Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

James Whale | 1hr 15min

Before Universal Studios’ monster movies became parodies of themselves with such soulless sequels as Son of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, there was a brief moment in the 1930s when it looked as if its attempts at franchise moviemaking might have retained some sense of artistry. In retrospect, the brilliant success of Bride of Frankenstein can be more put down to James Whale than anything else though, as the Gothic director steps up the subtext, camp, and expressionistic mise-en-scène of his original 1931 film Frankenstein to deliver not just a lynchpin of horror cinema, but a piece of film that feels even truer to his own dramatic sensibilities.

If it feels like Bride of Frankenstein carries a little less narrative elegance than its precursor, perhaps that can be put down to Whale’s diversion from Shelley’s original story. What he does offer though is an increased fascination in the more humanistic side of Frankenstein’s monster, lending the story a transgressive edge that frames him as a lonely outcast searching for genuine companionship, no matter how unorthodox. Where society deems him an inherently unlovable figure, Dr Pretorius decides that giving him a wife of his own kind might just be the answer. After all, isn’t that a perfectly conventional expression of happiness? The fact that the most honest, meaningful connection the monster makes is so quickly destroyed by strangers speaks volumes about the cultural restrictions placed upon individual happiness, particularly as they pertain to those who do not fit its most conservative definitions.

Theological symbolism in the monster’s journey. It isn’t a one-to-one comparison, but the crucifixion of a pure soul is a pointed parallel.

And indeed, it is in those areas beyond the ordinary, quiet village that the monster prefers to dwell, keeping out of sight for as long as he can. In this sense, Pretorius isn’t all that dissimilar – he too is a macabre figure who basks in the gloom of crypts and uses coffins as picnic tables. If there was anyone who could possibly understand the minds of both the monster and creator, it is him, a mad scientist who recognises his own innate darkness and yet brushes it off with grim jokes and a foppish theatricality. He is in a better position than anyone to realise what sort of friend the monster needs, and even in spite of this, the solution he poses is nothing more than a cruel, self-serving experimentation and tribute to his own ego.

Gothic architecture framing and obstructing these compositions. A simply magnificent use of decor.

Pretorius’ new world that places him at its centre is truly one of “gods and monsters”, and Whale recognises it as such in all its magnificent menace. Stark shadows are cast across faces and bodies caught in high, low, and canted angles, twisted in grotesque shapes like ghastly extensions of the Gothic architecture surrounding them. The influence of German expressionists pervades Whale’s aesthetic all through Bride of Frankenstein, its ubiquitous atmosphere forcing his characters to either struggle against or submit to its dark, eerie power. Towards the end though it is the Soviet montage theorists whose impact emerges in Pretorius and Frankenstein’s major experiment, as Whale builds a kinetic rhythm in his rapid cutting that climactically leads to the reveal of the Bride herself.

Landmark expressionistic lighting and set design in Bride of Frankenstein – truly haunting imagery.

In the short few minutes she appears onscreen, Elsa Lanchester gives a performance that, like the monster himself, has become the definitive icon of the character. Her eyes darts around the space in twitchy motions like a bird, stretched wide open in horror at her own existence. She does not react kindly to the monster either, as she screeches in fear at what has been thrusted upon her. “We belong dead,” is not so much his assertion of the natural order than it is a poignant submission to social convention, and a damnation of those other souls consumed by necrotic decay. One can’t help but feel in these final minutes that the empathy Whale holds for the monster is of an entirely different kind to that held by Shelley. Perhaps in the original 1931 film he was an abomination that Dr Frankenstein should have never created, but Bride of Frankenstein gives him the inalienable right to human life, and realises that he will only ever return to the place he came from when any chance of living that life outside the boundaries of social convention is well and truly destroyed.

A striking character design to match that of Frankenstein’s monster.

Bride of Frankenstein is currently available to stream on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

M (1931)

Fritz Lang | 1hr 51min

It may be somewhat surprising to our modern sensibilities that M was such a controversial film upon its release, especially given its colossal influence on almost everything we watch today from police procedurals to crime movies. It isn’t its bluntness that makes it such a provocative film though, but rather its masterful use of subtext and signifiers to understand the mind of a reprehensible child killer. From the opening minutes where we watch the shadow of Peter Lorre’s profile slide across a wanted poster, to the simple image of a balloon floating into some power lines to mark the death of a child – Beckert’s crimes are conveyed through progressions of images and musical motifs that show us everything but his actual murders and, for its entire first act, his face. 

A chilling introduction to a great cinematic villain, and a highpoint of German Expressionism.
Hauntingly tragic visual symbolism – a balloon caught in powerlines marking the death of a child.

This is only one half of the story though. The other follows the police and crime rings tracking down the mysterious child killer for their own purposes, interrogating suspects and using a network of homeless beggars to keep an eye on the children of the city. The parallels between the law officers and criminals are closely drawn – both conspire in dark, dingy rooms about round tables, each possessing their own special abilities to achieve their goals. For once in their lives, they have a common target that unites them. That Beckert has made enemies of even the worst criminals paints him out as an abomination on a whole new level of depravity.

Fritz Lang’s camera is always finding reflections in glass windows and frames in the tight spaces between city buildings, archways, and even people. The crowds of the city are prone to hysteria when they believe they have found the culprit, but they are also capable of great cooperation when they put their minds to singular tasks. Without knowing his crimes, to them Beckert appears to be just another innocent citizen. But thanks to Lang’s framing of his short, dumpy figure, Beckert stands out to us. He doesn’t strike an intimidating figure, but in his bulging wide eyes and switch blade that suggests sexual arousal, Peter Lorre exudes revulsion. This isn’t a man who embodies murder in his very being, but rather an ordinary person who has let his most twisted desires get the better of him. When he realises he has been branded by an M, he panics. He can easily shed the marked coat, but the mere realisation that someone else has recognised the evil in him is the harshest damnation.

Striking imagery in the construction of this city through its architecture and frames.

Once he has been dragged into the unofficial courtroom, we keep seeing hands and arms reaching into the frame to grab Beckert by the shoulder, as if to accusingly catch him out over and over again. He is surrounded, and completely helpless. At his lowest and most vulnerable, he delivers an impassioned speech – but not the kind we were expecting from a man like this.

“Always, always I have to roam the streets and I always sense that someone is following me. It is me! And I shadow myself! Silently, yet I still hear it. Sometimes I feel like I’m hunting myself down. I want to run, run away for me. But I can’t! I can’t flee from myself! Must take the oath that it’s urging me on and run. I want off! I want off . . . Who knows what’s inside me? How it cries and screams inside when I have to do it.”

Beckert faced with his own sin, breaking down into guilt and panic.

It isn’t quite sympathy we feel for him, but rather pity for his own weaknesses. The visual threads that tether M back to the era of silent cinema are clear in the sped-up montages and expressionist images, but its use of sound, both in the whistling motif and in the payoff of Lorre’s final monologue, is also monumental in the history of film. It is certainly a highlight of both Lang’s and Lorre’s careers, but M is also disturbing in how it hints at a manipulative darkness in Germany a mere few years before the rise of the Nazi party.

Peter Lorre delivers one of the truly great screen performances of the 1930s as the grotesque serial killer and pedophile, Beckert.

M is available to stream on Kanopy, and available to rent or buy on YouTube.