"The Bride of Frankenstein"

There's much more to James Whale's 1935 masterpiece than Elsa Lanchester's hair-raising hairdo.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 21, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Bride of Frankenstein"
Directed by James Whale
Starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester
Universal; full-frame (original 1.33:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Documentary, film-historian commentary, poster archive, more

Everybody remembers Elsa Lanchester's electrified hairdo, along with the sinister hiss that ends the movie (borrowed, Lanchester apparently said, from the swans in London's Hyde Park). But there are so many other reasons to revere and appreciate James Whale's 1935 masterpiece, captured here on DVD with startling freshness and clarity. Whale seized the artificiality of Hollywood soundstage filmmaking and ran with it as few directors ever have, before or since. (He may be best known to contemporary film audiences as the central character in Bill Condon's outstanding 1998 feature "Gods and Monsters," starring Ian McKellen.) From his remarkable deep-focus tableaux in front of painted backdrops to his "Rembrandt lighting," in which a face is illuminated by a single bright light just outside the frame, Whale imported the innovations of German expressionist filmmaking and wove them into his peculiarly memorable tapestry.

Then there's Boris Karloff's great performance as the suddenly articulate Monster ("I love dead -- hate living!"), so tragic and powerful when his affectionate relationship with a blind man is destroyed by sighted interlopers. Some may feel that the queeny theatrics of Ernest Thesiger as the sinister Dr. Pretorius overwhelm the sad-eyed Colin Clive as Baron von Frankenstein. (Clive would drink himself to death just two years later.) But the hallucinatory scene in which Pretorius produces his race of miniature people unforgettably encapsulates Whale's unique blend of horror and comedy. Film scholars and queer-theory types will long argue over the intricacies of Whale's "Bride" as a study of artistic creation and an acidic fable of homoerotic love, but for fans it's simply the most beautiful horror film ever made.

This DVD offers the movie unadulterated, as well as the chance to watch it with running commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen. Also included is "She's Alive! Creating 'The Bride of Frankenstein,'" a fascinating if inelegant documentary, narrated by "Gremlins" director Joe Dante, that's packed with juicy details and interviews with horror scribe Clive Barker, "Gods and Monsters" director Condon, Karloff's daughter (a bore who tells us little about her father that fans don't already know) and various critics and scholars. You'll learn about Lanchester's hairstyle, the costumes and lighting, the leading motifs of composer Franz Waxman's Wagnerian score and much more. Add a gallery of posters and photos, full production notes and filmographies and at least one hidden secret, and it's a package no film fan can (or should) resist.

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By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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