In anticipation of Halloween and in celebration of the recent blu-ray release of the classic and iconic “Universal Monsters” series, I have decided to review each title individually in chronological order, and the latest review of the series is for “The Bride of Frankenstein” that was directed by James Whale and premiered on 22 April, 1935.
For most people the sequel to James Whale’s original “Frankenstein” movie is often considered the crown jewel of the “Universal Monsters” series, however while I think that “The Bride Of Frankenstein” is a great film, I do not find myself as engaged in it as I was with the original film. When “Frankenstein” became a huge hit back in 1931, Universal obviously wanted to duplicate its success as quickly as possible and wanted to do a sequel straight away. This was something that James Whale resisted repeatedly, and it wasn’t until Universal had unsuccessfully attempted to make a Whale-less sequel that he finally accepted to return on the condition he had total artistic control on the film. Amazingly Universal agreed to these terms, which to movie fans around the world was a huge blessing because James Whale was one of the most creative men to ever work in cinema, as well as one of the most imaginative. Because of this “The Bride Of Frankenstein” is a very different film from its predecessor, whilst telling a very similar tale.
The story starts immediately after “Frankenstein” where we see that the monster has survived the attack on him by the enraged townspeople by falling into a flooded cavern below the mill. Convinced that the monster is in fact dead, everyone returns to their homes with the broken and assumed deceased body of Dr. Frankenstein. When they return to the doctor’s mansion, it is soon discovered that he is in fact alive, in need of care but alive. The events of the previous night lie heavy in Frankenstein’s heart and all he wants to do is marry his beloved Elizabeth. This proves to be a task harder than expected as a former teacher, Dr. Pretorius, unexpectedly knocks on his door. Pretorius and Frankenstein share a common bond in the fact that both have tried to create life with different results. It is revealed that while Frankenstein was able to bring dead tissue back to life, Pretorius has been able to artificially create live tissue, thus creating human life. However he has not been able to come to terms with scale and thus his living creations are the size of miniature dolls. Pretorius invites Frankenstein in a partnership of sorts where the two can combine their talents to create the ultimate human being. When Frankenstein refuses to dabble in that world again, Pretorius resorts to blackmailing the doctor into helping him along with the help of Frankenstein’s original monster, in an attempt to create a partner for the creature.
As I mentioned, “The Bride Of Frankenstein” is quite a different film compared to the original and this is immediately felt with the tone of the film. Whilst “Frankenstein” was first and foremost a horror film, the sequel is not, it is more of a fantasy film with strong doses of comedy throughout. Make no mistake, this film still has its horrific moments but overall there is a much lighter tone in regards to “The Bride Of Frankenstein”. The main reason for this is the introduction of the new character of Dr. Pretorius who is played by Ernest Thesiger brilliantly but in a very camp manner. His character is very eccentric and thus his portrayal of him is rightfully a little over the top. Thesiger has a classic scene with the monster in a tomb underneath a graveyard where instead of fleeing from the giant creature rather offers him a cigar and a drink. The highlight of Thesiger’s performance though is his ability to deliver dialogue, he makes everything sound so grand.
Another thing that adds to the lighter tone is the fact that the monster learns to speak in this sequel instead of just moaning and grunting. During my initial viewing of this film I must admit that I did not respond well to the fact that the monster spoke and I thought it just felt wrong. Boris Karloff, who reprises his role of the monster, also didn’t agree with the monster talking, but I have to say that I am starting to come around to it now. In fact the evolution of the monster is needed so “The Bride Of Frankenstein” doesn’t just become a rehash of the original film, but it still takes some time getting used to the monster smoking or drinking with a big smile on his face. Speaking of Karloff, he is wonderful again in this role, and the fact that the monster speaks does not change this at all. He makes it all so believable; you feel that this is a man who has only just begun speaking and learning the delights of the world. The monster is still a tragic figure though and there is so much sadness within, and for me, this is where the heart of the film still exists. The infamous scenes with the monster and the blind-man becoming friends are just so beautiful to watch and incredibly poignant. Throughout the two films, this is the only happiness the monster ever knows. When it does come to the horror of “The Bride Of Frankenstein” it does once again fall on the hands of the monster and even though he has evolved here, he is still as terrifying as ever if pushed into violence.
