“Some movies age; others ripen”Roger Ebert on Bride of Frankenstein
Frankenstein (1931) generated massive box office returns and global headlines (after it was banned in many countries) and made Boris Karloff into a bankable star. It was inevitable that Universal would want to take another run at a Monster-based movie. It took a couple of years to reassemble Karloff, Colin Clive, and director James Whale, but January 1935 they reunited on the set of one of the final – and most outrageous – pre-Code horror films.
Bride of Frankenstein is stylish and witty, with many moments of camp humor, yet it still contains enough chilling sequences to be lauded as a genre great. Thanks in part to the leaps and bounds made in filmmaking technology between 1931 and 1934, it’s much more sophisticated than its predecessor, using dramatically framed images from the burning mill surrounded by pitchfork-brandishing peasants at the start, to the collapsing castle at the climax to tell a fluid, multi-layered version of the old story. By 1935 Whale (and Universal) understood what audiences wanted from these new-fangled fairy tales. Bride of Frankenstein is a knowing, measured response to the affection fans harbored for the Monster — it gives him a voice, a mate and, in the final scene, the power to choose his own destiny.
The plot uses elements from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel but, like the 1931 movie, is not an adaptation. We begin with Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) herself, telling her epic horror story to her husband Percy (Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon). As she wraps up around the point where the first movie ended, they urge her to continue. So, she does.
As would come to be the usual practice in Universal sequels, familiar characters are given new plot functions. The true villain of the piece is new this time around: Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) is the amoral, corpse-stealing former mentor of Henry Frankenstein, who creates miniature people and keeps them in specimen jars.
You think I’m mad. Perhaps I am. But listen, Henry Frankenstein. While you were digging in your graves, piecing together dead tissues, I, my dear pupil, went for my material to the source of life. I grew my creatures, like cultures, grew them as nature does, from seed.Dr. Pretorius
Pretorius has gotten wind of his protegé’s blasphemous experiments and reaches out with a proposal that they join mad scientist forces and set about creating new life forms. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive reprising) is reduced to the reluctant helper, who cannot face up to his previous mistakes but doesn’t have the strength to resist temptation when it comes knocking. Where once he defied God and natural law, he is here represented as weak, indecisive and bumbling beside the razor-sharp cunning of Pretorius.
Pretorius blackmails Frankenstein into helping him and they decide their next project will be a mate for the Monster, who is still wandering outside the castle walls. The Monster has befriended an old, blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) and has learned how to talk and reason, gradually reassuming a form of humanity. Pretorius lures him back to Frankenstein’s laboratory in time for the Bride’s lighting-triggered reanimation.
Elsa Lanchester is touchingly confused and vulnerable as the Bride who objects to her sudden existence with an ear-splitting scream. She doesn’t want to be alive and she certainly doesn’t want to be a Monster’s mate. She has a major impact on anyone who sees the film, despite the fact that the Bride doesn’t have a lot of screen time. What she has is enough to make her performance unforgettable. Through twitchy body language, Jack Pierce’s innovative hair and make-up, and her unnerving screech (inspired by the noises swans make), her Bride became a horror icon.
Karloff brings his usual wounded dignity to the part of the Monster, who speaks for the first time in wondering, mangled syllables. As he ponders the nature of his own existence he rejects a lot of conventional wisdom (“I love dead… hate living”). He ultimately proves wiser and braver than his creator and takes the rejection of the Bride to heart. Even after he’s sampled some of the finer things in life, like wine and cigars, he concludes “We belong dead” and takes on the responsibility of destroying the Monster – himself.
Bride of Frankenstein ended up running close to $100,000 over its original $300,000 budget but would go on to make $2million at the box office, so no one cared. The version that landed on screens was quite heavily censored. Joseph Breen’s office objected to the sex (shots of Elsa Lanchester’s cleavage were cut, as was the implication that Mary Shelley, Byron Shelley were all living together in sin) and the violence (a reported 21 deaths were reduced to 10 by the censor’s scissors).
Bride of Frankenstein was critically acclaimed on its release, with many commentators acknowledging its merits as a horror film rather than professing outrage that such a thing existed. They praised the way it met genre expectations, shocking and thrilling the audience by design. It’s never fallen out of favor since, partly because of the depth and complexity of the characterization. There is no central heterosexual relationship as was usual for a narrative of its time. Instead, we’re presented with Pretorius’s obsession with Frankenstein – he practically abducts the younger man from his marriage bed so they can go create a Bride that will satisfy them both. Then the Monster’s emotional quest is not so much for a reproductive mate (which so horrifies Victor in the novel), but for friendship and understanding in a fellow being. Finally, the Bride vociferously rejects the role of made-to-order helpmeet – she’d rather be dead than wed.
Although Bride of Frankenstein is framed as a dream retold, a dark fantasy conjured on a stormy night, it endures because, above all, these characters are so relatable. There’s great affection to this day for the Bride and the Monster among queer and straight audiences alike – just check your nearest Halloween parade for tribute costumes.
- Behind the Camera: Bride of Frankenstein – Rob Nixon at TCM
- Never the Monster, Always the Bride: The Bride of Frankenstein in Film and Television – Clare McBride on SyFy.com
- Sexual Subversion: The Bride of Frankenstein – Gary Morris in Bright Lights Film Journal, July 1, 1997
- Why Frankenstein’s Monster Haunts Queer Art – Charlie Fox, New York Times, October 13, 2017
- More from the Frankenstein website
For a touching twist on the James Whale story, see Gods and Monsters (1998), starring Ian McKellen & Brendan Frasier, based on the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram. What makes a man make such a set of monsters?