Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale)
There are some movies — Citizen Kane is one — that explore every possibility, exploit their full visual potential and the emotional underbelly thereof, and all with the feeling you get that the filmmakers were having the time of their lives, drunk on the power of their chosen field. In that case, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein nearly achieves a level of nirvana in the world of pure cinema. Whale’s Frankenstein was one of the ugliest and most gripping of all horror films, completely unlike the wild and sensual Dracula made by Tod Browning around the same time; Bride is nothing like its predecessor; less clunky, more teasing, it’s fully engrossed in taking everything a few paces beyond the audience’s most sumptuous nightmares.
After a stodgy prologue featuring actors playing Mary and Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, Bride gains a strangehold on the viewer and does not let go for 75 glorious, jam-packed minutes. It offers as much fun as I imagine it’s possible to have at the movies, and at a pace that’s damn near exhausting, not even because of its blissfully short length so much as its diabolical range of emotions and their path of destruction. Like George Romero would forty years later with Dawn of the Dead, Whale here seems to uncover the mythical machine that would allow a button to be pressed to create any given feeling in the audience. Bride is a horror film that, while rarely scary per se, is hilarious, moving and truly awe-inspiring.
It’s one great scene after another: the monster’s opening path of violence, the luring of Dr. Frankenstein back into the world of his former obsessions, the introduction of the sicko’s collection of little people, the creation of the Bride, and the final sacrifice. Those last two would be far and away the highlights of any other film, but this one happens to have the sequence that’s among the best in all of American cinema, ripped off both affectionately and shamelessly: the monster happens upon the home of a lonely blind man, who accepts him unquestioningly, and plays him music, and teaches him to talk (“Friend!!! GOOD!!”) and smoke (“Smoke!!! GOOD!!!”). Rarely has something so sad been so mordantly funny, and the silly, bizarre image of that monster inhaling his first cigar is as wondrous a moment as I’m confident you will ever find in movies. At that point you know that with Whale, you are in the hands of a lively master. Would that we lived in a time when the horror genre still had such fun with its perversions.
[Edited down from a review posted in 2006.]