Sunday, January 29, 2012

Saturday, April 17, 1971: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) / Pillow of Death (1945)

Synopsis: On a stormy night in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Lord Byron are discussing Mary’s just-completed novel Frankenstein. Lord Byron marvels that the ladylike Mary could have penned such a ghoulish tale. He eagerly describes the plot of the story, and we see a recap of the original film. Lord Byron concludes by wondering what might have taken place after the monster was destroyed in the burning windmill.

Mary then tells the men that she has indeed devised a continuation of the story, and she begins to narrate a tale that begins where the 1931 movie ends.

As the flames of the windmill fire begin to die down, the pitchfork-bearing mob disperses. But the father of the young girl who drowned in the first film remains. He refuses to accept that the monster is dead until he sees its charred bones, and he begins to pick through the ruins to find them. The floor of the windmill gives out from under him and he falls into a flooded chamber below. The monster (Boris Karloff) appears nearby, evidently having been saved by the water in this subfloor, and the enraged creature drowns the man. The creature climbs up out of the ruins to find the man’s wife searching for her husband, and the monster kills her as well.

As the creature wanders the countryside, Henry (Colin Clive) recuperates at home. He is sorry for what he has done, but still gets that crazy gleam in his eye when he talks about the god-like power he had briefly harnessed. One night he is visited by Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), a “professor of philosophy” who was fired from Henry’s university "for knowing too much”.

Pretorius wishes to form an alliance with Henry in order to create a new race of artificially-created humans. Henry has the power to restore dead tissue to life, but Pretorius claims to have mastered an entirely different trick – he can create new life out of inert material. To demonstrate this he takes Henry to his home, where – in a very odd scene – he unveils a series of tiny people he has grown in glass jars.

Meanwhile, the public learns that the monster still lives. It is captured and hauled into the village, but it soon escapes, leaving a trail of destruction behind it. Later it happens upon the cottage of a blind hermit, who befriends the creature, teaching it to speak a little, and to appreciate the finer things in life – namely, smoking and drinking. But a couple of townsfolk come looking for the monster, and in the course of the monster’s escape the cottage is burned down.

Pretorious wants Henry to use his knowledge of reanimating cadavers in tandem with his own knowledge of building new tissue. His plan is to procure the body of a young woman and create for it a blank brain that Pretorius has constructed. With a female, the monster will be able to reproduce and start a new race. Henry is tempted by the possibilities, but racked with guilt and uncertainty.
The monster stumbles into a vast crypt just as it is being raided by Dr. Pretorious and his assistants. Pretorious is not afraid of the monster in the slightest, and offers it a drink and a cigar, which the monster greatly enjoys. He brings it back to Henry’s estate, knowing that if Pretorious cannot force Henry to bring the new woman to life , the monster can….

Comments: Few pictures from Universal's golden age of horror stand up as well to repeated viewing as  James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein.  While its Grand Guignol sensibilities no longer hold the shock value they did in 1935, the morality play that lies at its center still packs a wallop.

It's rewarding to watch the movie carefully, because there is a significant thematic sleight-of-hand going on here.  In the first movie we met Henry Frankenstein in the worst possible light: he and Fritz were preparing to dig up a fresh corpse in a graveyard.  His moral transgressions were countless and long-standing,  and he had already made a devil's bargain in order to secure forbidden knowledge.

But in Bride of Frankenstein, we are asked to accept that Henry has been redeemed by the love of a good woman -- almost mystically redeemed, in fact.  Presumed dead, Henry is brought to the Frankenstein mansion, and it isn't until hearth angel Elizabeth touches him that his arm moves, recalling the initial stirrings of the monster in the first film.  The line between life and death, already hazy in Frankenstein, has become blurrier still.

We quickly learn that it's necessary for Henry to be born again; he has work to do.  He must earn our sympathies in order to make way for a new antagonist: the sinister Dr. Pretorious, who is less interested in revealing hidden knowledge than he is in kick-starting a new moral code, one in which he, rather than God, makes the rules.  That the new code requires the creation of a new species is entirely incidental.  It's clear that Pretorious would have been happy realigning the values of his own species.  Unfortunately for him, the society he favors -- one in which we are  "all devils -- no nonsense about angels and being good" lacks a significant claque of support among his fellow humans.  And Pretorious' pursuit of such a society seems to be what has really gotten him "booted" from his teaching post, and has left him friendless and without portfolio.  

But Pretorious can always make more friends, or at least grow them in glass jars, and losing his job has simply given him more time for mischief.  When Henry refuses to go where Pretorious leads, the solution is obvious: Elizabeth is held hostage, and the monster is pressed into service as hired muscle.  Henry -- oddly enough considering his resume --  is now presented to us as a victim, being made to do Pretorious' bidding entirely against his will in order to save the woman he loves.

It all seems rather unlikely, yet somehow it works. The movie was well-received by critics when it premiered four years after the original.  "Another astonishing chapter in the career of the Monster is being presented by Universal on the Roxy's screen," proclaimed the New York Times on May 11, 1935:

In "The Bride of Frankenstein," Boris Karloff comes again to terrify the children, frighten the women and play a jiggling tune upon masculine spines as the snarling, lumbering, pitiful Thing that a scientist formed from grave-snatched corpses and brought to life with the lightning.
So vividly are etched the memories of the Monster's first screen appearance that it seems scarcely possible that the original "Frankenstein" was shown on Broadway in December, 1931. Three and a half years was long to wait to learn whether the Monster died in the blazing tower where the end of "Frankenstein" left him. With this second chapter we know, of course, that he survived.
[...]In more ways than one, this is a changed Monster. At first, one must recall, he was pretty much of a thorough-going brute, a killer for the killing's sake. Now, possibly under the unfluence of Spring at Universal, he is slightly moonstruck, hungry for kindness and even—oh, perish the thought—for love. 

