1 Hr., 14 Mins.
Bride of Frankenstein October 22, 2018
unwilling as he was, was the only person who could craft an effective continuation. After getting to direct a drama, 1934’s One More River, Whale eventually relented. In the throes of the incoming Frankenstein II’s pre-production, however, it was resolved that, whatever this movie was going to be, it was going to be “a hoot.”
And a hoot the resulting film has long been considered. Bride of Frankenstein is a stylish, histrionic black comedy whose madcap tone can be encapsulated, visually, that is, by the image of the actress Elsa Lanchester, who appears in the film in a lightning-bolted, curly cork of a wig. What I like best about the film, though, is how it can be facilely enjoyed as a rompish horror show, but can also subtextually be read as an allegory for homosexuality, as well a feature-length sacrilegious abstraction.
Bride of Frankenstein, although released about three and a half years after its predecessor, takes place in the moments immediately following the latter’s finale. In a twist, the jarring linearity is an extension of meta-storytelling. As the film opens, we breeze into the palatial home of Percy and Mary Shelley (Douglas Walton and Lanchester), where the couple is yielding to a post-supper conversation. Percy and one of their friends, Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), are singing praises about Mary’s recently published literary creation. The author is deferential but sly, evidently relishing in the attention. “It's a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters,” she says with a gap-toothed grin.
Conversation comfortably continues for a couple beats. But then it is revealed that there is more to the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster — and Mary, a born raconteur, relays how she would continue the narrative to her eager listening companions.
In an ingenious visual transition, the camera zooms out from the living room and into the night of the Mary-commanded universe. Whereas the 1931 movie ended with an image of a burning windmill, with the eponymous scientist’s monstrous creation trapped inside, the 1935 sequel begins with it. Villagers are gathered around the inferno, gleeful that the cobbled-together beast (Boris Karloff) has apparently been defeated but worried about the fate of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive).
It turns out, though, that neither character is dead. The monster escapes the blaze, and immediately begins wreaking havoc; Frankenstein’s body is brought back to his castle, where his teary-eyed finacée, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) waits. It is discovered, thankfully, that he is simply unconscious.
Bride of Frankenstein is a misnomer. Technically, the bride of Frankenstein is his soon-to-be one, Elizabeth. But, of course, the movie is actually about the creation of a companion for the fivehead with the painful-looking neck piercing. The project is brought on by Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), Frankenstein’s former mentor who essentially forces his old protégé to help him fashion the she-beast. (Considering the pandemonium that ensued from his last enterprise, Frankenstein isn’t so sure he wants to continue perpetuating his mad scientist persona.)
In the interim, the undead creature wanders about the countryside, where he is rancorously greeted by almost everyone he meets. Eventually taking pity on him is a blind hermit (O.P Heggie) who teaches the aimless rapscallion how to eat and drink and even speak. “Friend?” the moaning brute is later able to ask anyone who so
much as shows him an iota of kindness.
Bride of Frankenstein, like its antecedent, once again ends with a rather sacrificial pileup. But the key difference is its relative lightheartedness and pointier camp, which is either brought on by Karloff, who savors the moments when he gets to mumble unsophisticated sentences, or by Thesiger, whose performance is so fearsome that we half-expect foam to start dribbling down from his chops.
The embedding of interest-piquing thematic ideas, whether intentionally or unconsciously, supplements the film’s merit. Some read Bride of Frankenstein as a subversive, loose religious parable, wherein the titular madman’s creature is a stand-in for Christ. (This idea is delivered with a wink: there is a moment in the film when Karloff is tethered to a cross by emptily seething villagers.)
Others, myself included, have been gripped by the movie’s queer undertones, which go deeper than the fact that Whale was homosexual, and that Clive and Thesiger were thought to be either gay or bisexual. The relationship between Frankenstein and Pretorious is steeped in homoeroticism. This especially rings true when, at the film’s climax, Frankenstein abandons a romantic night alone with Elizabeth to animate the monster’s bride — a symbolic way to say that the two are creating life unorthodoxly. The creature first greets his stitched-together “wife” by deeming her a “friend,” while the bride hisses and screeches when she sets her sights on her forced lover.
Part of Bride of Frankenstein’s appeal, which to a certain extent is rooted in its Expressionism-reminiscent visual style, is that these ideas are in conversation with one another but are not so dominant that those who are interested in a trouble-free, escapism-first viewing cannot take pleasure in the movie as a superlative monster movie. It is not so much that Bride is better than its predecessor — as it is regularly said to be — as it is that it expands on the bountiful, already-captivating ideas brought forward in the novel and in the inaugural adaptation. Whale, among the great directors of the period, has achieved something remarkable here: he has created a horror romp delectable from all angles. A
ames Whale balked when he first heard that his studio, Universal, was intent on producing a sequel to his 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. What was the point, really? Not only was there no literary source material to work off of — there was also, simply, no way it could improve on the original in his mind. Following the commercially successful release of his comparatively macabre The Invisible Man, a sci-fi-horror lark from 1933, though, the superproducer Carl Laemmle, Jr. decided that Whale, as