Monday, May 21, 2012

Monsterology: Brides

In this new feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

“Here come the brides”…

As they have in so much of our male dominated cultural, women have always taken a backseat in the horrifying side of horror literature and film. While there is no shortage of women playing the victim or the damsel in need of rescuing, far, far fewer have been the agents of terror. The most common—and ancient— she-monster is the witch. But another lady killer has also been a fixture of horror, and she’s been in the game a lot longer than 1935 when Boris Karloff’s Monster first demanded a mate.
Logically, it was a woman who first saw fit to touch upon the monstrous bride. In her genre-defining Gothic horror novel Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley dwelled on a disturbing plot thread in which the creature does, indeed, demand a mate. He presents his creator with a grotesque ultimatum: build me a bride and I’ll stop killing and otherwise making your life less than pleasant. The plotline had any number of unsavory implications. The Monster had more in mind than handholding (“…one as deformed as myself would not deny herself to me”), essentially inventing a new strain of necrophilia in which both parties are deceased. There is Frankenstein’s equally demented destruction of the bride that bears traces of sexual violence (“trembling with passion, [I] tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged”). The doctor destroys the bride before she has a chance to animate and reject her nefarious fiancé, as she would in the film this plotline would inspire 117 years later. Rather than a havoc-raising monster in her own right, she is just another of the numerous female pawns destroyed during Frankenstein and his creation’s macabre chess match. Victor’s destruction of the Monster’s potential mate is payback for the Monster’s murder of Victor’s brother William, as well as the ostensible destruction of the boy’s nanny Justine Moritz, who is executed after being accused of the murder. His own mate obliterated, the Monster kills Victor’s fiancé Elizabeth on the day they are to be married.
Mary Shelley at Work

In Frankenstein, Shelley angrily, unflinchingly comments on the roles women so often played in reality and maps out the roles they would often play in horror fiction for centuries to come. As such, Frankenstein can be read as an anti-patriarchal diatribe, a criticism of a society in which women are built, controlled, and ruined according to the whims of men. Mary knew well of such things firsthand. Percy Bysshe Shelley left his bride’s name off the book when he submitted Frankenstein for publication, knowing that her gender might hinder its acceptance. Upon its first printing, she received no credit for her extraordinarily imaginative and influential work. Not surprisingly, Percy was generally believed to be its true creator, and even after his wife finally received her due credit upon the book’s 1822 second printing, her authorship was often questioned and continues to be to present times (see John Lauritsen’s The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, published in 2007).

The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the pioneering feminist commentary A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, must have felt the sting of such sexist skepticism keenly. Even those who accepted that Frankenstein was written by a woman often used that fact against the novel. As related in Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s essential Frankenstein: A Cultural History, a writer for British Critic grunted, “If our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should, and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”

Contrary to that critic’s command, Frankenstein was not forgotten. Its brand of Gothic horror persisted similarly. So did the bride, and toward the end of the decade, Bram Stoker supplied not one but three monstrous brides in Dracula. And this time, they would not be destroyed before getting the opportunity to terrify. However, Stoker was no feminist. Quite the opposite, and his trio of brides are both fiendish abominations of female sexuality, hungrily draining the essence from poor Jonathan Harker, and embodiments of female subservience, cowering before their master like Mormon sister wives at the feet of their priesthood-holding husband. Shelley wanted us to sympathize with her women. Stoker wants us to be repelled by his. If Dracula’s brides are not the most flattering representations of women, they at least get the chance to do some damage, keeping Harker prisoner and Van Helsing and Mina at bay. They also eat a baby.

Though present, Shelley and Stoker’s brides were still minor characters in their respective novels. When Richard Brinsley Peake adapted Frankenstein for the stage in 1823 as Presumption: or The Fate of Frankenstein, he discarded the bride altogether. The bride-less film James Whale made in 1931 would have far more in common with Peake’s play than Shelley’s original text. The first film adaptation of Dracula, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), rendered its monster a bachelor too. Though the brides would be reinstated in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, they’d find their roles drastically reduced.

