Horror Is Universal: “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)

“To a new world of gods and monsters!”

By 1935, Universal had been making horror films for about ten years. Their world of gods and monsters wasn’t terribly new in that respect. What was new, however, was the experiment they were about to undertake. Up to this point, Universal’s horror films had all been standalone projects, a story contained to one film. But after the great critical and commercial success of these films, particularly Frankenstein, it became clear that there was demand for more stories with the existing characters. What came out of that realization was a film that many have called the greatest of the classic Universal horror series — or one of the greatest horror films, period — as well as one of cinema’s best sequels. And while it’s not quite a flawless movie, it has a strong claim to all of those titles. Dark, dramatic and poignant, it’s the rare follow-up that truly builds on the original and dives deeper into the mythology, themes and characters of the story.

The Plot: We pick up right where the original Frankenstein left off, minus the brief epilogue. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and the Creature (Boris Karloff) both survive their confrontation in the burning windmill. Henry is brought back to his home and fiancee Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), while the Creature vanishes to parts unknown. Still reeling from the thrill of creating life and the horror of watching it turn against him, Henry is left emotionally vulnerable when his past comes back to haunt him in the form of Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), his former mentor. Pretorius is also obsessed with the creation of life, and he has a proposition for Henry: together they can replicate Henry’s first experiment and create a new, female creature to serve as a mate to the original. Meanwhile, the Creature is off on his own journey, learning to express himself while experiencing both extreme kindness and extreme cruelty. Hopeful at the prospect of no longer being alone in the world, he allies with Pretorius, and together they force Henry to go along with their plan. But Henry, Pretorius and the Creature are all in for a nasty surprise when the Creature’s promised bride (Elsa Lanchester) is finally unveiled…

Universal had been thinking about a Frankenstein sequel since positive test screenings for the original in 1931, but they didn’t get serious about it until 1933, when The Invisible Man was a hit. James Whale was the director once again, although he was actually reluctant to attach himself to the project. Believing that there was nowhere left to take the story after the first film, he was interested in making the sequel more of a comedy, or as he put it, “a hoot.” More on that later. Besides Whale, most of the primary Frankenstein cast and crew returned for this film, including Colin Clive and Boris Karloff (who by now is so famous that the movie credits him as just “Karloff”). The notable exception was the original Elizabeth, Mae Clarke, who was recovering from an auto accident at the time. Behind the scenes, we also have Jack Pierce doing the makeup design for both Creatures and John L. Balderston with a story credit. Proper credit for the story and script is actually a bit complicated: while playwright William Hurlbut is the sole credited writer on the final film, his screenplay was the culmination of four or five different treatments/scripts that all had different writers. Unlike the first film, this script had to be approved not only by Whale and the studio but the newly instated Motion Picture Production Code, AKA the Hays Code. Again, more on that later.

Bride of Frankenstein‘s plot is not wholly original. The basic premise comes from a minor plotline in Mary Shelley’s novel, where the Creature demands that Victor Frankenstein build him a mate; Victor almost goes through with it before destroying this second creation, unwilling to threaten humanity by creating a new race of monsters. Bride also loosely adapts the second act of the novel, in which the Creature learns human speech and tries in vain to integrate into human society. This creates the weird situation where Bride is technically a more faithful Frankenstein adaptation than Frankenstein is, going by adherence to the plot. But perhaps this is to be expected — we are being told this story by Mary Shelley, after all.

This requires some explanation, so stay with me here. One thing I love about both Frankenstein movies is how they give off an air of intentional artifice: that is, they want you to be aware that you’re watching an outlandish, larger-than-life story. In my post on the first movie, I discussed the bizarre opening scene with Edward Van Sloan warning the audience about the nature of the film, and how the film gives itself permission to be as out there as it wants by admitting up front that it’s fiction. The opening scene of Bride does something quite similar but more fanciful in its execution. We open in “the real world” — not necessarily our world, but closer to it than the world of the main narrative — at the Swiss villa where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816. There we see Mary Shelley herself (also played by Elsa Lanchester) with her husband Percy Shelley and their friend Lord Byron. They all pontificate on the thunderstorm raging outside before their subject changes to that of Mary’s story. Mary, with a sly smile, announces to the men that her story isn’t actually finished yet. Of course they beg to hear more, so Mary sits them down and whisks us all off into the film proper:

It’s a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters…imagine yourselves standing by the wreckage of the mill. The fire is dying down. Soon, the bare skeleton of the building will be dissolved. The gaunt rafters against the sky.

