Frankenstein’s Monster didn’t die in the first movie (or any of the subsequent ones) and Dr. Pretorius, who is obsessed with creating life, teams with Dr. F to create a female companion for the monster.
This movie has been a running joke for as long as I can remember…but on the other hand, I have never seen it. And when Craiggers and I were driving for nine hours to get back home, and listening to Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcasts about the lives of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (which were awesome for a car trip) we had to watch this the next evening, having seen Dracula the night before.
I had grown up with monster movies on TV, running almost continuously on the weekends. Many of them were hosted by people like Elvira or Seymour, who made fun of the (mostly awful) movies they hosted…and I mentally lumped this in with all the other Frankenstein knockoffs, of which there are many.
But Longworth said this was arguably the best, even better than the original, and talked about it at great length, so Craiggers and Mr. Otter and I cranked it up after dinner.
This movie was completely different than I expected, even after hearing the podcast description. The beginning of the story, where Mary and Percy Shelley and Lord “I’m So Cool” Byron are talking and Mary tells them ‘the REST of the story’, is cheesy, and of course they have to recap the original and show how the monster survived by hiding in the basement. But after that, it gets very good.
The look of it is very modern, and in fact, even though the frame story is set in the very early 1800s, the story itself is in late Victorian times, which is a little weird. The sets are big and angular and blocky, almost modernist, and not what one expects from a mad scientist’s castle.
Karloff, in the continuing role of the Monster, is now much more sympathetic. He is befriended by a hermit, and learns to speak a few words; this calm period ends when they are discovered by huntsmen who attack the Monster, who runs away and is found by Dr. Pretorius, who convinces him to kidnap Dr. F’s new bride; the only way Dr. F can get her back is by helping Dr. P create new life, a woman to keep the Monster company, which does not work out well at all.
There are some interesting things about this movie…firstly, Elsa Lanchester as a thin beautiful woman, playing both Mary Shelley and the Bride…not the impression I have of her from later films, nor the mental image I had for this movie.
Secondly, Dr. P’s examples of being able to ‘create life’ are shown to be these weird creepy little people in jars who are playing roles- the lecherous king, the clergyman, the beautiful woman- and trying to get out of the jars to interact with each other. Very strange.
The other thing I didn’t realize is that Mel Brooks’ brilliant movie, Young Frankenstein, is more a parody of this than the original Frankenstein; there are many scenes and characters (like Madeleine Kahn, Chloris Leachman’s character, the policeman, and the hermit) that are instantly recognizable. Interesting.
The ending was not what I expected…stark and abrupt, although it had been foreshadowed, and of course the Universal checklist* of what horror movies must include does not make a happy ending for the monster a possibility. And Elsa Lanchester! I had only seen parodies of her character, including Madeleine Kahn’s amazingly funny performance…seeing the real thing was scary and kind of sad. And it was such a short (although powerful) scene to have become so legendary.
This was worth watching; we mocked frame story and the ‘tiny people in bottles’ scene, it was silly, but the rest of the movie was actually a good psychological thriller, and both Karloff and Lanchester really give us characters to identify with.
If, like me, you have not yet seen this classic, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.
*From Scare ’em to Death- then Cash In by Richard Hubler,
Saturday Evening Post, May 23, 1942 (seven years after Bride of Frankenstein)
…More than most Hollywood productions, tbe horror film bas a set formula. George Waggner, an easy-going, slow-apoken ex-Philadelphian, is entrusted with the production of most of Universal’s chillers—which means moat of those in the industry. He says they must have specific characteristics:
- They must be once-upon-a-time tales. In one film, executives insisted upon having the word “legend” in the preface stand out in boldface.
- They must he believable in characterization. A scientific premise, such as the building of a monster, may seem phony, but never the character or motives of Doctor Frankenstein.
- They must have unusual technical effects. One of the best was the operating table ascending into the lightning, a sequence ao good in the original Frankenstein that it was repeated in the latest.
- Besides the major monster, there must be a secondary character of weird appearance, such as Igor, the brokennecked mentor of Frankenstein.
- They must confess right off that the show is a horror film. In the first Frankenstein picture an interlocutor appeared to tell the audience to brace itself.
- They must include a pish-tush character to express the normal skepticism of the audience. This sacrilegious fellow must he later confounded, as was stout fellow Ralph Bellamy in the latest horror productions.
- They must be based on some pseudoscientific premise.
To this potpourri of rules, Waggner claims to have added his own ingredient, modern psychology. He tries to make the hero not only horrible but likable, to work up audience sympathy. “My horror films have to be tragic and inevitable,” says Waggner. “Just like a Greek play.”