Originally published October 27th, 2012
I had originally planned to review the TCM/Fathom events double feature of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein but ended up missing out on it. In the interest of time I figured best just to review the film I hadn’t already seen, The Bride of Frankenstein. I really have no good excuse for why I haven’t seen this yet. I’ve seen the 1931 Frankenstein and liked it and just never got around to see this lauded sequel until now. With that I actually enjoyed Bride better! In my review of It’s Alive I mentioned how horror films can espouse social commentary if it’s not too controversial and I’d offer this as an example of it done well. The film isn’t just a monster movie but a tale of seeking compassion, friendship, the struggle to identify with religion and how the desire for immortality and the need to be one’s own God can cause us to saté our darkest desires. All of this comes through beautifully in a film with a runtime of an hour and eleven minutes. Contrast that to It’s Alive that tried to discussion abortion and chemicals, poorly, in an hour and a half.
Picking up where the first film ended we see that Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff) has not perished in the windmill fire. Instead he goes on a murderous rampage as people continue to be frightened of him. At the same time it appears Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has also survived and is set to marry the beautiful Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). When the mysterious Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) arrives and enlists Henry’s help to make another creature the fates align to provide the Monster with a friend that won’t be afraid of him.
I don’t mean to disrespect the first Frankenstein but man is this film superior. The story is epic for such a short time, packed with human emotions, and elevates itself in terms of the themes presented. The characters and the acting is fantastic and this film, more than others I’ve seen recently, just screams Old Hollywood. As I was watching, particularly the scene where they prep to animate the bride, you really see the care and style that went into these old Hollywood productions. Sure you can tell it’s a set but that’s the joy; seeing the craftsmanship and detail and I noticed it a lot in this film. The Bride of Frankenstein was seeking to capitalize not only on the success of horror films and the Frankenstein name, but Boris Karloff as well. He’s listed in the credits as simply Karloff (putting him up there with other lone monikers like Pink and Prince). I’ll mention this when I discuss the Monster properly but damn is Karloff fantastic in this. He’ll be entering my Hall of Fame no doubt but the empathy you feel for him. It takes a true actor to take a character that could be incredibly campy or menacing (playing just the surface attributes) and imbuing him with a soul. The creature, more than he did in the last film, desires love and friendship. As the blind hermit tells him at one point, it’s not good to be alone (a similar sentiment I heard in Doctor Who recently).
The film opens by presenting the film as a story within a story; introducing Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) and her friends including an extremely over-the-top Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon). A quick divergence there should be more Lord Byron films. Just saying. Anywho, the acting here is reminiscent of the flashbacks within The Mummy in that the acting is exaggerated. The characters move like their in a silent film and set the tone for the macabre story that’s to follow. We’re also introduced to Elsa Lanchester as Shelley playing a dual role as the Bride; possibly alluding to the idea that there’s a bit of the monstrous in everyone?
From there the film moves into Frankenstein’s story proper. The monster is out for blood within his opening minutes, slaughtering an entire family (well the parents of the little girl he accidentally killed in the first film) within the first ten minutes! His actions could be seen as vengeful or indicative of his lack of soul but I see them as the opposite. He continues to see no love for him and, much like a child, he lashes out because he doesn’t understand. I think that is what makes the monster unique from the other creatures of Universal’s monster canon; he is so childlike and pure in heart, he’s just never given the chance to show it. Interestingly there’s a preponderance of religious iconography around the monster in this film. When he’s eventually captured he’s strung up in a crucifixion pose with the allusion being that the monster is a Christ figure. An unformed bringer of harmony whose been tortured due to the mob being unable to understand him. When the monster wanders upon a kindly, blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), the two appear to be in answer to each others prayers. The hermit and the monster find a friend, while the creature discovers religious training and compassion. When the hermit takes to praying at one point there’s another crucifix behind them that the camera focuses in on. In this case there’s a marked change from the idea of religion that the creature is used to. In the crucifixion scene the mob believes their casting out a devil whereas here the idea of Christian charity and doing unto others is the focus.
