But despite having a similar theme, the tone of each is quite different.

In the original 1931 Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is obsessed with creating life and left the university because they had too many scruples about acquiring for him the bodies he needed for his great creation. Now on his own, in a creaky, decaying stone tower, he is helped by the hunchback Fritz (Dwight Frye) to steal fresh bodies just put in their grave or recently hung.

But his fiance, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) is worried about him and recruits his friend, Victor Moritz (John Boles), and his former professor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) to help talk to Henry. But Henry won’t listen and brings his creation (Boris Karlodff) to life (“It’s alive!”). Now, he says, he knows what it feels like to be God. But Henry is an indifferent god. He intends to teach the monster, but when the monster kills Fritz (who was torturing him) Henry finally agrees with Dr. Waldman that the monster should be destroyed. But he underestimates the strength of the monster, who escapes and wanders around the countryside. the monster doesn’t really want to hurt anyone, but he’s disoriented and confused and when people come after him, he defends himself.

Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff

I have to say that Boris Karloff is incredible as the monster. He’s in heavy makeup, but his eyes express everything. He is pained, confused, moved by kindness and beauty (like a flower), angry, frustrated at his inability to communicate or people screaming and running and attacking him. His eyes express humanity. When he is first created, Henry keeps him in the dark, but when he opens a window, the monster doesn’t shrink, but stands up with his arms outstretched, straining to touch the light, feel it, embrace it. But then Henry closes the window.

Frankenstein, surprisingly, still retains the power to horrify a little, if not frighten. One is horrified when the monster throws a girl into a lake and she drowns. He doesn’t mean to hurt her, he just didn’t understand, but it is still horrible. And the ending still horrifies. Chased by mobs of people, the monster drags Henry into an old windmill, which is then set on fire and we see the monster’s terror as he waves his arms as if begging the flames to leave him alone.

In fact, the entire mood is one of slightly depressed madness. Henry is initially mad, but Elizabeth is gloomy and depressed. She has a foreboding from the beginning of the film, even on her wedding day to Henry. It’s all a bit of a downer, even if Henry does manage to survive the film and we are led to believe will be happy with Elizabeth. But the ending seems slightly out of sync with what came before. One feels that by all rights Henry ought to have died, too, if only to justify all that came before. And the film seems to demonstrate little of the unique James Whale humor that is found in abundance in his later films, The Old Dark HouseThe Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein. But it’s still an effective film.

The Bride of Frankenstein has a completely different feel. It has the same themes – the dangers about trying to imitate God, the alienation of the monster, the inherent humanity of the monster contrasted with the mob mentality of the villagers – but suddenly there is a swell of music (there no music in the first film), the acting takes flight (the first film looks almost naturalistic in comparison), Elizabeth was evidently dying her hair from blonde to brunette while Henry and the monster were engaged in their epic struggle on the windmill (different actress, really), Henry’s father disappears, Henry’s friend Victor runs off (the only explanation, since his character, too, disappears), and Whale’s humor becomes dramatically evident, especially in the additions of the actors Una O’Connor and Ernest Thesiger.

Ernest Thesiger and COlin Clive working in The Bride

Ernest Thesiger and COlin Clive working in The Bride

The film begins with a prologue, with a massively over-the-top Lord Byron, rolling his r’s and making sweeping gestures, who marvels that such an innocent person as Mary Shelley could have written her novel, Frankenstein. But since Mary Shelley is played by Elsa Lanchester, she looks anything but innocent and tells Lord Byron and Shelley that there is more to the story after the monster is burned in the windmill.

In fact, he is not burned at all (if you watch all seven Universal films featuring the monster, you realize that he survives explosions, drowning, lava, being frozen, being burned and having somebody else’s brain swapped for his own). the monster is back, much to the fear of the villagers, but he is just looking for a friend. He temporarily finds one in a blind hermit (who teaches him to speak, which is a nice development from the first film, where the monster struggles repeatedly to communicate without words – now, he is learning how to interact with people), but some not-so-helpful villagers (led by John Carradine) come by and hustle the hermit away, accidentally causing the hermit’s cottage to burn down.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) arrives on the scene and wants Henry to help him create more life. Henry says he’s learned his lesson, but Dr. Pretorius has the monster kidnap Elizabeth (now a brunette, played by Valerie Hobson) and Henry agrees to help create a bride for the monster.

Oddly enough, Boris Karloff is probably the most naturalistic character in the film (however naturalistic a monster can be) and brings the same deep feeling to the role. I cannot say enough about how good he is. And of course there is Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, campy and fey. He dreams of a new world of “gods and monsters” and doesn’t scruple to blackmail Henry into helping him create a bride for the monster. He has a gleeful meal on top of a coffin and when he is suddenly confronted by the monster, he doesn’t blink an eye, but politely offers him a drink. He’s kind of mad, knows it and delights in it. But he’s mad with so much style and panache.

Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive

Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive

One favorite scene occurs at the beginning, which once again highlights Whale’s unique sense of humor. When the monster emerges from the charred windmill, he comes across Minnie (Una O’Connor), who works for Elizabeth, who takes one look at him and starts screaming with her hands raised in such an oddball fashion that even the monster is too puzzled to attack her. He just stares after her with a puzzled look on his face. She’s an outrageous character, taking a ghoulish interest in the monster, but runs about like a chicken with it’s head cut off whenever she encounters him.

I definitely find The Bride of Frankenstein to be a more entertaining film than Frankenstein. It’s rich with symbolism, grotesque characters, witty lines, unique hair, black humor. There are a similar number of deaths in both films, but somehow they seem incidental and not terribly upsetting in the sequel. It’s like Arsenic and Old Lace in terms of movie deaths. It’s almost a comedy, though one with a heart. Amazingly, despite all the humor, Karloff still manages to bring incredible heartbreak to his role and it remains at the center of the film.


Watching the two films in order made me very conscious of the cast.  There are three actors who manage to appear in both films: Colin Clive as Henry, Boris Karloff as the monster, and Dwight Frye, though he plays two different people in each film. He is Fritz, the hunchback assistant to Henry in the first film, and Karl, one of two criminals hired by Dr. Pretorius.

Two of the characters in both films stay the same, but have different actors playing them. Mae Clarke is Elizabeth in the first film, who I mentioned plays her as a slightly gloomy heroine with a firmly rooted conviction that something dreadful is going to happen. She seems destined for tragedy, somehow. By the time The Bride of Frankenstein was made four years later, Mae Clarke’s career had deteriorated and she was not recast. Instead, Elizabeth is played by Valerie Hobson, who definitely is acting in the mold of Ernest Thesiger. She practically glides across the floor as she approaches Henry, who’s been injured, with arms outstretched theatrically. She doesn’t carry the same air of tragedy, but definitely fits into the mood of the film

Another character who is changed is the burgomaster. In the original film he is played by Lionel Belmore, though he doesn’t get much to do except organize a search for the monster. In the sequel, he is replaced with E.E. Clive, who suddenly brings the character to life with more of Whale’s unique humor evident as a pompous and self-important man who flutters about importantly, but who is actually getting in the way of things being done.

New characters, of course, are Ernest Thesiger, who plays the inimitable Dr. Pretorius and Una O’Connor as Minnie, who I am always delighted to see. And the bride of Frankenstein (why didn’t Dr. Pretorius call her the bride of the monster? She’s not marrying Henry). Elsa Lanchester only gets to show up at the end and she doesn’t last very long, but she certainly makes a splash.

Elsa Lanchester

Elsa Lanchester

Dropped characters include Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr). Since Henry is suddenly being referred to as the new Baron in the sequel, one can only assume that that terrible night with the burning windmill was too much for Henry’s father and that while Elizabeth was dying her hair, he expired unexpectedly. Also, Victor Moritz (John Boles), a friend of Henry’s who is also in love with Elizabeth, mysteriously disappears that night. The last we hear of him, Henry is telling him to look after Elizabeth while Henry chases after the monster and is dragged to the windmill. One can only assume that while Elizabeth was dying her hair and the Baron was dying that he decided that he’d had enough of the place and ran off somewhere, which makes him craven. Either that or he died unexpectedly, too. He wasn’t that interesting a character, though, so I don’t miss him in the sequel.

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Posted by on October 21, 2015 in Movies


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The Mummy (1932)

220px-The_Mummy_1932_film_poster“Ank-es-en-Amon, my love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods. No man ever suffered as I did for you”

The Mummy is often compared to Dracula: similar plot, a supernatural being with hypnotic powers who desires the leading lady while the leading man looks on haplessly and is assisted by a canny professor with arcane knowledge. The leading man and the canny professor are even played by the same actors in both movies (David Manners and Edward Van Sloan). Fortunately, I saw The Mummy before I saw Dracula and I actually prefer it. It is one of my favorite Universal horror movies.

The first mummy film I ever saw was the 1999 The Mummy. I enjoyed it, but it’s not ultimately my cup of tea. It’s more of an action/adventure than anything else. But the 1932 The Mummy is primarily a romance, what I call a cosmic romance; love that spans over time and space. Everything the mummy does is done for love. He does not kill for revenge or sport; but only if you stand between him and his love. He doesn’t even stay looking like a mummy for long. The horror comes in the nature of his being and his seeming unstoppability, a being outside of nature.

The movie begins in 1921, in Eygpt. Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and his assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) have uncovered a mummy and a chest that contains The Scroll of Thoth, which record the words that can restore a person to life when read aloud. There is a warning on the chest that anyone who opens it will be cursed. But while Sir Joseph is deliberating with his friend and specialist in the study of the occult, Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), Norton opens the chest and reads the scroll.