This is a great opening scene for a number of reasons. First of all, it puts Mary Shelley front and center as the creator of the story. This might not seem like that big of a deal, but while most of us can probably identify her as the author of Frankenstein, we forget how monumental an accomplishment that really was: its influence on literature and pop culture is immeasurable. Therefore it’s nice to see the film pay tribute to its origins in this way. Plus it makes up for the first film crediting Mary as “Mrs. Percy Bysshe Shelley.” Yeah, it’s accurate, but come on…

The second thing this intro does really well is detach the story from reality, like what the Edward Van Sloan monologue does for the first movie. It sets itself up as a story being told to us on a dark and stormy night, it frees itself up to be more wild and fanciful, more…Gothic. That ties into the third accomplishment of this intro, which is setting up the new, darker tone of the Frankenstein world.

One thing that makes these early Universal horror movies so enjoyable is their sense of timelessness. They’re taking place in worlds caught somewhere between the past and present, or what was then the present. The Frankenstein movies excel at this feeling above all the others, especially with their largely rural settings. The world of these movies feels like one where 19th-century technology meets 20th-century aesthetics, a delicate balancing act between the Gothic and the modern. And while the original Frankenstein felt more modern in its tone and dialogue, Bride flips the switch and goes full Byron on us. Literally.

We start with Lord Byron delivering a flowery monologue about a thunderstorm, and the Gothic elements only get more and more blatant from there. While the first movie mainly took place during the day, Bride is full of shadowy tombs and foreboding moonlit nights. The seat of House Frankenstein, once a brightly lit manor perched above a quaint village, is now a giant spooky castle towering over the hills. What’s more, the dialogue and behavior of the characters grow to fit the grandeur around them. Everybody in this movie acts bigger, weepier, more overwrought. They speak in elegant prose about curses and monsters and omens of death. We’ve also moved from the realm of science-fiction right into that of fantasy. The central premise of Frankenstein itself, while obviously exaggerated, was inspired by real scientific theories and experiments from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And now we’ve got Dr. Pretorius over here with his miniature homonculi that he keeps in jars. It might sound like a parody — and goodness knows it’s been the basis for countless parodies over the years — but it’s 100% sincere and immersed in its own world, and that’s what makes the tone of the film so engaging.

But the characters and dialogue aren’t just a lot bigger in this movie: they’re a lot deeper as well. I think the strongest aspect is how well the movie expands on the characters of Frankenstein and the Creature, especially the latter. Bride builds on the strong foundation laid by its predecessor and takes a deep dive into the wants, needs and fears of its protagonists. I commended the first movie for successfully making Henry Frankenstein a more sympathetic figure than his literary counterpart, and the same goes for his portrayal here. When he first shows up, it seems like the character of Henry has backtracked a little bit. While he had seemingly learned his lesson about taking science too far back in the first movie, he still seems inexorably drawn to it here. Or as he puts it:

I’ve been cursed for delving into the mysteries of life. Perhaps death is sacred, and I profaned it. For what a wonderful vision it was. I dreamed of being the first to give to the world the secret that God is so jealous of — the formula for life. Think of the power to create a man — and I did it. I did it! I created a man, and who knows, in time I could have trained him to do my will. I could have bred a race. I might even have found the secret of eternal life…It may be that I’m intended to know the secret of life. It may be part of the divine plan.

At first it’s difficult to decide what to make of all this. Is the script retracing its steps out of necessity, feeling the need to undo some of Henry’s development so his story can continue? I read one analysis of the film which interprets this as evidence of hypocrisy and moral weakness on Henry’s part: he makes the above speech, and while he appears shocked and uncomfortable with the experiments Pretorius shows him, he ends up getting swayed to Pretorius’s side pretty quickly. He may talk up the idea of reforming himself, but deep down, he just wants that temptation so he’ll have a flimsy excuse to go right back to his old ways.

It’s easy to buy into that idea. But then something clicks, as it did for me, and you realize that the truth of what Henry’s going through is a lot less black-and-white. The way I see it, Henry’s story in this movie is the story of a man struggling with an addiction. His calling is a destructive one, bringing harm to himself and to others. He knows that it’s wrong, that it’s bad for him, and he wants to be able to swear it off completely. But as he indicates in the monologue above, he can’t stop thinking about the incredible way it made him feel. Some part of him, despite knowing the consequences, wants to keep chasing that high. And that extra fix, that last chance, is what Pretorius offers him. If he tries his experiment one more time, surely he can realize his dream. Henry, knowing where this will lead, tries to walk away. But he falls back in — not because he’s a bad person, but because the withdrawal is eating away at him. He thinks that if he takes this chance to fulfill the potential of his ideas, only then will he be able to leave it all behind. One last hit, and then he’s done.