While I mention that the film has a comedic tone, I don’t suggest this film is a comedy, just that it does have some funny and odd moments in it. An example of an odd moment is when we get to witness the results of Dr. Pretorius’ experiments. The sight of these miniature people encased in glass is just so bizarre, and to be truthful I still do not know if I love or hate the scene. It shows just how big an imagination James Whale had and in this regard I love it, but it is also so silly with the king climbing out of his jar to go after the queen that I sometimes react against this moment. Either way, the scene is certainly unique for a film made in 1935. In terms of real “comedy”, Whale has once again enlisted the help of his friend Una O’Connor to play the Frankenstein’s shrieking maid. Similar to her role and performance in “The Invisible Man”, I once again hated her here; she just isn’t funny and worse she is so irritating. Amazingly though I tolerated her more here than in the previous film.
In my previous reviews I have mentioned that James Whale is a genius at giving a character a great entrance and he has done it again numerous times in “The Bride Of Frankenstein”. The first is his brilliant entrance he gives to Karloff as the monster, this time covered in water appearing from out of nowhere underneath the burnt mill. The fact that the monster isn’t in the best of moods during the scene adds to moment. Another great entrance is the first sighting of Dr. Pretorius as he visits the Frankenstein house. When Minnie (the shrieking maid) opens the door ajar his face is completely in shadow, we can see a silhouette, but as the door slowly opens the shadow starts to disappear bringing his face into view. This moment is so great that I am almost sure that William Friedkin gave homage to this scene in “The Exorcist” the first time we meet Father Merrin. The other entrance that has to be mentioned is that of the “bride” herself. Initially Whale duplicates shots from his original “Frankenstein” as this new monster comes to life, but when we get our full reveal of her, it is almost shot in a romantic way. Fran Waxman’s score is particularly good during this classic moment (in fact the score is great throughout).
I guess since I have mentioned her, it is finally time to talk about the bride. What I found amazing about “The Bride Of Frankenstein” when I watched it the first time was just how little screen time the titular bride has in the film. She is onscreen no more than five minutes and yet she is so memorable and has become an icon of horror even though she never does a horrific thing to anyone at all. Elsa Lanchester will forever be synonymous with this role and yet had only minutes to make an impact in the role. She does so brilliantly and immediately when she shows utter disdain and fear towards the monster, her supposed mate, during their first meeting. She wants nothing to do with him and isn’t afraid to show it. Lanchester does the most amazing hissing noise towards the end of the film which she said she came up with after studying and witnessing swans of all things. Whilst Lanchester is only onscreen briefly as the bride, she also plays another role in the film’s opening scenes in the role of author Mary Shelley. In this unique prologue to the film, Shelly talks about how her story did not end with the monster dying in the mill and it is her telling of the rest of her story that is “The Bride Of Frankenstein”. This is another one of those moments that on initial viewing I struggled with but now thoroughly enjoy. In terms of performance, Lanchester is so different here playing a rich socialite that it is hard to believe that it is her playing the role of the bride too.
As usual I cannot talk about these films without acknowledging the genius of Jack Pierce’s make-up effects and design. As good as Elsa Lanchester is in the role of the bride there is no doubt that she wouldn’t have been as impactful without Pierce’s amazing design work on the bride. The crazy hairstyle with the white stripe through it is another of his designs that has found its way into modern pop culture. Everyone knows the look even if they do not know where it is from. She is just a stunningly beautiful and perfectly created creature, much like her male counterpart. Again the make-up Pierce has performed on Boris Karloff in the role of the monster is outstanding and what I like about it is its evolution. This time around the monster has the battle scars of the previous film, like the burn on his face or the cuts on his arms, it is beautifully intricate detail. Jack Pierce certainly was a genius in his field.
Overall, there is just so much to praise about “The Bride Of Frankenstein”, it is a truly great film, it is just I do not connect to it as greatly as the original “Frankenstein”. There are long stretches in this film that both Frankenstein and his monster are vacant, but the scenes that they do appear in are the film’s best. In fact the scenes of the monster wandering aimlessly in the forest have a beautiful fairytale quality to them that I am attracted to. It is well known now that my cinematic tastes bend towards the dark, so the lighter tone of this film isn’t as powerful for me. However I could never say that “The Bride Of Frankenstein” is nothing short of brilliant, it is complex, full of subtext, poetic and has one of the greatest characters in horror cinema in it, so it is still highly recommended.