Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Bride, 1985

We all know what major holiday is coming up in a few days, don't we? That's right, New Zealand's Labor Day!! So I encourage everyone to cuddle up on the 24th and watch both seasons of Flight of the Conchords in celebration.

Aside from that, Halloween's also almost here, so here's a review of The Bride, starring Sting and Jennifer Beals.

Given my profile picture and the fact I've written about it a few times, you probably won't have a difficult time inferring that I really, really like 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein. I was young when I first saw it, I'm guessing around the time I entered middle school, if not a little before. Like any wistful kid not paying attention in math, I'd concoct all sorts of kickass sequels in my mind, where the Bride isn't actually dead, and would win moodily handsome Colin Clive's heart away from stuffy old Elizabeth, after Eliza Doolittle sessions where Bridie learns the ways of civilization, only to conquer the sexist mores of the day, and whatnot. Oh, and she'd stick it to the Monster for trying to kill her, but not be too mean to him, since, hey, he's the Monster and everyone loves the Monster.

Sadly, this Sting-starring version takes my muddled sixth grade delusions of feminist grandeur and actually makes a pretty weak movie out of them.

The Bride's billed as a "remake" of the 1935 movie, but really it is a sequel, following what would happen if Frankenstein had escaped with his female creation, and if the Monster had escaped, too (unbeknownst to Frankenstein or anyone else). A promising premise, but totally ruined by the script and the performances. Sting's fairly monotone, and although it's nice to see a shout-out to Peter Cushing's evil, randy take on the character, Sting's final attack on Eva (what he so deems Jennifer Beals' Bride) smacks of a bodice-ripper, harlequin romance mentality that annoys rather than scares. 

Jennifer Beals, though quite beautiful, with about the most stunning dark peepers I ever did see, isn't what you'd call a master thespian, either. With Women's Lit heavy lines like, "You didn't create me! You didn't create me!" and "Not even if you murder me and raise me up a thousand times, you cannot have me," she comes across whiny and petulant rather that strong and mature. The movie begins with her creation (with wasted cameos from Quentin Crisp as a Praetorius figure and Timothy Spall as a Dwight Frye-esque assistant), and these scenes sadly have Beals' best moments when she first wakes up, disoriented and confused.

Luckily she doesn't try imitating Elsa Lanchester's chilling and superb sharp, birdlike gestures and expressions. Instead, Beals is softer, more tenderly afraid, and you really get a sense of her vulnerability as those big sad eyes take in lightning for the first time and the strange people around her. She's touching where Lanchester was stylish and memorable, and while Lanchester's performance is certainly better for a horror/camp film, and thus I like it better, Beals still does well here. However, there are more than enough cringe-worthy moments for both she and Sting to prove their amateurish acting chops, such as the memorably awful "I eat chicken!" scene where Frankenstein teaches Eva how to talk. 

Fortunately and unfortunately, whatever ham-handed feminist message could have been derived is pushed to the sidelines for the part the movie really cares about: the friendship between the Monster (played by Clancy Brown, called "Viktor" in the movie, just like the original Frankenstein of the novel--whatever symbolism that has is beyond my patience to figure out) and the dwarf he saves from a crowd of bullying children, Rinaldo (David Rappaport). The two team up and become a success as a trapeze act in a traveling circus (??).

Rappaport is a charming actor, and these scenes aren't poorly done, but the tone is totally off from what you'd want in a Frankenstein movie, no matter how "peace, love, and understanding" the message is. For one thing: too cutesy. For another, they take the whole "Monster is just a misunderstood gentle giant" trope way, way too far. This only works if there's something about the Monster in his carriage and looks that are genuinely menacing and unique; that way, the contrast between his outward appearance of monstrous power and his inner character of childlike naivete is more surprising and poignant.