Most of the evidence for this reading of the character comes from the text itself, but it becomes a lot more poignant and chilling with the knowledge that in real life, Colin Clive had severe issues with alcoholism at this point in his life and would pass away in 1937, only two years after Bride was made. It’s been said that James Whale didn’t recast the part despite knowing how bad Clive’s alcoholism was because his “hysterical quality” was necessary for the film, which you interpret a few different ways. Regardless, it certainly adds an extra layer to the tragedy of Henry’s fight against the inner and outer demons tempting him.

And then there’s the Creature, bless his heart. There’s a clear difference between the first film and this one in that the Creature is undeniably the protagonist now, whereas Henry was the protagonist originally. Bride spends the majority of its time focused entirely on the Creature’s experience being separated from his creator and embarking on his own journey of discovery. And what a compelling, tragic journey it is. This film expands on the idea posed by the original film that the Creature is not inherently good or bad but is shaped by how the world treats him. He doesn’t declare himself the enemy of humanity as Shelley’s character does: in fact, one of the first things we see him do in the film is save the life of a drowning woman, a somber callback to his accidental killing of a young girl in the first movie. His acts of kindness usually get him nowhere, however, as the villagers repeatedly try to chase him down on sight. And hate begets hate, just like before, as the Creature reacts to violent abuse with violence of his own.

But on the flipside, kindness also begets kindness. This is exemplified by the friendship that develops between the Creature and a blind musician living alone in the woods. When the Creature is able to experience the good side of humanity for the first time, he takes to it immediately: the wonder on his face when he first hears violin music is particularly sweet. The old hermit is one of the only people who does not preemptively judge the Creature. Not only does he allow the Creature into his home, but he prays for him, shares food and drink with him and — perhaps most importantly — teaches him how to express himself verbally. What’s more, we see the Creature really start to improve and flourish in the short time he’s staying with the old man. His progress seems to provide evidence that Henry could have taught him well if the rest of the world hadn’t been so quick to judge. The grows more cynical over time, at one point saying that he loves the dead and hates the living, but the emotional impact of the old man never really leaves him. He still fixates on the idea of having a community and a place to belong. It’s his desperation for those things, in fact, that provides the catalyst for his fatal error.

The themes and symbolism in Bride run deep enough that you could spend pages upon pages discussing them. With a runtime of only 75 minutes, it still manages to touch on the ideas of morality, identity and even what it means to be human. When it comes to deep analysis of this film, there are two overarching topics that modern film scholars tend to focus on. The first is the religious symbolism, which goes right along with every Frankenstein adaptation but is especially noticeable here. There’s been a lot of debate over whether the Creature is meant to be regarded as a genuine Christ figure or “a mockery of the divine,” as film historian Scott MacQueen puts it. One major piece of evidence for the former interpretation is all of the Crucifixion imagery surrounding the Creature. There’s a crucifix in the graveyard where the Creature meets Pretorius, there’s another one prominently displayed in the blind hermit’s hut, and of course, the famous moment where some angry villagers tie up the captured Creature in a cruciform pose. It complements the central idea of the Creature being unfairly persecuted by a world that’s not ready to accept him. On the flip side, you have the idea of the Creature’s very existence and the circumstances of his creation being blasphemous, since he comes from Man rather than God. I think it’s not quite as clear as that, especially once the Bride enters the picture, but I’ll explain more about that later. And then you have the obviously evil figure of Pretorius, who explicitly compares himself to the Devil and tempts both Henry and the Creature into committing evil acts. Religious allegory is pretty much the backbone of the story.

The other angle from which scholars tend to analyse Bride has been the subject of more debate and scrutiny, with doubt as to whether it’s a valid reading of the film at all. That would be the queer/LGBT subtext that many viewers have seen as part of the Creature’s struggle. The Creature and Dr. Pretorius are the characters at the center of this debate, especially the latter.

