It is rare for a film to have a truly lasting and meaningful impact on society. The Bride of Frankenstein happens to be one such film. The film was released April 20 1935 as a sequel to Universal’s box office hit, Frankenstein,. The title character of The Bride would go on to become one of the most iconic horror characters of all time, despite being on screen for less than ten minutes. The Bride of Frankenstein has been cited as a masterpiece by the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman, and continues to be heralded as one of the best films ever made.
The Bride of Frankenstein, although wonderful, can be incredibly difficult to describe, especially if you hope for it to make sense, but I’m going to give it a go!
The story, itself, picks up where the first film, Frankenstein (1931), left off. Villagers are celebrating the death of the monster, but Hans (Reginald Barlowe), the father of the girl killed by the monster, wants to make sure he is dead. He falls into a watery pit near the mill that the villagers had burned down, only to have Frankenstein’s Monster rise from the water (Jason Vorhees style) and strangle him to death. Hans’ wife (Mary Gordon) hears the commotion and offers him a hand up from the pit, only to be met by the hand of The Monster, who makes his way out of the pit and tosses her in, to drown alongside of her husband. The Monster creeps up on Minnie (Una O’Connor) who runs back to the village to warn everyone that he is still alive. No one believes her.
Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), the fiancee of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), finds his body and believes him dead, but then he moves and isn’t. The film cuts to Elizabeth nursing Henry back to health. He speaks of his desires to “create men from the dust of the dead” and Elizabeth cackles like a lunatic, rambles about Satan, and becomes hysterical. Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) enters in hopes of collaborating with Henry on a new project. He tells him that he has also created life and Henry is all about collabing. They go to Pretorius’ laboratory where he introduces Henry to the tiny people he keeps in glass jars that he has grown from seeds. Pretorius talks Henry into creating a mate for the monster in hopes of ultimately creating an entirely man-made race.
“She’s alive! Alive!”
Meanwhile, The Creature runs amok across the countryside, accidentally terrorizing people and being perpetually lonely. The villagers capture the monster and chain him up, but he escapes, immediately, and heads for the woods. He eventually stumbles across an old, blind man playing the violin, who he befriends and who believes the monster is simply a mute. This blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) teaches the creature basic words like “friend”, “good”, and “bad”, before the two share a few laughs and a sincerely touching moment. The Monster’s good fortune doesn’t last though. Passerbys see him through the window and disrupt his utopian refuge, so he attacks them. They pull the hermit away and the monster sets the cottage on fire.
The Creature, again, wanders off, and comes upon Pretorius and two lackeys grave-robbing. He tells the monster of his plans to build him a “friend”; a “wife”. The two find Henry and tell him it is his turn to do his part of the collaboration (drop his rhymes on that mixtape), but he is reluctant. When Henry refuses to help, the monster kidnaps Elizabeth and threatens to kill her. Henry gives in, of course, and gets to work. They use the lightning and kite method to actually bring the bride to life, remove her bandages, and the monster comes in to greet his new bride. She screams at the sight of him, just as the others had, and the monster loses it. He allows Elizabeth and Henry to run to safety, but holds Pretorius back, stating, “You stay. We belong dead.” The film ends with Henry and Elizabeth watching as the laboratory burns.
Behind The Scenes
Filming for The Bride of Frankenstein began in January of 1935 and wrapped in little more than one month. The film was directed by James Whale, who had also directed the first Frankenstein, as well as Universal’s, The Invisible Man, and Show Boat. After being subjected to multiple treatments, Whale chose playwright William J. Hurlbut and Edmund Pearson to finalize the sequel’s script.
Whale worked closely with a psychologist employed by Universal in order to develop a more sympathetic Frankenstein’s monster. He intended for the monster to have limited speech and only have the intellectual capacity of a 10 year old. Boris Karloff was opposed to the idea of the creature speaking because he believed, “The moment he spoke you might as well … play it straight.”
Jack Pierce (with guidance from Whale) was responsible for the historic makeup of the monster and his bride. He paid exquisite attention to detail in developing facial features of the monster to reflect having been burned in the first film and progressively healing throughout the sequel. The bride’s iconic hair-do was based on Nefertiti. It was imagined by Whale and executed by Pierce who used a Marcel Wave on a wig stretched over a wire frame to create the look.
Ahead of its Time
Contextually, The Bride of Frankenstein can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, but one thing is for certain: no matter what interpretation you ascribe to it, this film was decades ahead of its time. Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein are often revered as feminist films for having been based on the first Gothic novel written by a woman, Mary Shelley. The film, The Bride of Frankenstein, takes great creative liberty by expounding on the seed of the monster having a mate only planted in the original novel. In doing so, The Bride has become a feminist figure, all her own. By rejecting the monster’s advances and expectations, The Bride was also rejecting society’s dictated path for a woman, at that time. She refused the road paved for her by men who “created” her.
Some film critics have found The Bride of Frankenstein to be heavily encrypted with homosexual subtext. Like feminism, this was also an incredibly taboo subject in the 1930’s. James Whale was one of very few openly gay men in Hollywood, at the time, and it is believed that he injected homo-erotic undertones intentionally to make a statement. One can argue that Pretorius lusted after Frankenstein and was trying to pull him away from Elizabeth. Like homosexuals of that time, the monster (and, to a degree, Dr. Pretorius) were outsiders, rejected by society. In ending the film with the monster stating, “We belong dead,” and killing himself and Pretorius, Whale was commenting on society’s persecution of gays and challenging them to be seen as equals; as human.
“Here’s to a new world of gods & monsters.”
Frankenstein, the novel, is thickly infused with religious allegory, but The Bride of Frankenstein takes a vastly different approach to religious commentary by way of blatant mockery. Pretorius is unabashedly critical of all things inherently religious and you can nearly taste his disdain when delivering the line, “Or if you like your bible stories, ‘Male and female created he them”. It’s a surprise that this film did not stir up as much controversy as it may have deserved in the 1930’s. Pretorius also takes a jab at religion when introducing Henry to his humunculi. “So disapproving of the other two, we made him an archbishop”, he said.
Atmospherically, The Bride of Frankenstein drew great inspiration from the silent films of the 1920’s, including Nosferatu, Haxan, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This film, however, introduced Expressionist elements to a new landscape of talking film. Surreal sets were not necessary, but when merged with Gothic stories like that of The Bride of Frankenstein, they were appropriate and added an additional eerie piece to an already creepy puzzle.
A Pervasive Influence
The Bride of Frankenstein has become pervasive in pop culture. You can see its influence everywhere, from Marge Simpson’s hair to Stephen King’s, Pet Semetary. It spans not only generations, but also crosses genres and inspires artists across all mediums. The film was one of the first horror movies to imbue a dark concept with humor, which would ultimately lead to an equally iconic parody: Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.
A character being so widely and easily recognized is a testament to a film’s significance, but The Bride of Frankenstein is so much more than just an awesome hair style; it’s a cultural phenomenon. It to breed new horror fans, to this day, and I, for one, cannot wait until I have the opportunity to introduce this master work to my children.