It’s October, and here at Biff Bam Pop! that means a month-long celebration of the macabre, horrific and the downright creepy in pop culture, and there was no way “The Ten Percent” was being left out of the fun! When it comes to examining the relatively small number of pop culture productions that rise above the swamps of the ordinary to lurch across the landscape of our consciousness, it would be foolish to forget the classics – therefore, I present to you The Bride of Frankenstein!
Following the smash success of 1931’s Frankenstein, Universal desperately wanted to cash in on “monster fever,” but director James Whale wasn’t so sure he wanted to make another horror picture. He insisted on full creative control of the sequel and was granted this concession – a real surprise, given Carl Laemmle, Jr.’s tight rein on Universal productions. With that guarantee in place, Whale went to work and created The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), a film often considered to be the finest of all the classic horror movies.
One of the key problems with sequels – especially back in the dark days before video tapes, DVDs, Blu-Rays, and instant streaming – is how to quickly get new viewers up to speed while not boring audience members who had seen the first film. With Bride, Whale uses a framing device involving Mary Shelley, the young author (seriously, Frankenstein was written when she was only 19!) and wife of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary is seen demurely sitting on a couch, engaged in the domestic art of needlework while Percy and their host, Lord Byron (yes, THAT Lord Byron – the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” one) remark on Mary’s creation of the horrible phantasm when she herself is so gentle. With a glint in her eye, Mary asks them if they want to hear the rest of the story – and so the sequel begins.
Bride is characterized by Whale’s swooping camerawork – he was entranced by what a camera could do and in Bride, he’s not afraid to show off as the camera moves fluidly through the Gothic manor house of Henry Frankenstein and the cobwebbed underground crypt robbed of bodies to create the Bride. We follow the agile camera as the frightened monster lumbers through the woods, seeking a friendly face in an isolated cabin and also as a frightened mob seeks to end the life of the monster they think has brought death and destruction to their village.
Aside from Whale’s imaginative use of the camera, Bride also features a subversive, almost campy, plot. The monster (played simply by “KARLOFF!” no first name being deemed necessary at this point) has survived the burning of the mill and he wants company. While Henry has sworn to have nothing more to do with his mad experiments, promising to devote all his attention to his soon-to-be bride (yes, there’s more than one in this film!), an old instructor and mentor, Septimus Pretorius (“Royal Seven,” a reference to the Seven Deadly Sins) shows up and things get interesting quickly. Pretorius is a simply delicious character and Ernest Thesiger plays him to the hilt – he’s unhinged, amoral, and quite possibly crazier than a bagful of cats, but he has a certain single-mindedness in his focus to create life that quickly draws Henry back to the world of crypts, grave-robbers, and a lab full of heavy, science-y things that clank and spark.
The terrified villagers quickly discover that the monster is not dead and they move in true mob fashion to capture the creature, truss him up in a pose that looks an awful lot like the crucified Christ, and dump him in a dank basement cell, chained to a chair. Of course, he quickly escapes and, not being a stupid monster, he heads out of town to the woods where, in a scene of haunting beauty, he almost makes a friend – the only thing he truly wants – out of a blind hermit. When civilization intrudes and destroys that chance at happiness, the monster is seduced by Pretorius’ promises of a mate into helping him get Henry on board.
Interestingly, the Bride herself is only on camera for a scant six minutes. Wrapped so tightly in bandages that she had to be carried around the set, could not eat, and could only drink through a straw, the uncredited Elsa Lanchester uses her limited screen time to her full advantage. (And yes, Lanchester also plays Mary Shelley in the first scene of the film – Whale alludes to that in having Mary, Percy, and Byron echo the Bride, Henry, and Pretorius.)
Lanchester’s bewildered, scarred Bride possesses an unearthly beauty and one of the best screen screams ever recorded. (She claimed that she patterned her distinctive, hissing scream off swans she had seen being fed in London – “They’re really very nasty creatures,” she commented.) The Bride never asked to be sewn together from dead bodies and forcibly reanimated to be the mate of a monster and she’s not wasting time trying to fit in. Sadly realizing that the world will never accept him, the monster stumbles across a “don’t pull this” sort of lever, shoos Henry out to continue life with his living bride, and pulls the house down on those who use science to dabble in matters of life and death.
Over the years, Bride has been dissected (yuk, yuk) from any number of angles – is the movie anti-science? Is the movie pro-faith? Does the character of the monster make a statement about racism and lynching? Is Whale using the movie to comment on his own out-and-highly-unusual-for-the-time homosexuality? And just what is going on with Minnie? That a film can still spark these conversations 75-plus years after its initial release is testimony to its staying power. Bride is an astonishing movie and one well worth toasting during this month of ghoulish delights. And it’s certainly part of The Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.