It’s been thought for a long time that Pretorius was intended to be gay, or at least as gay as the 1930s censors would allow. Hollywood was working under the Hays Code by this point, and the Hays Code forbid the depiction of homosexual characters, categorizing them as an example of “sex perversion.” But that didn’t stop James Whale from allegedly telling Ernest Thesiger to play Pretorius as an “over the top caricature of a bitchy and aging homosexual.” Whale himself was openly gay throughout his film career, and Thesiger might have been gay as well. Whatever their intentions, they weren’t blatant enough to get the Pretorius scenes flagged by the Hays office (which mostly censored the film for violence, cutting the body count from about 20 down to 10). This might be because nothing hinting at Pretorius’s sexuality is ever said in the film, but also because he is presented in an antagonistic and almost predatory role as opposed to being sympathetic.

In the final film, I think you can definitely see why people might interpret Pretorius as gay even when he’s not explicitly stated to be so. There’s a definite campiness and flamboyance to his character: as the clip above shows, he’s the kind of guy who would have a picnic in a crypt just for funsies. But there’s also a lot of “now what does this remind us of?” when it comes to what he actually does in the movie. You’ve got an older man, explicitly said to have been the mentor of the younger male protagonist, who comes back into his student’s life and tries to tempt him away from his new wife so they can rekindle the bond they once shared. If you wanted to have a gay character in 1930s Hollywood, this was pretty much the only way you could do so without getting in trouble: drop hints that your audience will understand, follow the socially acceptable narrative and always, always depict them as the bad guy.

The queer interpretations surrounding the Creature are more easily explained and well documented. There’s a long precedent of interpreting horror monsters as a metaphor for marginalized groups, especially in cinema. It goes back to the idea of the Self and the Other: when a story centers around a monster who exists outside the bounds of what the idealized, “safe” society allows from its members, it’s almost inevitable that viewers who feel rejected by the world around them will empathize with that monster, even when the movie doesn’t really want you to. And the Creature is pretty much the poster child for this kind of interpretation because you are supposed to empathize with him and see him as unfairly mistreated.

I think the one major thing about Bride that attracts so many queer interpretations of the film, regardless of the filmmakers’ intent, is that it’s fundamentally a story about a person searching for an identity and a community to belong to. The Creature is a man without a society: he is reduced to walking the earth, having been rejected by his father, and he continues to be rejected and abused by nearly everyone he encounters. He doesn’t know of anyone else like him who might be able to understand his feelings, hence his desire for a “friend” or “wife,” but he is also lacking a positive role model, someone older and wiser who can provide him with guidance. Eventually he does find the blind hermit, who cares for him and teaches him about the world, but then the threat of society returns and promptly destroys this fledgling community. Left alone once again, the Creature is susceptible to bad influences, specifically Dr. Pretorius, who manipulates the Creature while promising him the companionship he so desires. Ulimately, his story ends in tragedy, as he comes to the conclusion that he is truly alone in the world. When the one person who might have been capable of loving him rejects him on sight, as the Bride does, he seems to believe that he must be fundamentally unlovable. It’s what drives him to end his own life and the life of Pretorius, telling the scientist that “we belong dead.”

Is there a point to any of this? Was James Whale drawing from his own feelings and experiences as a gay man when he told this story? The only real answer, of course, is that we just don’t know for sure, nor is there any way to know. But to be honest, what I think we’ve got on our hands here is a classic Death of the Author situation. We can’t assign a single explanation to the text or say for certain what the author intended, nor can we build an interpretation solely around the author’s own identity. We have to go by what the text itself gives us, and the text gives us a lot to work with. No matter what the original intended meaning was, there’s undoubtedly something about this movie which has spoken to a lot of LGBT viewers over the decades, and I think any good analysis of the film should take that into account.

By now you’ve certainly noticed that there is one aspect of Bride of Frankenstein which I have avoided discussing up until now: Bridey herself. This is mainly because I wanted to save the best for last, because when the Bride does finally show up in the film, she serves as the culmination of everything we’ve discussed so far. On pretty much every level by which we can examine her — design, performance, thematic relevance — she is a remarkable achievement.

First, the design. You know that design. Easily just as iconic as the design for the Creature, and also the brainchild of James Whale and Jack Pierce. The costume was a lot more complex than it appears and apparently required Lanchester to spend a lot of time completely bandaged up, unable to even move her fingers. Then there’s the famous beehive hairdo: allegedly inspired by images of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, the look was achieved by holding Lanchester’s hair in place with a wire frame and giving her a perm. The end result is a great character design with an instantly recognizable silhouette, just the kind of image you want for a monster in a horror film.