Such ignominious treatment of the bride would change drastically when producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., conceived a follow up to his 1931 blockbuster Frankenstein. Return of Frankenstein took shape when the abandoned bride plotline from Shelley’s book was deemed a suitable base on which to build the sequel. Retitled Bride of Frankenstein, the film gave Universal Studios and James Whale their masterpiece and solidified the bride’s role in monsterdom. In the same way that "Frankenstein" would often be used to refer to both the doctor and his creation, this "Bride" refers to both the doctor's betrothed, Elizabeth, and more significantly, his latest scientific creation ("of" used as in "a creation of"). Though Elsa Lanchester’s monstrous Bride would only occupy four minutes of screen time, she would drive the plot from start to finish, providing the Monster with the hope that his profound loneliness might finally be cured and drawing Dr. Frankenstein back into the dark corners of science he’d wished to avoid after the events of the first film. Despite the brevity of her appearance, she would prove so striking, so iconic that she would forever rank among cinema’s most unforgettable monsters: the Nefertiti pile of hair zapped through with twin lightning bolts of white, the scars carefully placed to not impinge too much on her unsettling beauty. Unlike earlier brides, we also have a femonster taking a stand for the very first time. Just moments after her birth, The Bride discovers she is already consigned to an arranged marriage. She takes one look at her intended and releases a shriek that emphatically says, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The male monster is now the victim: a victim of a broken heart. So devastated is he that he’d rather see himself destroyed than suffer another moment of unrequited love. He pulls a self-destruct lever that annihilates himself, one of his creators (Dr. Pretorius), and his runaway bride. She hisses one last protest, and is gone but hardly forgotten.

Bride of Frankenstein was another huge horror hit for Universal; their last for several years. The Bride, herself, made an equally sizable impact. Her look would be copied over and over and employed many times when an easy reference to classic horror was required. Her hairstyle would adorn Madeline Kahn’s Elizabeth in Mel Brooks’s parody Young Frankenstein and Patricia Quinn’s Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Marge would streak her already towering hair for a Halloween episode of “The Simpsons” and Horror rocker Dave Vanian would do the same when The Damned made their full transition from punk to Goth in the mid-‘80s (inspiring the look of another monstrous character, Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd). Lilly Munster was part bride of Dracula and part white-streaked Bride of Frankenstein.

The Bride as coiffure trendsetter.

Perhaps even more significantly, Bride of Frankenstein profoundly and permanently altered the word “bride.” A term associated with what is often ranked as one of the happiest days in a woman’s life had now taken on monstrous connotations. Is marriage all it’s cracked up to be for women? Well, it wasn’t for Elsa Lanchester’s Bride, and it may not be for any other woman forced into marriage for the wrong reasons, whether they are cultural or religious, or they stem from the basic fear of dying alone. The Bride had barely opened her eyes, and already men were deciding her life’s path. She revolted, an action other women would be wise to consider when getting hitched to abusive, unappreciative, controlling men. For such a woman, her wedding day is nothing short of a prelude to horror. More than 70 years after Whale’s film, novelist Elizabeth Hand would explore these themes in her fascinating (and officially sanctioned by Universal) literary sequel The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora’s Bride. The book finds both Bride and Monster alive (or, at least, undead) after the explosion that ended the film. She sets off on a quest of self-discovery, reunites with the creature she rejected, and decides to just stay friends. A less heartbreaking conclusion for everyone involved.

The bride carries further implications that would make it an unlikely but appropriate horror symbol. One’s wedding day officially leaves childhood in the past. The only major milestone of existence left to anticipate is death. The wedding veil foreshadows the death shroud. The bride also brings into focus the perpetual connection between sex and death, since we all know what traditionally goes down on one’s wedding night. The bride has become a fetishistic symbol of necrophilia, or at least, Goth sex play. As the creature’s intended, Elsa Lanchester is monstrous with her marionette-like movements, goose-like hissing, and elongated scars. With her full mouth painted with lipstick, her glamorously extended eyelashes, and Lanchester’s natural beauty, she’s a turn on. Her image has often been used for fetishistic purposes through the years. Even the monstrous female form is not immune to objectification.

