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Informative documentary on what many consider to be one of the greatest horror films
This is a roughly 40 minute documentary on James Whale's 1935 film, The Bride of Frankenstein. It has been included on Universal's recent DVD releases of Bride and "The Frankenstein Legacy Collection" She's Alive! Creating the Bride of Frankenstein, written and directed by noted author David J. Skal, is a marvelous collection of interviews, clips and stills which give historical background as well as cultural contexts for The Bride of Frankenstein and related works.
The interviewees include Rick Baker, who was confesses his adulation for Frankenstein makeup man Jack Pierce, Scott MacQueen, a film historian who wrote the monograph that serves as commentary on the Bride disc, horror director Joe Dante, horror author, director, painter, and all around renaissance man Clive Barker, and two relatives of Frankenstein/Bride of Frankenstein cast members--Sara Karloff (Boris' daughter) and Dwight David Frye (Dwight Frye, Sr.'s son).
In combination with a lot of stills, they do a great job at providing a kind of "making of" account of the film. This is interspersed with comments on the cultural significance of horror films, the Frankenstein films in particular, the Bride as a female monster icon, the studio system, censorship and many related topics, contextualized both to the early 1930s and the present.
Most interesting to me were the historical, anecdotal comments such as James Whale's working relationship with Universal and Carl Laemmle, Jr., comments gleaned from discussions with Elsa Lanchester and Valerie Hobson, or Sara Karloff reporting her dad's misgivings about the monster talking, as well as his reluctance to continue playing the Monster after Son of Frankenstein. These kinds of "behind the scenes" glimpses of the personalities involved with the film, along with the behind the scenes stills, were fascinating.
Every so often Skal and editor Keith Clark make an odd decision about what film clips to edit into the documentary and where. For example, we're shown the clip of Elsa Lanchester as the Bride "hissing" before we're told how she arrived at the idea. This would have been better the other way around. But in general, the editing and the order and content of the interview clips is well chosen.
Occasionally, the achievement of Bride is a bit too overstated, a bit too pumped up for my tastes, especially in conjunction with downplaying other horror films or the horror genre in general. I too feel that The Bride of Frankenstein is a 10 out of 10, but so is Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein in my critical opinion, and the later films in the series aren't exactly slouches, even those made under what has been characterized as a "factory-like system" within the "Big Five" studios during the era.
Other bits of conventional wisdom are repeated (although not always espoused) that I feel are sorely mistaken--such as "sequels are never better than the originals", the impression that horror is a lesser genre ("not as deep" as other kinds of films), and a severe implied discounting of other horror/comedy films after Bride (Bride is called the "pinnacle" of that amalgamation). But these ideas are conventional wisdom, after all, as wrongheaded as they may be, so it's certainly not a flaw that Skal shows his subjects repeating them.
If you're at all interested in the history of horror, especially a much more serious cultural look at the genre, you owe it to yourself to see this documentary. You should also listen to the very informative scholarly commentaries on the classic Universal DVDs, and make sure you check out Skal's books, including The Monster Show, Hollywood Gothic (on the literary, stage and screen history of Stoker's Dracula), Screams of Reason (on mad scientists), Dark Carnival, Death Makes a Holiday (a cultural history of Halloween), Vampires, and V is for Vampire.
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