The Monster rises from the burning windmill that we thought had become its grave, homunculus dance in bottles, the Creature meets the Mephistophelian doctor among the dead, and then those final transcendent and terrible moments when She is born and then is destroyed in a final conflagration.
All of these fever dream images are part of what is perhaps my favorite horror film, the 1935 James Whale project The Bride of Frankenstein. It is justly famous for its campy humor, its deeply sympathetic portrayal of monstrosity and how its cast and sensibility make it seem like a literal coming-out party for Hollywood’s 1930s gay subculture.
It’s hard to know where to begin talking about this film as there is so much going on in every frame. Its often startling imagery sits at the intersection of sexuality, religion, science and even the meaning of art.
As many of you know, Whale chose to frame the story of the Monster’s search for a mate with a strange little opening that featured Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Mary Godwin Shelley. It’s a representation of their 1816 holiday in which a ghost story telling contest resulted in Mary Godwin’s Frankenstein.
Much of the film follows the Creature through his struggle to relate to the human world, a struggle that includes the acquisition of language, the discovery of music and cigars, and a doomed friendship with a blind hermit. We don’t meet the Bride until the end, though it’s certainly the most unforgettable moment in the film.
The Bride’s appearance at the denouement of the film is an interesting inversion and subversion of social, political and religious values, a good illustration of how the monster movies easily become a playground of differing cultural sensibilities. She’s built to be a mate, she’s born for no other reason than marriage to the Monster … an Eve constructed out of the ribs (and other parts) of assorted corpses to become a Bride.
We all know she refuses this identity. In fact, her reptilian/avian hiss and shriek in response to her destiny is one of the most memorable moments in horror. It’s a sound that signals a rejection of her Creator’s intentions. She’s a New Eve, but an Eve that transforms the patriarchal symbolisms that surround her through rebellion. In fact, she and her intended end up burning those expectations to the ground.
Subversive symbolisms aside, Elsa Lanchester is a wonder to behold in the final frames. She’s almost a kind of architectural achievement, her famed hairdo an art deco masterpiece. Side note, I read recently that this coiffure was achieved by using Lanchester’s own hair and weaving it through a beehive constructed of wire. This is a very literal beehive hairdo.
I don’t want to leave the reader thinking that I see simple political propaganda at work here. In Monsters in America, I make the point there that monsters don’t yield easily to simplistic political or religious meanings. They are anything but simple allegories.
Bride of Frankenstein illustrates this point. Nothing I say above should be read as suggesting that the film works as a simple critique of religion or patriarchy. Like all good horror, it can’t be contained by those kinds of boxes. While it includes these things, it embodies so much more; an opportunity for us to see our selves in the yearnings of the monster and in the Dionysian rejection of our human limitations portrayed in the mad doctors. Unfortunately, we probably also meet ourselves in the howling prejudices of the pitchfork wielding mobs that seem just outside every frame of every Frankenstein flick. There they wait to come charging after what they hate and fear.
The Monster contains multitudes. Give Bride a watch if you’ve never seen it or if it’s been a while.
Do you feel it? The “air itself is filled with monsters.”
Hey, back soon with a quick review of the documentary I Am Nancy, a reflection on horror celebrity, fandom and, of course, Freddy Krueger by Heather Langenkamp of the Nightmare franchise.
Ok, pop culture goodness below….
What I’m Watching: Watched Scream 4 on DVD this weekend. Its street date is October 4 so look for my review for PopMatters.com soon. We’ll post it on the Facebook page when PopMatters publishes it. And hey, has anybody else seen The Guard with Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson? Caught it on Saturday and it’s a great romp for anybody who loved In Bruges or the Guy Ritchie crime oeuvre.
What I’m Reading: Enjoying some of DC comics “New 52.” Batwoman has been a fav with its surreal art and title character Kate Kane’s back story that is a real departure for the Bat franchise. I’d add that there have been plenty of gay comic characters before, but Kane has the potential to be the first truly mainstream lesbian superhero. Pick this one up; it’s an ongoing series now.
I’m also kind of a fan of Marvel’s Daredevil relaunch with Mark Waid.
I’ve also been re-reading Stephen T. Asma’s wonderful book On Monsters. This was a companion for me while writing Monsters in America, and I cant wait for my public discussion with the author at 57th Street Books in Chicago on October 18.
What I’m Listening to: Great Record Expo in Charleston this weekend and was able to pick up some good stuff. I’ve wanted an original pressing of Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat and found it. Also, picked up a nice copy of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and I’ve really wanted that on vinyl for a while. Listenable copies are not easy to find … one of those records that got played to death under, well, let’s just say less-than-ideal circumstances for vinyl preservation.
Sadly, the traditional Blues pickings were very slim, at least within my price range. Plus, a lot of the good stuff I saw were reissues of stuff I’d rather have on the original Folkways or Biograph.
Finally, in the legitimate hubbub over the anniversary of the release of Nevermind, don’t forget about Bleach. Nirvana’s first album has some incredible gems like “No Recess” and “Floyd the Barber,” as well as “About a Girl” and “Negative Creep.”