Not only does Bride of Frankenstein continue the story where Frankenstein (1931) left off, but builds upon it. This automatically makes it a good sequel – what makes it a great film is a complicated layering of metaphor, allegory, and thematic undertones.
Director: James Whale
Written by: William Hurlbut,
Runtime: 75 minutes
US Release: April 20, 1935; Universal Pictures
The film opens unexpectedly, at a parlor party with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley herself (Elsa Lanchester). The prologue serves multiple functions; practically, it delivers the necessary reminder of the preceding film’s events (remember it had been four years since Frankenstein‘s release) and symbolically, it exemplifies Mary Shelley as the author. This may seem obvious today, but early 20th century adaptations often downplayed a woman’s role in the creation of such a masculine horror story; the inclusion of this prologue is therefore indicative of Whale’s bold direction to come.
The parlor dissolves then into the familiar fiery windmill, falling into ash. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has survived his fall and is rushed back to his house. Onlookers, meanwhile, discover the Monster (Boris Karloff) has not died; he emerges from the rubble and begins traipsing through the countryside in search of identity, meaning, and food. Sure, several people are killed in his wake, but the man just wants a bite!
Back at the house, Henry recovers and is called upon by a former university professor, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). The visiting doctor instantly cuts a strange figure: he’s eccentric, rude, and has his own designs on creating life. Despite sweating off such experiments, Henry is intrigued; he marvels at Pretorius’s homunculi – little people he has cultured from seed. Meanwhile, back in the forest. the Monster stumbles upon a blind old hermit who takes him in as a friend. The hermit teaches the Monster how to speak, enjoy music, and drink wine. For the first time, the Monster knows acceptance, love, and understanding. Two hunters arrive, however, and break up the party. They shoot the Monster who flees for his life, finding shelter in an old crypt.
This is where Dr. Pretorius happens to be for the night. He has been body-snatching a female’s corpse for the next stage of the experiment – creating a mate. The Monster likes this plan and the two forge a partnership to force Henry into the game. Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) is kidnapped as an insurance plan and sure enough, Henry complies. He and Pretorius get underway with the experimentation and succeed in bringing to life “the Bride of Frankenstein”. Thrilled, the Monster approaches this woman (Elsa Lanchester) but in one of the great tragedies of cinema, the female scream in fright upon seeing him. Rejected for the final time, the Monster opts for death. He blows up the laboratory, killing himself and Pretorius, but not before urging Henry and Elizabeth to save themselves.
It is a jam-packed film, considering its 75 minute run time. Without wasting a single frame, James Whale tells an electrifying story of human identity, buoyed by Karloff’s performance. If Frankenstein (1931) was about Henry’s journey, then Bride is all Monster; his search for identity in a cruel world is mesmerizing. Religious metaphor is often employed to underscore this; the image of the Monster strung up on the wooden scaffold evokes Christ on the cross. The crucifix is featured again in the blind hermit’s cottage, overlooking the blossoming friendship between them.
This scene in particular stands out as a moment where the film breathes. Just as the Monster finds a place to rest, the audience is given a place to catch its breath. We’ve been running since the beginning of the picture! Here now, we laugh as the Monster gets a little drunk, reflect as the Monster puts meaning to words, and finally cry as the Monster does when lays his weary head down. For a moment we believe that we are safe in this world.
Karloff and Whale anchor Bride of Frankenstein, but Elsa Lanchester and Ernest Thesiger steal the show. Thesiger has the most screen time and is deliciously wicked in his Mephistopheles role. Through him, the queer-reading of the movie finds its voice; not interested in what women have to offer, Pretorius seeks out another man with whom he may create life. Understanding the queerness of Thesiger, as well as Whale, lends credibility to such as reading.
As for Lanchester, her few minutes onscreen are thunderous. Without saying a word, she conveys fear, confusion, and decisiveness. All the more powerful when considering she was created by men, surrounded by men, for men. By design, the female lacks agency and yet… she demands independence, rejecting her would-be mate and choosing death over a life of subjugation. It is an explosive climax that leaves you wanting so much more.
Perhaps this is where the film suffers from its rapid pace. On the other hand, perhaps any more time with the Bride would have diluted the potency of her brief life. Either way, she has become a damn legend in a film of legendary status. The Bride of Frankenstein deserves attention now more than ever. It stands the test of time for how ahead of its time it both was and remains to be; pick a thematic lens in which to watch the movie and it’s there.
by Vincent S. Hannam