James Whale’s brilliant BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of those rare occasions where the sequel is better than the original… and since the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN is one of the horror genre’s greatest films, that’s saying a lot! Whale’s trademark blend of horror and black humor reached their zenith in BRIDE, and though Whale would make ten more films before retiring from Hollywood moviemaking in 1941, this was his last in the realm of the macabre. It turned out to be his best.
William Hurlbut’s screenplay start with a prologue set during the proverbial dark and stormy night, with Mary Shelly (Elsa Lanchester ), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton), and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon ) discussing Mary’s shocking novel “Frankenstein” as clips from the 1931 film are shown. Then Mary tells them there’s more to the story, and we pick up where the original left off, the burning mill that spelled the end of The Monster. Hans, whose daughter Maria was killed in the “floating flower” scene, is determined to see the creature’s charred bones, despite his wife’s protests, and falls through the wreckage, discovering it’s alive! The wounded Monster kills both of them, frightens Frankenstein’s maid Minnie, and wanders off into the forest.
Henry Frankenstein, recuperating at his castle with bride Elizabeth by his side, is payed a late night call by the gaunt and sinister looking Dr. Pretorius, his former philosophy professor, “on a secret matter of grave importance”. Pretorius has also been experimenting with “the mysteries of life”, and brings Henry to his humble abode, where he unveils his creations… several homunculi, miniature people he keeps in jars, dressed as a king, queen, archbishop, devil, and mermaid. He wants to take Henry’s work to the next level by creating a mate for The Monster, but Henry balks at such a dangerous suggestion.
Meanwhile The Monster, wounded and scaring every living thing in the woods, is spotted, and the local Burgomaster leads the villagers on a hunt. The brute is captured, trussed up like Christ on the cross (one of many Christian images used during the film), and chained up in a dungeon. But mere chains can’t hold Frankenstein’s unholy creation, and he escapes, leaving a murderous swath in his wake. Returning to the primeval forest, alone, hurt, afraid, he stumbles onto the hut of a blind hermit, who befriends the beast, nursing him to health and teaching him a rudimentary vocabulary. They lead an idyllic existence until a pair of hunters (one of whom is John Carradine ) intrude, ruining the friendship, leaving The Monster once again alone in the world.
Hunted again, The Monster hides in a graveyard crypt, where he meets none other than Dr. Pretorius, who tells him of his plan to make a mate, someone like him… stitched together from the dead. Pretorius uses the creature to coerce Henry into collaborating by having The Monster kidnap Elizabeth. Together they reprise the creation of life, bringing forth a female (“She’s alive! Alive!”), who is totally repulsed by the sight of The Monster (“She hate me, like others”). The pitiful Monster sends Henry and Elizabeth away, ordering Pretorius and his intended Bride to stay (“We belong dead”) as he pulls the lever which blows the mountaintop laboratory to smithereens.
Boris Karloff didn’t like the idea of having The Monster speak, but he pulls it off with his usual great acting ability, making the patchwork man seem all-too-human. His scenes with the blind hermit (O.P Heggie) are memorable, although Mel Brooks’s YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN parody flashes through my head whenever I watch it! The Monster is both terrorizing and tender here, with Jack Pierce’s makeup still giving audiences the shivers. Colin Clive returns as Henry Frankenstein, a ball of nervous energy, but 18-year-old Valerie Hobson replaces Mae Clark as Elizabeth. Ernest Thesiger as Pretorius is a sight to behold, as mad a scientist as they come, and he gets all the best lines (“Do you like gin? It is my only weakness”). Una O’Connor annoys the crap out of me as Minnie, the “comic relief” maid, but I l do like E.E. Clive as the pompous Burgomaster (“Monster, indeed!”). Dwight Frye, Fritz in the original, is back as Pretorius’s assistant Karl, who’d rather kill than rob graves.
But it’s Elsa Lanchester as The Bride who shines brightest. Her herky-jerky, birdlike movements, balletic pas de deux with Clive in the laboratory, and repulsed hiss at seeing The Monster make her brief part one of horror’ most iconic, aided in large part by Pierce’s genius with makeup. The bride of actor Charles Laughton, Miss Lanchester had a fifty-plus year career in film and television; some of her many credits are THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, LADIES IN RETIREMENT, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, COME TO THE STABLE, THE INSPECTOR GENERAL, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, MARY POPPINS, and WILLARD .
Franz Waxman’s score is one of the most memorable of horror’s Golden Age, or any age for that matter. Whale and DP John J. Mescall’s use of chiaroscuro lighting, along with the Expressionistic sets by Art Dircetor Charles D. Hall, show the heavy influence German films had on Whale’s style. And of course we can’t forget Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical marvels, working their magic to bring The Bride to life. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN not only tops the original, it is one of the all-time great movies, a horror fantasy for the ages that gets better and better with repeated viewings.