Bride of Frankenstein (Universal 1935)
Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale’s stunning sequel to his original 1931 Frankenstein, was released on the 6th of May, 1935, although it had originally been slated as The Return of Frankenstein.
Watching the film, even today, one can still appreciate why Bride of Frankenstein was – and still is – so revered among fans and critics alike, despite the fact that it just about breaks every mould created by the traditional horror film.
Una O’Connor, another British Whale stalwart, is superb as housekeeper Minnie, here confronted by the Monster (Boris Karloff) in Bride of Frankenstein (Universal 1935)
That wonderful Whale gothic abounds is never in question, but the outrageous, often provocative humour, seamlessly blended with the film’s darker pretexts, reveals a true genius behind the troubled director. Initially completely unwilling to take on another horror film, let alone a sequel to the massive box office success that had been his original Frankenstein (1931), Whale was eventually cajoled, in part because of Carl Laemmle’s refusal to let him make his science fiction venture A Trip To Mars. Offered Bride of Frankenstein in its stead, Whale ultimately embraced the project completely, exercising full autonomy on every aspect of the lavishly expensive production.
Surrounding himself with a largely British ensemble cast, the director secured the return of the now-superstar Karloff to reprise his role as the Monster, and Colin Clive as the manic Henry Frankenstein. A 17-year-old Valerie Hobson replaced the then-fading Mae Clarke as Elizabeth, the character purists insist is the titular Bride, although Whale clearly establishes the name of the Monster as “Frankenstein” as early as the film’s prologue, the name being used by George Gordon Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) in his address to Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton). Further proof, if needed, comes as Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) announces “The Bride of Frankenstein!” at the appearance of the Monster’s mate, amid chiming wedding bells from Franz Waxman’s faultless score.
Blind hermit O P Heggie befriends the Monster (Karloff) in an emotional scene awash with religious subtexts in Bride of Frankenstein (Universal 1935)
Despite only working with him twice, Whale’s use of the darkly camp British thespian Thesiger seems a perfect convergence of talents, likewise with the featuring of Una O’Connor as busybody housekeeper Minnie who is given a surprisingly but delightfully extensive role. The inspirational casting of Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the Monster’s mate, was another Whale touch, as was the stark contrast in her appearance to that of the Monster; no lumbering hulk, the Bride was birdlike and, save a few scars, beautiful. The grey-streaked Nefertiti hairdo and chin-tracing scar (designed with trademark finesse by Jack Pierce) make her one of the true iconic classic monsters.
Picking up pretty much where the original leaves off, Bride of Frankenstein’s main action starts with the Monster having survived the burning mill, where he murders the bereaved parents of little Maria, the child he unwittingly drowned in the previous film. Once freed, he roams the countryside seeking sustenance and companionship, while meanwhile, back at the Frankenstein castle, Henry and Elizabeth receive a midnight caller in the shape of Pretorius. Persuaded to visit the professor’s nearby flat, Henry is astounded at the revelation of a number of miniature people Pretorius has grown from seed. Refusing to cooperate in the creation of a mate for his creature, Frankenstein returns home to resume normal life by marrying Elizabeth.
The darkly camp Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) coerces the Monster (Boris Karloff) to help further his schemes in Bride of Frankenstein (Universal 1935)
The Monster in the meantime discovers the friendship he has long sought, in the company of a blind hermit (O P Heggie) who gives him food and drink and teaches him crude speech. Their idyll is interrupted by their accidental discovery when a couple of lost huntsmen enter the hermit’s hut for directions, and chaos ensues, leading to the capture of the Monster. Soon escaping, he goes quite literally underground, meeting Pretorius in a tomb where that worthy doctor has undertaken a spot of grave-robbing. Taking the Monster under his wing, Pretorius uses him to kidnap Elizabeth and force Henry to cooperate.
In a spectacular creation scene, which utilises 80 different shots, the Monster’s mate is born, but rejects her amorous suitor. Devastated, the Monster sends Frankenstein and the now-freed Elizabeth away before pulling a lever to blow himself, his bride, and Pretorius to atoms; Henry and Elizabeth watch from a safe distance.
The Monster’s Mate (Elsa Lanchester) supported by Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) in Bride of Frankenstein (Universal 1935)
One of the few American stars Whale favoured was Dwight Frye, who all but reprised his role as Fritz in the equally scurrilous tomb-raiding murderer Karl, whose back-story was originally rather more complex than the final cut allowed. In the deleted scenes, Karl brutally murders his aunt and uncle, pinning the dastardly deed on the Monster. This, of course, gave a reason for Karloff flinging him from the laboratory rooftop as the film near its climax, but as the action is ultimately unexplained, it comes across merely as arbitrary brutality.
Almost perfect in every way, Bride of Frankenstein was the height of the golden age of Universal horror, and certainly James Whale’s finest hour. There has been nothing like it before or since, and its uniqueness today is a fine example of moviemaking, and not just horror moviemaking, at its absolute best. What was to follow in the subsequent Frankenstein sequels could never hope to achieve the dizzy heights of Bride of Frankenstein.