The Bride as sexualized by makeup artist Jack Pierce, photographer Aleksey Galushkov, and artist Aly Fell.

Between Whale’s film in 1935 and Hand’s book in 2007, monstrous brides would consistently maintain their place of pride in Horror. They would be best represented in countless Dracula adaptations. Though Hammer’s 1958 version scaled back to a single bride, 1960’s The Brides of Dracula gave us several vampiresses to sink our teeth into. They aren’t actually Dracula’s brides, but The Brides of Meinster doesn’t exactly have the same ring. Equally brideful was the 1977 T.V. miniseries Count Dracula, which still stands as the most faithful adaptation of Stoker.

Although Bride of Frankenstein would never be treated to such copious remakes, the stitched-together Bride would also make her share of reappearances. More than twenty years before Hand’s sequel, Franc Roddam attempted the same idea to lesser effect with The Bride. Scenes tracking the Monster’s budding friendship with a circus performer are sweet, but the ones focusing on the unhealthy relationship between The Bride (now named Eva) and Dr. Frankenstein completely lack direction or interest. Indifferently written by Lloyd Fonvielle and performed by Jennifer Beals, Eva fails to live up to the promise so briefly and enticingly doled out by Elsa Lanchester.

Much truer to her spirit is Gloria in Stuart Gordon’s gonzo sequel Bride of Re-Animator (1990). Sexy and grotesque, Kathleen Kinmont’s creature develops on Lanchester’s by executing some truly monstrous acts of violence and absorbing Karloff’s Monster’s role as the heartbroken party. Equally sympathetic, though far less ill-tempered, is Emily, the sutured title character of Tim Burton’s stop motion Corpse Bride. She is a pure play on the pathos of her fellow brides in Whale and Gordon’s films and something of a call back to Burton’s Beetlejuice, which climaxed with the non-monstrous Winona Ryder brided up and facing nuptials with Michael Keaton’s title creep. And let’s not forget about the inevitable Bride of Chucky, which found Jennifer Tilly electrocuted in her bath tub by a T.V. showing Bride of Frankenstein before her spirit imbued a dolly hitched to everyone’s favorite killer plaything.
Lydia Deetz wasn't the monster, but notice her Goth palor and piled hair clearly indebted to Lanchester's Bride.

The bride did not always follow so slavishly atop the wedding gown trains of Shelley and Stoker’s brides. She might also be a vampire by way of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, as in the 1972 Spanish adaptation of Carmilla, La Novia Ensangrentada, a.k.a.: The Blood Spattered Bride. She may be neither vampire nor creation monster like the ghostly character known simply as The Bride, who leaves visitors of Disneyland and Disney World’s Haunted Mansions with the chilling parting words, “Hurry baaack. Hurry baaaaaaack. Be sure to bring your death certificate.” In many cases, the very word “bride” is little more than shorthand for horror, so that audiences of Brides of Blood, The Brides of Fu Manchu, Bride of the Gorilla, The Bride of the Beast, or Bride of the Monster know exactly what they’re getting themselves into.

Whether victim or victimizer, symbol of feminism or sexism, the bride has been an essential player in the monster canon for nearly two hundred years. She shows no sign of divorcing herself from it anytime soon.

Essential Bride Viewing:
Dracula (1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Dracula (1958)
Brides of Dracula (1960)
Count Dracula (1979)
The Bride (1985)
Beetlejuice (1988)
Bride of Re-Animator (1990)
Bride of Chucky (1998)
Corpse Bride (2005)

Essential Bride Reading:
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818)
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
Frankenstein: A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock (2007)
The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora’s Bride by Elizabeth Hand (2007)
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