Four years after Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein was a monster hit, beginning that studio’s reign in cinema horror, director James Whale, after many problems creating a story, began work on the sequel. You might think you know what The Bride of Frankenstein is about, but there’s more in this mere seventy-four minutes than you might believe. Check out my review after the jump.
When Mary Shelley’s tale of a scientist who creates life from a monster made from dead body parts was finally made into a movie after years as a stage play, it made a star of Boris Karloff and frightened audiences on a worldwide scale. 1931’s Frankenstein was a wild success, both critically and commercially, and what do you do with successes? You make a sequel of course.
While he was happy with Frankenstein, James Whale did not want to be known as a horror director. He had reinvigorated the haunting genre with The Old Dark House and added a touch of humor to horror in The Invisible Man, but Whale wanted more and making a sequel to Frankenstein was not it. Perhaps it wasn’t dragging his feet as much as it was finding a script that amused him that caused the delay. Nevertheless, The Bride of Frankenstein was made and released in 1935.
The film begins not just as Frankenstein ended with the monster screaming inside a burning windmill, but with the authoress herself, Mary Shelley. Played by the elfishly lovely Elsa Manchester, Mary along with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, take a meta moment to recall the events of the first movie as if it were her story.
Moments like this opening, that does then indeed jump to just after the end of Frankenstein, make me think that Whale was trying to stretch, try new things, amuse himself, and yes, express himself. This introduction and recap, as well as picking up on a forgotten subplot in the novel, show the skill in choosing the sequel’s framework so carefully.
The action begins almost immediately with the villagers who lost a daughter in the first movie are the first to discover that the monster still lives. Next to find out is the wonderful Una O’Connor, who I could just watch for hours. She is one of the screen’s finest character actors. Also returning for the sequel are Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, Boris Karloff (billed as simply ‘Karloff’) as the creature, and Dwight Frye in a different role. Valerie Hobson replaces Mae Clarke painfully as Elizabeth, her overacting stretching the limits of camp.
There are scenes that are just simply classic Frankenstein, like the monster being captured by the villagers and then escaping their jail. And then there is the blind hermit violinist who befriends the creature, a scene usually assumed to be in the original. It is a rare opportunity for Karloff to act in this limited heavily made-up role. The emotion and compassion he is able to convey with so little dialogue is evocative of the master, Lon Chaney.
One could say that the real monster of this film however is the evil and opportunistic Doctor Pretorius. Played by Ernest Thesiger, a friend of Whale’s, Pretorius was based on John William Polidori, author of The Vampyr, and another guest at the stormy party weekend where Mary Shelley first conceived Frankenstein. Pretorius is an old teacher of Henry’s who wishes him to continue his work. He too has been trying to create life.
The life that Pretorius has created is just bizarre. He has made, or grown, tiny humans that he keeps in jars. This is only shown briefly, and explained only barely, but it is horrifying in concept. Pretorius wants Frankenstein to be his partner in “a new world of gods and monsters.” Together he thinks they can make a woman, a mate for Henry’s monster.
The Monster’s Mate
Perhaps Pretorius’ most dangerous weapon against Henry Frankenstein is the bond he makes with the monster. If the blind hermit is the creature’s friend and angel, Pretorious is his deceptive devil on the other shoulder. Henry fears his creation, so must do his mentor’s bidding and create a mate for the monster.
Despite what one might think, we don’t actually see the title character until quite late in the film, her ‘birth’ being the big pay off. In scenes that have been made famous, her only scenes as the Bride, it should be noted, Elsa Lancaster is horrific and electrifying. It is truly the big pay off we all deserved, and far too short.
There has been much made of a homosexual subtext to the film, probably because James Whale was an openly gay, as were Clive and Thesiger. I don’t deny that some of it may be true, but let’s face it, you can see anything in clouds if you look at them hard enough. There’s also a certain degree of Christian subtext to Bride as well, so what does that tell you?
No matter how you take the film, or how closely you look at it, The Bride of Frankenstein is a horror classic, and a film classic, not to be missed this Halloween. Enjoy!