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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

'IT'S ALIVE!!'. Mad Scientists of the Screen #5 'Dr Pretorius' (From 'The Bride of Frankenstein')

Now that the show's up and running, we can finally bring you the latest instalment in Ian Champion's history of medical deviates!

That old 'Black magic'...

Today's clinical cuckoo takes us back to Golden Era black and white Universal and the urbane perversions of Dr Pretorius from the classic The Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale's imaginative sequel to the film inspired by Mary Shelley's original novel.

Ernest Thesiger's star turn as Doctor Pretorius
A fun prologue opens with Mary Shelley offering to entertain brother Percy and Lord Byron with the follow-on to the climatic death of the Doctor and his creation, prompting the annoyingly excessive 'rollling-rrr'd' Byron to encourage her to open her 'pits of hell'. She takes this as an affirmative and after a brief summary of the first film, we are thrust into that peculiar netherworld of Europe where Scottish, excruciatingly-heightened English R.P. and Hollywood transatlantic English coagulate.

Almost immediately, Henry Frankenstein is visited by Dr Pretorius, a splendidly poised and lit introduction to Ernest Thesiger's characterful face and demeanour. His hawk-like nose and severity of features are a Director of Photography's dream, enabling lighting choices that gather shadows in his facial crags throughout the film. He arrives with a grandeur and sneering contempt for the underlings, sporting a wide-brimmed black hat, stiff high-collared white shirt and a rather grand cloak that suggest he is a hybrid of both an exorcist and an opera lover. Henry, the edgy, writhing Colin Clive of the earlier film, introduces him to his wife as a former Doctor of Philosophy (as well as medical doctor), which Pretorius elaborates upon juicily that he was 'Booted out for knowing too much'. 

He has come to propose the continuation of Frankenstein's work allied to his own, a team Pretorius believes capable of 'A goal undreamed of by science'. Ka-ching! Our Grand Guignol-style guest hits the first Principle of Mad Science (see earlier blog entries): the pursuit of previously uncharted territory - and straight away he enters the hallowed crypt of my personal Hall of Infamy. 

Speaking of crypts, after his famous toast relishing 'A new world of gods and monsters' (which later became the title of an affectionate tribute biopic about James Whale), Pretorius ureveals a small coffin containing his previous work: miniaturised beings in the forms of a King, Queen, Archbishop, Ballerina, Devil and Mermaid. These micro-subjects and their squabbling mischief-making inject comedy notes into the proceedings and an insight into the perverted meddling of the scientist himself, who regards them like living chess pieces under glass. It is scenes like this that allow Thesiger to play Pretorius as not only a man of cruel arrogance, but equally a childlike glee in his biological fiddling. 

This theme is developed after the grave-robbers leave him at a crypt where they've found him a female subject to experiment upon, (more anon). He dismisses them, cheerily declaiming 'I rather like this place' and promptly sets out a ghoulish makeshift banquet of chicken, bread, wine and candles on her coffin. This neatly sets the scene for a fortuitous drop-in by the hapless roaming monster. The creature has been educated in the benefits of booze and the friendliness of fire by a kind blind hermit, and Pretorius is delighted to turn this sudden companion to his own ends in a thoroughly macabre mini job-interview, brandishing a cigar in the most charmingly rakish manner.

There is a deliciously offbeat running gag through the film where the mad Doctor admits to 'My only weakness' twice, in the shape of gin and cigars. The mind can only furtively feel around for what else might have been on the list if the film extended beyond its brief length, and Thesiger mines these kinky possibilities for what they're worth.

It emerges that Pretorius's plan is to provide a mate for the creature, and with the body sourced, and the hunt for a 'Female victim of sudden death' to provide the brain, he muses to Henry that what they are attempting would in ages past have them 'Burnt at the stake as wizards...'

The rejuvenation scene is thrilling in its epic staging. A stormy night, the Kenneth Strickfaden-designed laboratory crammed with coils and generators fizzing and crackling, and the raising of the bandage-swathed body to the heavens to capture the kite-harnessed electricity really sell the scale of the scientific bravura carried out. There's also a pleasing mix of the medieval and the 1930s modern as the monster wrestles on the battlements amidst burning braziers and complex machinery to try to sabotage the experiment. He is in vain though, as Pretorius savours the unveiling of the electrically-supercharged 'Bride of Frankenstein' like her proud father to a music cue disturbingly parodying a wedding march. At this point, Clive rescues what was bordering on the anachronistic look and performance of a tortured golfer in from a disastrous eighteen holes to actually sink a hole in one with his gloriously delivered 'She's alive. ALIIIIVE!' 

The choice of Elsa Lanchester as the Bride is inspired. She doubles as Mary Shelley earlier on, yet in the credits the producers tease the Bride's identity as 'The Monster's Mate' with a question mark instead of Lanchester's name. The striking make-up work is marvellously disguising, giving her the famous Nefertiti white hair waves lovingly imitated for Madeline Kahn in Young Frankenstein. Lanchester's performance is haunting and precise, expressing a tottering statuesque confusion at being revived, enhanced by frantic birdlike glances around her new environment.

Pretorius's sick desire to present the Bride as a fitting though not actual partner of the monster backfires when the creature's hopeful advance to his 'Friend' causes her to shriek in panic. As must all children of horror's psychotic parents, the creature destroys his creator, 'wife' and himself by throwing the awful lever that detonates the castle's machinery with the dreadfully emphatic 'We belong dead' and a fabulously unsettling cat's hiss from Lanchester (again perfectly copied by Kahn for Mel Brooks' pastiche) . Henry and his lovely wife survive, aptly leaving Pretorius and his freakish unwilling offspring to perish in the imploding building - the only justice for the gloriously depraved Dr Pretorius whose goal 'undreamed of by science' would have surely been everyone else's nightmare...

- Ian Champion

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