Style and substance are at one in ``The Bride,'' an odd and engrossing release from Columbia Pictures. Like crafty Dr. Frankenstein, one of the film's main characters, director Franc Roddam concocts a new creation by stitching together bits and pieces of old material that once had lives of their own: themes and story devices from ``Pygmalion'' and ``The Bride of Frankenstein,'' spiced with folksy humor and a primitive sort of feminism.
Like the product of Frankenstein's experiment -- in Mary Shelley's novel, if not the Hollywood version -- the result is more fascinating than frightening, and exerts a good deal of charm before collapsing under the weight of its own weirdness. Among other feats, it turns an overused plot into a life-affirming celebration of figures who might have been considered too wretched for salvation. In the process, it breezily revives a frankly old-fashioned brand of storytelling based on colorful design, overripe dialogue, rich cinematography, and happily hammy acting.
In all, it's a peculiar picture. So it's hard to predict whether audiences will welcome it, or head after it with clubs and pitchforks like villagers chasing down a Frankenstein monster.
For myself, I confess it held me in its sway until pretty near the end. This is partly because its blend of the ridiculous and sublime (well, almost) recalls the beguiling imagery of the earnest Hammer Film fantasies that captivated me back in the '50s.
But even more, I like the movie's way of treating its most oppressed and unattractive characters with concern and compassion. On one important level, ``The Bride'' is a study of human strength and resilience -- qualities not rooted in physical or cultural circumstances (even ``monsters'' have them!) but springing from inner resources that are available to the most downtrodden figures under the most trying circumstances. The wretched of the earth are the most important people in ``The Bride,'' and the fi lm offers them a respect that's as deserved as it is refreshing.
Set in 19th-century Hungary, the tale begins with Dr. Frankenstein putting the final touches on his second creature -- a mate for Monster No. 1, who's sitting near him in the lab and squirming with excitement. And who can blame him? The new creature turns out to be Jennifer Beals, of ``Flashdance'' fame, and she's as gorgeous as her boyfriend is ugly. She takes one look and decides she'd rather pair off with Frankenstein himself, which leaves Monster No. 1 as lonely as ever.
He takes to the countryside, befriends a spunky dwarf, and sets off for Budapest to join the circus. Meanwhile, back at the castle, Frankenstein hatches a grand scheme: to mold Monster No. 2 into a new kind of woman, the very equal (dare he whisper it?) of men!
The movie traces these two plots separately. We watch a few scenes of the male monster (now called Viktor) as he copes with the road and the circus, guided by his diminutive mentor. Then we zip over to Frankenstein's place, where he obsessively sculptures the blank mind of his new creature (now called Eva) into something like a feminist shape. The stories overlap once in a while, since the creatures have a sympathetic mental bond. But mostly they go their own ways until the climax, when they crash togeth er with the dialectical energy of classic Hollywood melodrama.
Here the movie falls apart for a few crucial moments, dropping its fantastical glow and becoming just plain hokey. Frankenstein loses his cool and breaks his own policy of ignoring Eva's womanhood, muddling the story's feminist angle with movie-sex clich'es. Eva herself becomes more earthbound and less tantalizing as a character, and Viktor starts behaving like -- well, a Frankenstein monster.
``The Bride'' is a resourceful picture, though, and director Roddam regains his balance in the nick of time. Just when it looks as if Viktor and Eva will fizzle out in a trite and violent finale, the movie has a new burst of wacky inspiration and springs an ending as artful, unexpected, and just plain nervy as can be. I won't give it away except to say you've seen it all before, yet you've never seen anything like it.
If all this were directed and photographed with less finesse, ``The Bride'' would be as predictable and forgettable as dozens of other ``Frankenstein'' spinoffs have been. What makes the movie special is its mingled air of high seriousness, low humor, proud nostalgia, and finely tuned absurdism. The filmmakers tread a tightrope between the sober and the silly with an assurance matched by only a handful of films in recent years, such as Eric Rohmer's drama ``The Marquise of O. . . .''
Credit goes to director Roddam and screenwriter Lloyd Fonvielle for their deft work behind the scenes, and Stephen H. Burrum gets a special nod for his opulent cinematography. Among the fine performers are newcomer Clancy Brown as Viktor, David Rappaport as his little friend, and the performer called Sting -- a most contemporary actor, cast amusingly -- as the mad scientist who sets everything in motion. Geraldine Page and Quentin Crisp are mainstays of the supporting cast.
``The Bride'' is rated PG-13, reflecting some sexual material (including female nudity that belies the movie's sensitivity to sexism) and outbursts of violence that smack more of the slam-bang '80s than the comparatively restrained '30s, when the original ``Bride of Frankenstein'' came out.