Well, anything's possible at the movies, right?

Pillow of Death

Synopsis: The Kincaids are an old-money family, and elderly Belle Kincaid (Clara Blandick) sees herself as the guardian of the family reputation. When niece Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce) begins working a lot of late hours with married attorney Wayne Fletcher (Lon Chaney, Jr.) she is scandalized, and demands that she quit her job.

Donna refuses. She doesn't care what her family thinks; she is in love with Fletcher, and knows that he is unhappy in his marriage. In fact, when he drops her off at the Kincaid mansion that night he tells her that he is going to have a "showdown" with his wife Vivian, who has recently fallen under the influence of a psychic named Julian Julian .

But when Fletcher returns home he finds the place swarming with police. His wife has been murdered -- smothered with a pillow. A pillow of death!

Police detective McCracken carries out a leisurely investigation, and though there's a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing at Fletcher, there are other suspects too. What about that table-tipping fake Julian, who is worming his way into the confidence of the Kincaid sisters? Or Bruce Malone (Bernard Thomas), the weaselly peeping Tom who is nursing an infatuation with Donna? Or sour old Belle Kincaid, who was the last person known to have seen Vivian alive? 

And as long as we're asking questions, what about the chain-rattling ghost heard in the attic? Or the secret passage in the house that even Donna doesn't know about? Or the voice Wayne keeps hearing -- the voice of his dead wife that keeps pleading with him to come back to the Fletcher crypt, from which her body has mysteriously disappeared?

Comments: You can't get much farther removed from The Bride of Frankenstein's sublime gothic atmosphere than  Pillow of Death, the sixth and final Inner Sanctum mystery.

Inner Sanctum films were quite pedestrian by horror film standards, toying with supernatural elements only when they could be used to spice up the standard-issue murder mystery plots.  Pillow of Death does some hand-waving toward the occult early on, as Julian Julian conducts a seance in the Kincaid home, and there's some talk about a ghost upstairs that turns out to be a raccoon.

Where Pillow of Death departs from the series norm is that the protagonist, Wayne Fletcher, turns out to have been the murderer after all, rather than an innocent man tormented by an overactive conscience.  Not only is Fletcher guilty, but  the ghostly voice of his wife is actually originating inside his own head;  he is barking mad to boot.  It's never made clear if Fletcher knew he was the murderer all along and was lying to Donna about it, or if he had been repressing the memories of his misdeeds.

You can't really blame Fletcher for being confused about what was going on.  After all, Vivian's body really did disappear.  It was stolen by Bruce Malone, who also habitually peeks in through the windows of the Kincaid mansion and enters at will through a secret passage, and yet is inexplicably rewarded by Donna's love and devotion in the final reel.  She apparently learns that the weaselly peeping Tom next door is always preferable to the debonair downtown lawyer.  Single ladies, take note.

Pillow of Death also departs from the other five Inner Sanctums by dispensing with the standard  opening, in which David Hoffman's unbilled head floats inside a crystal ball, trying to be spooky as it recites the following:
This is the Inner Sanctum....a strange fantastic world, controlled by a mass of living pulsating flesh: the mind.  It destroys... distorts.... creates monsters.... commits murder. Yes, even you, without knowing, can commit  -- murder!

For the record only four of the six Inner Sanctum mysteries have been broadcast to date; we have not yet seen Weird Woman (based on a Fritz Lieber novel) and Strange Confession, which features the always-entertaining  J. Carroll Naish as a philandering and double-crossing boss who pushes his harried employee toward -- murder!  Good times.


kochillt said...

A review of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN that never once mentions Elsa Lanchester! Well, we do get an excellent underneath shot of the lovely Bride's face, which the actress herself admitted was 'unusual.' PILLOW OF DEATH was disappointing on several counts: after everybody desperately tries to railroad Chaney into jail for murder, he actually turns out to be guilty of his crimes. You brilliantly pointed out another gripe (complaint?): "the weaselly peeping Tom next door is always preferable to the debonair downtown lawyer." Unfortunately, in the 16 months since beginning the Inner Sanctums, Chaney's boozing had drastically altered his far more aged appearance so much that he no longer would have been convincing as the suave, handsome medico from CALLING DR. DEATH. By the time they wrapped up the series, he was perfectly cast as a homicidal madman. It's just a pity that the script makes every character so stubbornly certain, rendering them unsympathetic, their genuine concerns robbed of merit. And was J. Edward Bromberg ever more obnoxious than he is here? Julian Julian...his parents showed as much imagination as the writers.

Uncle Mike said...

J Edward Bromberg doesn't make much of an impression, even among the lightweight contract players he's working with.

In his defense, the screenplay mostly works against the actors. Julian's name seems to have been designed for a lame comedy relief bit. McCracken asks him for his first name. "Julian," he replies. "Last name?" asks McCracken. "Julian," he says again. McCracken does a double take. "You're in a rut," he says.

That's about all the humor we get, if you leave aside the risible plot points.

kochillt said...

So many debits left me wondering how I could defend PILLOW OF DEATH, it's almost a thankless task. Even Clara Blandick, 'Auntie Em' herself, is up a creek here (she was the killer in the very last Philo Vance entry, PHILO VANCE RETURNS, made one year after this). I liked Bromberg in CHARLIE CHAN ON BROADWAY, only so-so in SON OF DRACULA, he always came across as a suspicious character.

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