Brown, however, does not look threatening in the least, just like a big, tall, lumbering dude, so his scenes with Rinaldo have more of a Lenny and George vibe than something out of a horror film. That very well could have been the filmmaker's intention, but it just doesn't work. For one thing, it's insulting to people with real disabilities. The director basically explains away the Monster--the Frankenstein Monster, mind you-- as a developmentally slow individual, so the secret message is, "and that's why he's so scary. But just look deep down inside, and he's a real cuddle-bug, totally non-threatening and dog-like! Look, it's so touchingly amusing he cares so much about Rinaldo that he's cast in their circus routine as the mother to Rinaldo's baby!" True, the scenes in the circus aren't supposed to be PC, as we're supposed to feel superior to the gawking crowd. However, at the same time we're expected to laugh right along with that  audience at the hi-jinx of the crafty Rinaldo and the infantilized Viktor, and at what strange companions they make. Icky.

Plus, the rough street life Viktor leads and his affection for Rinaldo make Eva's plight pretty paltry in comparison. After all, she's pretty, intelligent, and rich under the guidance of Frankenstein, a well-to-do Victorian/1700s (who knows) girl who feels vaguely stifled by a patriarchal society. That isn't nearly as sympathetic as a reviled, gentle, slow man trying to make ends meet with his equally reviled and gentle (though lovably sassy!) companion in a circus (where Rinaldo meets a sad fate for ridiculously non-sensical reasons.)

And like Viktor, Eva's character is muted, watered down from an unearthly creation to that aforementioned stifled, intelligent, Victorian lady stereotype. There are admittedly a few nice call-backs to her beginnings as a creature with primitive instincts; at her first party, she growls and roars in terror at a cat, telling Frankenstein later, "You never told me about cats! I thought it was a tiny lion." That's probably the best line.

Viktor and Rinaldo's scenes might have passed for an after school special about understanding people who are different, so I found myself much preferring the comparatively few scenes about the titular bride, shoddy as they may be. They're the only ones that try for that old-school horror feel, even if they're not expertly done outside some good eerie lighting; lightning storms and Sting staring blankly--er, intensely--at his obsession Eva while she sleeps replace an honest building of mood and suspense. Still, at least they're trying for something similar to the original franchise's ambience; Rinaldo and Viktor's scenes are condescending and trite without any bite. 

The rest of the cast is wasted, too. Cary Elwes is markedly uncharming (poor Westley!) as a cocky suitor of Eva's, and Geraldine Page of all awesome people has a bit part as Frankenstein's housekeeper. And why kill off Quentin Crisp? Just so Frankenstein could be alone in his secret? That's not a wholly bad idea, actually. But then there's the inexplicable weird presence of Frankenstein's one friend Clerval (Anthony Higgins), who only serves as exposition for the audience, as Sting murmurs uninterested mad scientist-babble to him about his plans for Eva. Turns out this Frankenstein's not quite as cold-hearted and evil as Curshing's Dr. F, since this one begins with the noble, if not paradoxical, intention of creating a woman with a will and intellect as free-spirited and equal to any man's of that period.

So at what point does he start to lust over Eva and become possessive of her instead? Because it seems like the majority of screentime is spent on Viktor and Rinaldo, we never have enough character development in the Bride scenes, so we never understand Frankenstein's mood swings and violent actions. Perhaps it's because Rappaport is such a natural, warm actor that director Franc Roddam shifted more focus on him once he realized how dull Sting and Beals were. However, that only works to weaken the premise, since the movie is still called The Bride, not Viktor and Rinaldo's Feel-Good Self-Esteem Power Hour.

The ending is rushed and confused, with a sappy montage running over the credits. Rinaldo's image is superimposed over the screen, as his voice-over repeats his words from earlier in the film, reminding us that dreams are worth pursuing. Garrrgrrrrh. 

The movie's watchable, if for nothing more than the typical mid-'80s costumes and make-up; check out Eva's ballgown and perm. But it's not much else. Outside of Rappaport, no performance has any--no, I refuse to say "sting". Uhhhh...spark! No spark, so theres's nothing to lift the limp script into high camp. Everything's too sedate and gentle, when even the gawky sixth grader in me knows that's wrong. The Bride and the Monster deserve a tale much more exciting and gruesome than "safe". 

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