Religion extends out to the characters of Henry and Dr. Pretorius. Each man wants to be his own God and with that ability comes the idea of bringing out various perversions; the key one being homosexuality. Let me preface this with stating: I don’t find homosexuality perverse at all. I’m simply analyzing how the film presents it for 1935 (so please no angry comments). First off is Ernest Thesiger super frightening or is that just me? He’s scary in a way that the Creature isn’t. The doctor’s manner of walking, his gaunt appearance, the way shadows play on his face and the camera constantly kept at low angles to increase his God-like ideas of himself, all creating this image of disturbing omnipotence. He’s incredibly Devil-esque in his mannerisms and the way he says “woman” throughout the film always sounds lecherous. The homoerotic tension between doctor and former student arises when Dr. Pretorius propositions Henry, stating “we must work together,” and touches his arm. A bond continues to be established between the two, especially once the bride is set to be reanimated. The camera presents a series of tilted shots that not only present Frankenstein and Pretorious as mirrors of each other, but also appears to have them sharing loving glances with each other. Eventually Henry embraces his mad doctor persona that he’d left behind and forges a new relationship with the doctor that can only end destructively. We also see Pretorius insinuate a desire for necrophilia when him and his hired goons go to raid a cemetery. Upon discovering a young woman’s body Pretorius asks if “her bones are firm.” We’re meant to see that this mad desire to reanimate life brings out the most taboo desires in a man to the point that murderers (Pretorius’ goons) would rather be hanged than help. An aside: My favorite scene has to be when Pretorius shows Henry his miniature people; two of which are tributes to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII! The way the king keeps escaping and hitting the glass on the Anne Boleyn jar while she freaks out is a dash of humor in this dark story.
Henry Frankenstein becomes a bit player in his story even though the bride of the title is his love Elizabeth! Valerie Hobeson is beautiful and, considering I don’t remember Mae Clarke as the original Elizabeth, does a worthy job in the role. Henry is trying to fight his addiction to being a mad doctor (if such an addiction can happen) and while he does his damnedest it appears that it doesn’t take much for him to get back into the game. When Elizabeth is kidnapped Henry is concerned but almost seems happy, as if he’s discovered a guilt-free way to get back into his work. The original script had things that would have made Henry a vengeful man. Case in point the original intent was to have the heart that’s used to reanimate the bride be Elizabeth’s. A creative idea to be sure but I do enjoy the happy ending at the end and having Elizabeth die so horribly would have motivated Frankenstein to be vengeful and another take on the monster. The final scene is a fun bit of messed up footage as it shows Henry perishing in the collapsing tower during the finale…right after we see the Creature allowing Henry to leave with Elizabeth. It appears that the original scene was to have Henry die but a final script change and the need for a happy ending forced that to be moot but the footage couldn’t be reshot. You don’t notice it unless you’re looking for it but it’s fun to see nonetheless.
We’ll end by discussing the beautiful Bride that’s become the face of this film. Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of the Creature only has about 2 scenes towards the end but she makes them work. There’s a hint of German Expressionism within her character; obviously in her presentation. She has jerky, bird-like movements that make her appear otherworldly and the way she’s unwrapped combined with her hair do a great job of making her look like an Egyptian Queen; many have compared the Bride to Nefertiti. Her resurrection sequence is stunning although it’s beauty is juxtaposed with the sadness of her fateful meeting with the Creature. You really want them to work out but like the worst romantic comedies out there they just can’t transcend their differences. The Creature comes to this awareness, his most aware moment in the film and he discovers “we belong dead.”
The Bride of Frankenstein is one of the few sequels that transcends the original. The story is sad yet profound. The acting is amazing and I wouldn’t call it a horror film; more a drama with romantic undertones. Check it out and love every second!
Type of Horror: Universal Monsters, Frankenstein, reanimated dead
Fright Meter: 1
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.