Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind the scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror.
Since October marks both Halloween season and The Sound of Screams month at Nightmare on Film Street this year, let’s take a soundtrack-focused journey through one of the most important horror films of Old Hollywood, Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It’s the crowning masterpiece of Universal Horror and a film so fitting for Halloween, I can’t imagine an October without it. But it’s also a fascinating window into the history of film music and a groundbreaking film in the arena of horror soundtracks.
The Sound of Silent Screams
The enduring status of the core Universal Monsters; Dracula, Frankenstein (‘s monster), The Mummy, and The Invisible Man, makes it easy to forget that the films that established the Universal Horror brand were born in the earliest years of sound film. Dracula (1931) was the first sound horror film, followed closely by Frankenstein that same year. And while they are both enduring classics, they are an odd experience to the ear of a modern viewer. Before the onset of the sound era, silent films were always accompanied by music throughout. Grand movie palaces in major cities sometimes boasted full orchestras performing scores specifically written to accompany a film. Smaller theaters had only a piano or organ player, often improvising a score for the film in real-time. But silent films were never silent.
This is why it’s so baffling that early sound films existed largely without music. Some historians point to worries that audiences would be too overwhelmed by the experience of recorded dialogue and sound effects that they would not be able to handle the addition of music. Others simply note that the new frontier of recorded sound was technically challenging enough without the addition of a fully synced musical score. Either way, the first years of sound filmmaking featured little if any, musical accompaniment.
“[Bride of Frankenstein is] a fascinating window into the history of film music and a groundbreaking film in the arena of horror soundtracks.”
The first sound horror film, Dracula, includes only a few bars from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake over the title credits, and snippets of Wagner and Schubert in the sequence at the opera house (no doubt intended to be originating from the orchestra in the scene.) The lack of music during the film has an extremely eerie effect, with nothing to break long stretches of silence but the dialogue and the echoing sound effects of howling wolves and creaking coffins. It’s uncomfortable to a modern ear, and it’s difficult to imagine what effect it would have on audiences in 1931. Dracula was a huge hit, as was Frankenstein, so it certainly didn’t turn audiences off from the new frontier of sound horror film. Perhaps it simply evoked the experience of seeing a stage play, fitting since Dracula was adapted from the Broadway play more than the 1897 novel.
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But by 1933, King Kong changed the game in more cinematic arenas than special effects. Legendary film composer Max Steiner created a spectacular score informed by the operatic leitmotif structure of Wagner. It was the first full-length film score and Steiner’s approach to film scoring set the groundwork for the work of John Williams and the modern sound of movie music. Skull Island was alive with the sound of music, and there was no going back to “silent” talkies after that. In 1933, James Whale included small passages of original film music during the opening and closing sequences of his latest film for Universal, The Invisible Man. But it couldn’t be called a full musical score by any means. You can see Whale and Universal slowly responding to the changing soundscape of film in The Invisible Man, all in preparation for their full foray into scored horror film two years later.
The Monster Demands a Mate
James Whale had been reluctant to respond to studio requests that he direct a sequel to Frankenstein. Although his 1931 film had been a massive critical and box office hit and catapulted Boris Karloff to horror superstardom, Whale was certain he couldn’t derive any more meaningful story from Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel. But Universal head Carl Laemmle Jr. was determined to see a sequel made, and after the box office triumph of The Invisible Man, he insisted that Whale return to direct the follow up to his monstrous ‘31 hit.
After several failed story treatments, Whale settled on a loose exploration of a subplot from the original novel in which Dr. Frankenstein is forced to create a female creature as a mate for his monster. Whale, who still doubted the quality of the project, resolved to infuse the film with his signature dark humor and unrestrained creativity to make it worthwhile. The result was far from the stinker the director feared. Instead, Bride of Frankenstein is a masterpiece of classic horror. It is regarded as one of the first sequels to surpass its predecessor in quality. The film takes its German Expressionist style to new heights and boasts unbridled camp mixed with daring pathos, all while embracing a carefree, fantastical approach to its visual design.
But while the performances, effects, themes, and craftsmanship of Bride of Frankenstein could be endlessly explored, what of the music? Bride of Frankenstein was the first Universal Horror film to feature a full score, and likewise, the film is a turning point in the sound of horror cinema.
For the score, Whale sought out composer Franz Waxman, whom he met at a party in Hollywood. Waxman, like Steiner, was a German Jewish classical composer who fled Europe for Hollywood during the rise of Nazisim. He composed countless iconic scores for cinema, including Rebecca (1940), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Rear Window (1954).
For Bride of Frankenstein, Whale requested a score built on unresolved motifs — musical phrases that would be incomplete until the final destruction of the lab at the end of the film. Like Steiner did with King Kong, Waxman utilized leitmotif throughout the score. Leitmotifs are a musical technique in which melodies are created to represent characters, settings, objects, and ideas in a story. As these themes appear in the score, it alerts the audience to the presence, either literally or thematically, of whatever the music represents. Themes can be expanded on or combined with other motifs, or they can shift in their key to reflect story and character developments.
The Sound of Gods and Monsters
For Bride of Frankenstein, Waxman created three distinct leitmotifs. The Monster’s theme is a dissonant four notes that echo his angry growl. The Bride (Elsa Lanchester) has a seductive but sad and eerie melody that lingers on the air, unresolved. It evokes her brief existence, cut short by tragedy, and the doomed hope and longing Karloff’s Monster places on her creation. Finally, there is a chaotic and ominous theme for Doctor Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), evoking the character’s madness and unpredictability, with a touch of his comic charm thrown in. Throughout the film, these core motifs are interwoven with more music to develop mood and setting, comment on the action, and build emotional resonance.
“The impact of [Franz] Waxman’s score played no small part in the film’s resonance.“
Bride of Frankenstein is a fantastical film full of visual creativity and dark, campy humor. But it’s also the film that took the tragic, sympathetic portrayal of Karloff’s Monster to the level we associate with the character today. Its themes are rich enough to be discussed by critics to this day, and it was a huge critical and commercial success. The impact of Waxman’s score played no small part in the film’s resonance. And even more, it’s a fascinating look at how far the sound of horror cinema had come between Dracula in 1931 and 1935.
Bride of Frankenstein is a lush soundscape of classic horror effects, from whirring electrical equipment, lightning and thunderclaps, Karloff’s growls, screams aplenty, and Elsa Lanchester’s iconic hissing. But among this spooky mix is a lush and evocative score that complements the horror, rather than diminish it. Bride of Frankenstein paved the way for classic horror scores to come and helped birth the modern film score tradition that rose from the breakthroughs of the mid-1930s.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy (the sounds) of those Silver Screams. Share your thoughts on Bride of Frankenstein and its score with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!