- Year: 1935
- Director: James Whale
- Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson
For my first entry into the Horror Sequels match-up, I’m starting with one of the originals—1935’s Bride of Frankenstein.
Frankenstein was released in 1931 and was both a major hit at the time and is considered a classic today. I’ll be honest—I had never watched the 1930 Dracula film in its entirety until last year, and it really does not work today. Frankenstein, however, holds up marvelously, with impressive directing, a strong script, and an incredible lead performance by Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. It also made Boris Karloff a star, even though he was listed as “?” in the credits.
In a complete reversal, Boris Karloff is now billed as the top star and the Bride is listed as “?.” Before the arguments roll in, perhaps Bride of Frankenstein is not a proper title, as Frankenstein is the monster, but are we really still arguing that one? It’s a bride that Dr. Frankenstein created for his monster. It’s a much better title than The Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster. Happy Perfectionists?, which was rejected as a Hays Code film could not openly insult its audience in the title.
Our film begins on a dark stormy night and we zoom in on the home of… Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester). Remember, this is just a few years after Frankenstein, and Universal is already playing with their horror tropes long before Abbott and Costello come onto the scene. Mary is telling her husband Percy and friend Lord Byron the continuing story of Frankenstein.
It seemed pretty clear in Frankenstein that the monster was dead, so Bride has to quickly retcon that, which it does by showing that the Monster landed in a pit under the mill he fell from. It’s lazy, but it gets the plot in motion, and also separates him from the doctor for a while. Meanwhile, Henry Frankenstein is trying to forget his old ways and settle down with his new wife Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson)… and I mean brand new. She’s played by a different actress who looks nothing like the one from the previous film, which is especially jarring in a film that picks up immediately where the first one left off.
So beyond hair color and length, age, overall appearance and affinity for hats, how have our characters developed? Elizabeth still acts as the voice of reason for Henry, trying to keep him away from his old ways. Henry, after almost being killed by his creation, has sworn off trying to create life, but this is put to the test when an old influence comes into his life. The Monster himself perhaps has the most interesting development, going from a force of nature who only speaks in grunts, to a thinking, reasoning individual. He doesn’t wax eloquent or anything, but he clearly learns things throughout the movie, and he ultimately has to stop the unnatural creation of life.
The most prominent new character is not the titular bride, but rather Doctor Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).
Pretorius is an old mentor of Frankenstein’s and, even though the story is allegedly being told by Mary Shelley, is a film original character. Pretorius is also a creator of life, but instead of mix-and-match creatures, he creates miniature humans or homunculi for my readers who are up on their alchemy. He wants to bring Frankenstein out of retirement and create a mate for his monster. Unlike Frankenstein, who is sympathetic to an extent, both in that he struggles with continuing his studies and that he never kills anyone directly, Pretorius will do whatever it takes to complete his experiments. His assistant (Dwight Frye) murders someone to use her parts in the creation of the Bride, and Pretorius holds Elizabeth captive to make sure Frankenstein helps him in his creation.
Ernest Thesiger makes Pretorius an extremely memorable character, giving him a larger-than-life sensibility and just the right amount of camp to make it work. He is also probably the closest a Hays Code film could come to portraying a homosexual character, with director James Whale telling Thesiger to play him as an “over the top caricature of a bitchy and aging homosexual.” Critics have argued over how many homosexual themes the movie actually presents, spurred on by the fact that James Whale was gay and that Colin Clive and Ernest Thesiger were probably bisexual, but it’s hard to miss it with Pretorius.
We also get the character of the blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), which was of course parodied brilliantly in Mel Brooks’ classic Young Frankenstein.
What surprises me about this scene is just how effective it is after years of watching the parody. Gene Hackman’s scene in Young Frankenstein is one of the funniest scenes of all time, and yet the very similar scene it is based on doesn’t come off as hilarious now. I found myself touched by this scene, as the hermit genuinely feels a kinship with this “monster,” who is gradually becoming less and less evil. He doesn’t just teach him words like “friend” and “good,” but genuinely shows him what they mean.
Then of course, we have the Bride herself (Elsa Lanchester). It may surprise first-time viewers that she is only in a few minutes of the movie, because the look has become so iconic, especially the “skunk stripe” hair.
Sorry, my topical jokes are a bit outdated.
Once the Bride is created, the Monster tries to reach out to her, saying the word “Friend” that the hermit taught him. She screams out in horror, and he is worried she hates him just like the villagers do. He tells Dr. Frankenstein to go, but tells the Bride and Pretorius “We belong dead,” blowing up the castle as Henry and Elizabeth escape.
It’s an incredibly poignant ending that the Monster himself frees the creator from his madness. He has learned enough to understand that what his creator has done is unnatural. He knows that Dr. Frankenstein is redeemable, but that Pretorius is not. Many times in “mad scientist” stories, the scientist will be killed by his creation, but having him get redeemed by his creation? That’s fascinating. Let’s take a look at the final score.
Story (24/30 Points)
Not every scene feels necessary, but there are just so many that are effective, from the blind hermit to almost any scene with Pretorius to the brilliant ending. It takes the story from the first and develops it believably.
Returning Characters (11/15 Points)
Henry and Elizabeth don’t get all that much development from the first, although Henry fighting with his old life vs. his new one works well. The Monster, however, has developed the most and Karloff is phenomenal in his portrayal.
New Characters (13/15 Points)
Pretorius steals the show in every scene he’s in, thanks to great writing and Ernest Thesiger’s charismatic performance. The Bride and the Hermit also cement themselves as characters for the ages in just a few minutes of screen time. There are other new characters like Pretorius’ laboratory assistants, a housekeeper, and the real-life authors in the prologue who don’t add much, but they don’t really detract either.
Experience (19/25 Points)
It’s a very good-looking film, with great set pieces and incredible make-up work on the monsters, as well as a fitting score by Franz Waxman. It’s not really scary per se, even in comparison to the original (no little girls are killed in this one), but it also isn’t really trying to be terrifying, but rather be a serious drama.
Originality (11/15 Points)
Sure, it follows a lot of beats from the first film, but it does a lot of things fresh and new as well. The old mentor character is an archetype that has been around forever, but since Pretorius is an evil mentor, it makes for a much more interesting story. It definitely deals with more serious themes than the basic “creating life” premise of the original.
FINAL SCORE: 78%
SO IS IT BETTER?
It’s a tough call, because the movies really work as companion pieces to each other. I mean, sure, the best sequels should do exactly that, but this one picks up right where the first left off. If you drop the prologue, you could just watch it as one continuous movie (pretending you don’t notice the actress change). If I had to pick, I would choose Bride for the Monster’s character development, the new characters, and especially the ending. It is undoubtedly a classic.