But the Bride wouldn’t be as cool as she is without Lanchester’s performance, which is filled with creepiness and raises a lot of questions about what exactly the Bride is. Her body was constructed by Henry Frankenstein, but Dr. Pretorius was the one who created her brain: he claims to have grown it himself, making it sound almost like a fantastical form of AI. This sets her apart from the Creature, whose brain came from a deceased human. The Creature is supposedly an abomination because he was made by man and not God, but his brain was that of an ordinary person. So what do you get when you build a creature and give it a man-made brain, something that was never truly human to begin with?

When the Bride comes to life, we find out. Right off the bat, there’s clearly something off about her, and she’s unsettling in a way that the Creature simply isn’t. Her movements are more quick, more jerky. Her eyes are constantly bugged out, and there’s a clear undercurrent of anger in her demeanor. One of the creepiest shots is when we first see her eyes as the scientists are unwrapping her. She’s alive, alright, and she is pissed about it.

But the real clincher comes at the very end of the film. After being rejected by the Bride, the Creature turns on Pretorius and decides to blow up the whole laboratory tower. He lets Henry escape just before he pulls the switch, offing himself while taking the Bride and Pretorius with him. But we get one last look at the Bride just before the explosion, and just before she dies, she hisses. It’s a nasty, rasping noise, not like any noise we’ve heard the Creature make in either film — apparently it was modeled after the hissing of swans. It’s clearly not a human sound, and it firmly plants that seed of doubt into your mind as to whether the Bride herself is truly human. Just what is going on inside that man-made brain of hers?

The answer to that question, unfortunately, has remained one of Universal Horror’s great mysteries. And that leads me to the biggest gripe I have about the film, although it’s really more about this series/franchise in general.

While Bride is consistently lauded as being on par with the original Frankenstein or even better, it’s not a flawless film. The main issues are minor stuff with tone, pacing and editing. I mentioned earlier that James Whale wanted this film to be more comedic than the first one, and while the tonal mismatch isn’t nearly as bad as in The Invisible Man, I don’t think he ever quite figured out how to correctly balance comedy with horror. Although it could be that I just don’t find Una O’Connor funny in the least. She’s basically doing the same over-the-top hysterical schtick here that she did in Invisible Man, and somehow it’s even more annoying the second time around. There’s also a noticeable imbalance between the time given to Henry and the time given to the Creature: Henry pretty much disappears completely for the middle chunk of the film, making it feel a bit repetitive as we see the same basic confrontation between the Creature and the villagers play out two or three times. There are also a couple of editing choices that muddle the story somewhat. For example, Dwight Frye appears in this movie as two characters but is only credited as one, leading to what feels like a weird personality flip-flop between scenes. It’s especially blatant since one character seems fairly normal and the other one is another Igor prototype.

But my main problem with the film is the Bride’s screentime — or rather, the lack thereof. Despite being the title character, she’s only in the movie for about three minutes in the final scene. It wouldn’t be so bad, except this was the only screentime she ever got. Out of all the classic Universal monsters, the Bride was the only one who never came back in any form. I searched around the Internet and found a few semi-official attempts to continue her story, notably a licensed novel called Pandora’s Bride published by Dark Horse in 2007. But in terms of film, nothing’s really been done with her since 1935. There were some attempts to do a remake, all of which went nowhere, but as far as I can tell, no sequels were ever planned or discussed.

And that’s a shame, because this movie gives us the foundations for what could have been another great character. The design is awesome, Lanchester is great in the role and the man-made brain aspect opens up more opportunities to explore the mystery of creation and whether the fundamentals of human nature are inherited or can be learned. Something really unique and exciting could come out of that premise. But, like the sad story of the Creature, it’s all just a vision of what might have been.

Maybe I’ll write it. Hit me up, Universal.

The original Frankenstein is a notch above this sequel, but Bride of Frankenstein is still a worthy successor in every way and a classic in its own right. With its smart dialogue, captivating Gothic tone and inspired performances, it brings you deeper into the world of Frankenstein and his Creature and makes you feel that much more for the characters you already know and love. The new characters are just as strong and entertaining, and despite her limited screentime, the Bride herself is well worth the wait when she finally shows up. A few slow and/or awkward moments in the middle of the film can’t kill the momentum of this well-crafted story. If by chance you haven’t seen it yet, drop what you’re doing and fix that right now. Or better yet, make it a double feature with the original. It’ll be an unforgettable time.

Final Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Let’s see, we’ve had vampires, Frankensteins, mummies, a serial killer or two…say, aren’t we missing someone? Someone who’s a bit…hairy?

UP NEXT: Werewolf of London (1935)

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