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The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Directed by: James Whale
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Ernest Thesiger
Rated: NR (Suggested PG for Violence and Some Scary Imagery)
Running Time: 1 h 15 m
TMM Score: 5 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Characters, Story Structure, Moral Dilemmas, Effects, Technically Superior to Original, Acting, Pacing
The continuing misadventures of Frankenstein and his monster.
This is one of the few Universal Monster movies that I’ve seen multiple times; it’s a film that I truly love. It’s stranger and creepier, more violent and emotionally impactful, and technically speaking, it’s miles ahead of its predecessor. But most importantly, it’s a movie that gives the Monster depth- it makes him a character with hopes and dreams, and a want to belong- it makes him far more sympathetic and far more interesting than he was in the original.
“To a new world of gods and monsters!”
Almost immediately, the superior technical prowess of The Bride of Frankenstein to that of its predecessor becomes apparent. Even the opening shot- a slow push in through a storm towards a gothic castle a castle on a cliff- is wonderfully inventive for the time period. But from there, the story gets even better. As the scene inside the castle begins, we come to meet a trio of characters, one of which is Mary Shelley- the author of Frankenstein (how’s that for meta before meta was a thing? Also this demonstrates a very unique, non-linear story structure). One of the guests comments about how thrilling Frankenstein’s story was, and Shelly responds that that was not where the story ended. We go over the story of the last film rather quickly; Frankenstein’s experiments, the resurrection of the monster, the murder of Little Maria, and the final confrontation at the Mill. From there, we pick up right where Frankenstein left off; at the windmill that the villagers had burned to the ground in order to kill the Monster. Little Maria’s father wanders into the charred remains of the windmill to find that the Monster survived by hiding in the flooded cellar. The Monster escapes and flees across the countryside, pursued by men and dogs. Meanwhile, back at Frankenstein’s manor, an old friend and colleague, Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, The Old Dark House), arrives with a proposition for Frankenstein. Pretorius had also figured out how to revive dead tissue, but his finished products were not perfect (like Frankenstein’s Monster)- he suggests the two of them work together to create a woman for Frankenstein. Pretorius then quotes scripture, comparing himself and Frankenstein to Gods (“Male and female, he created them. Be fruitful and multiply. Create a race- a manmade race upon the face of the earth. Why not?”). As the film goes on, we watch the Monster grow mentally, and realize that he wants a mate, while at the same time Frankenstein wrestles with his own conscious, and the idea of whether or not he should go through with this next experiment.
The thing I like most about this film is how much it builds upon the characters and world of the old film, but also takes that world and creates something new and exciting. The writing as far as dialogue is far more poetic, and the story is much faster paced than the original Frankenstein (within the first ten minutes of the film Frankenstein has already killed two people, and we’re off on a chase around the countryside). The things that happen in this film, too, are far more curious and weird. A large part of the weirdness is due to Doctor Pretorius’s presence. Pretorius himself is of a darker mind than Frankenstein, and he himself tells us this as soon as he introduces himself by soliloquizing: “Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn’t be much more amusing if we were all devils, no nonsense about angels and being good.” Pretorius has no qualms with doing dirty deeds to accomplish his life’s work. While Frankenstein felt bad about the murders that happened at his own extent, Pretorius and his goons have no problem killing innocent people just to get fresher body parts. Pretorius’s creations are something of a marvel too, and they add a layer of weirdness to this film that makes me love it all the more. Pretorius tried growing life instead of completely reanimating it, and as a result, he was rewarded with tiny versions of people. The whole idea is extremely inventive, and the effects of the small people trapped in their jars actually look great; still incredibly polished (I had to keep reminding myself that this film was made more than eighty years ago). Pretorius himself acts as a personification of temptation for Frankenstein to leave his new bride and continue his work among the dead. In adding this character, we see a whole different side to Frankenstein himself, one that makes the doctor seem slightly saner and far more sympathetic. Instead of a raving mad scientist in a castle, Frankenstein becomes a man driven to complete his work, even if that means working with morally corrupt people.
The Monster is the character that we see change the most. In the first film, the Monster is portrayed as a mute, thoughtless creature that rages against whatever comes near him. There are only a few scenes when the Monster shows any sympathetic qualities in the first film, but in this movie, we see a lot of the story from his perspective. Perhaps the most important and emotional sequence of scenes is when the Monster happens upon a blind Hermit (OP Heggie, The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)) in the woods. The blind Hermit and the Monster become friends, bonding over their love of music, and their lack of companionship. The scene is incredibly powerful, because we see a different side of the Monster entirely- a side that is not only compassionate, but also protective of those that he cares about. It shows that the Monster is not just a mindless corpse reanimated, but he’s capable of actual human emotions; he feels loneliness and empathy.
Acting is another thing in this film that really took me by surprise. There are some moments of theatricality, as there always are in these films, but there were certain moment that really stood out to me. Elsa Lanchester, specifically, was absolutely amazing as both Mary Shelley and more importantly, the Bride (or The Monster’s Mate as she’s credited). Elsa was onscreen for less than ten minutes (I’m estimating), but in those moments she gave a performance that will stick with me for forever. The reason being is for the way she chose to act after she’s resurrected- wide eyed, starring, not quite certain of what is going on. The expression she wears on her face is that of terror- the face of one that has glimpsed the other side of death, and returned to tell of it. Honestly, just the way she carries herself and the way she moved gave me chills. Thesiger as Pretorius is also great in this film. Karloff was twice as dynamic in this film than he was in Frankenstein, and his performance here is about a million times more interesting than his performance in The Mummy. Colin Clive shows more emotion without becoming too theatrical, and his character has more depth. There’s also a standout performance by Una O’Connor (The Adventures of Robin Hood) as Minnie, a delightfully worrisome maid that really adds a lot of humor to the film.
Technically speaking this film does far more interesting things, and it looks a lot better too. This film came out only four years after the original, but films were still relatively new spectacles, and techniques were still being discovered. In this movie, the pans, dollies and other camera moves are much smoother, the framing of the shots more appealing to the eye, the sound is less crackly, and the visual effects (save for one scenes near the end) are far more polished. The production design takes the first world and expands on it further, most notably in Frankenstein’s lab. I believe in my review for the first film I made note of how the first resurrection scene was rather underwhelming; it’s in this film that a dramatic resurrection happens, and it’s far more impressive than that of the first.
I’ve seen this film more times than any other Universal Monster movie, and there’s a good reason for it; this might be my favorite of them all, but it’s so hard to pick (that prized spot in my heart is still contested by the wonderfully ethereal Creature from the Black Lagoon- though after viewing The Invisible Man again, I was surprised by how much I loved that one too). I can’t recommend this film enough, though, if you’ve got the time, I’d recommend doing a double feature of this film and it’s predecessor to get the full effect. If you do that, you’ll really be able to see how much of a difference even four years made for the technical aspects. This film isn’t only a great story with peculiar events and a tragically emotional finale; it’s an important piece of film history that I believe any self-respecting cinephile should see.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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