Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: 'Bride of Frankenstein': The Vintage Novelization Reprinted!

Several years ago I attended a showing of Bride of Frankenstein at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The crowd was mostly made up of people who probably first saw the film when it was released in 1935. Without the burden of a modern sensitivity to irony, the older folks in the theater seemed to take the film at face value. As they shuddered and gasped at the Monster’s antics, I understood Bride of Frankenstein as a genuinely horrifying horror movie—as opposed to a knowingly camp monster movie, which is how I always enjoyed it— for the first time. However, I did not feel the film’s horror until reading BearManor Media’s new reprint of Michael Egremont’s vintage novelization. Without being filtered through director James Whale’s ironic eye and acted by camp pioneers like Ernest Thesiger, Una O’Connor, and Dwight Frye, Bride of Frankenstein proves to be a genuinely horrifying tale; more so because Egremont took it so seriously. Yes, there are still all the consciously humorous lines that helped make the film one of our first truly funny horror-comedies (both gin and a good cigar are still Dr. Pretorius’s only weakness). However, the scenes of horror are described so ghoulishly that the comedic aspects shrink well into the background. Egremont pores over the corpse Pretorius procures to serve as the Monster’s bride in grotesque detail, with her eyelids “sunk into the pits beneath,” her eyes “long collapsed and desiccated,” her cheek revealing “the shining jawbone, and the little, even teeth,” and her neck “pitted and corroded by time and time’s grim assistant, the conqueror worm.” Shudder.

To put a fine point on how much the tone of the novelization diverges from that of the film, Frye’s googly-eyed assistant Karl is renamed Franz and given a gruesome back story and a far different and more well-developed resolution. O’Connor’s shrieking housemaid Minnie “might have gone down to History as one of the great investigators of the world”! And that’s how Egremont handles the comic relief! As for our ostensible villain, The Monster (who is so remolded that his iconic flat pate is now described as “domed”) becomes a bit less sympathetic when we actually witness his attack on some peasant girls, a sequence the film largely glosses over. The novelization also restores his wrestling match with a statue of Christ, a scene the censors deemed so blasphemous that the crucifix was replaced with a statue of a generic bishop in the film. Despite that radical move, Egremont still felt it necessary to rewrite history by misrepresenting Percy Shelley’s “The Necessity of Atheism” (misnamed “A Defence of Atheism”) as a “practical joke.” I guess a novelization can only handle so much iconoclasm.

BearManor Media continues to do horror film history a great service with its “Nightmare Series” of novelizations, shedding additional light on familiar cinema classics by dredging up the strange and the rare. One quibble though: I understand that a small press does not have the editorial staff of a large one, but there still really isn’t any excuse for the number of typos that appear in so many of their volumes, including this one. They’re sloppy and distracting. Of course, if you let that stop you from reading this or any of the press’s other fascinating books, you might need a brain transplant. Hold on while I get Franz and Pretorius on the phone…

Get Michael Egremont's The Bride of Frankenstein at Amazon.com here:

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