The mummy - make up by the Universal studio genius, Jack Pierce

The mummy – make up by the Universal studio genius, Jack Pierce

What follows is one of the most effectively understated moments in horror history. With no music, while Norton reads, the mummy quietly opens his eyes. They don’t snap open with a sudden burst of music; they simply open and he begins slowly to move first one arm and than another. It’s absolutely mesmerizing. Then, while Norton continues to read, a mummified hand appears besides him and takes the scroll. We don’t see the mummy. All we see is Norton’s reaction and then some trailing mummy wrappings sliding out the door. First Norton shouts in horror, then goes completely mad, laughing hysterically the entire time. It’s an unexpected reaction and very unsettling.

Time fast forwards to the present – 1932 – and Sir Joseph’s son, Frank Whemple (David Manners) and another archaeologist are digging in the sands of Egypt without success, until a mysterious stranger named Ardath Bey arrives- a man looking somewhat dry and decayed, but otherwise human –  and shows them an artifact he found containing the name of the princess Anck-es-en-Amon. They dig where he said he found the artifact and find the princess’ tomb, with the seal unbroken and all the treasure still inside, which is then brought to the Cairo Museum.

The mummy as Ardath Bey

The mummy as Ardath Bey

Ardath Bey is, of course, the mummy of 1921. It is later revealed that he was an Egyptian priest, Imhotep, buried alive for stealing the forbidden Scroll of Thoth and trying to use it to bring back his dead love, Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, which was a forbidden love in the first place because she was supposed to be a virgin priestess dedicated to Isis.

But in 1932, he has the scroll of Thoth once again and he intends to use it revive the princess’ mummy. But what he does not initially realize is that though the body is in the museum, her spirit has been reincarnating through the ages and is currently in Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), ward of Dr. Muller, who is half English and half Egyptian. The complication is that Helen is falling in love with Frank, though she nonetheless feels drawn to ancient Egypt and the mysterious stranger. Thus begins a battle for the soul of Helen, who has two powerfully conflicting impulses towards life and death.

I had not seen many Universal horror movies when I first watched The Mummy and my experience with horror films was largely limited to adventure films like the 1999 The Mummy, where no matter how bad the supernatural villain is, the hero can always defeat him. The original is set up completely differently and felt refreshingly original. Not only is it a romance – and a surprisingly poignant one – but there appears to be nothing anyone can do to stop him. There isn’t even a conventional hero who must battle the mummy. The mummy truly is beyond their reach, a mummy that cannot be killed because he’s already dead, with supernatural abilities, which makes him an impressive monster, though he’s not really a monster. He looks like a man and thinks like one and feels love like one. But still, nothing short of supernatural intervention will destroy him.

Boris Karloff and Zita Johann

Boris Karloff and Zita Johann

It’s requires a Deus ex machina, though instead of coming down in a cloud the gods zap him through a statue of Isis.

The poignancy Karloff brings to his character is impressive. Not only does he have one of the most intensely unsettling gazes in movie history, but his face can soften into such longing. This mummy is not on a power kick – though, judging from his expression when he uses his power to kill Dr. Whemple, a power complex could certainly be on the way. He is on a romantic quest, through time and space. And he figures that after all he’s suffered the least she can do is suffer for a minute or two and join him as a mummy (presumably a more beautiful mummy, since she won’t have all the centuries of human decay). But it is at this moment of death that she balks. All that reincarnation as given her a definite taste for life.

Many people find The Mummy a bit slow and static and there is certainly very little action. People mostly talk, with a few confrontations, but hardly any visible, physical violence or contact. But I must confess that the lack of action is partly why I like it; I’ve always had a thing for talky movies. And although all the other actors pale next to Boris Karloff (who is brilliantly nuanced as the mummy) it doesn’t bother me. Their seeming ineffectuality contrasts nicely with the sense that it will not be human agency that stops the mummy.

Stealing the Scroll of Thoth

Stealing the Scroll of Thoth

I also love the look of the film, the atmosphere. The first scene, when they are sitting at the table with the mummy’s coffin leaning against the wall. Ardath Bey kneeling in a darkened museum next to the glass case containing his beloved, reading from the Scroll of Thoth, which is juxtaposed with scenes of Helen at a party, beginning to hear his call. Kneeling in front of a pool in which he can see what others are doing and exert his hypnotic power.

There are Helen’s constant internal conflicts (Zita Johann is definitely more on the theatrical side of acting) and attempts to fight this thing inside her that is irresistibly drawn to Imhotep. She is two people, but it is the princess and not Helen that finally rejects Imhotep and chooses Frank and life. This final rejection turns the cosmic romance into a tragedy and she begs the aid of the gods she offended. And they hear her. It’s as though they decided that it was their responsibility that a mummy was let loose on the world in the first place and finally they set everything right by both destroying the mummy and the Scroll of Thoth so that such an abomination can never happen again. The modern world can return to its natural state where gods and supernatural beings are faded into the past.

The mummy’s tragedy is that he was always fighting, not against man, but against the gods. His very love was taboo, his means of coming back as a mummy and his means of trying to be reunited with Ack-es-en-Amon, all a defiance of his gods. Ultimately, the poor guy just couldn’t win.


Posted by on June 26, 2015 in Movies


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