There’s a lot of brilliance packed into Bride of Frankenstein’s slight 75 minutes. Here are 10 reasons why James Whale’s final monster movie remains cinema’s greatest.
1. What of My Mary?
As we open on Bride of Frankenstein, we witness one of its most inspired scenes. We are not in a laboratory of blasphemous horrors but an opulent living room where literary giants Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley discuss the latter’s most famous creation. Informing her husband that Frankenstein “wasn't the end at all,” she proceeds to tell the tale of the Monster’s quest for a mate. There is literary accuracy in this scene, since Shelley’s original novel did, indeed, include a major subplot in which the Monster compels Frankenstein to build him a bride. There is also great cinematic ingenuity in this prologue. It is a way to directly transition into the second chapter of Frankenstein, to acknowledge its literary origins, and to tie the new monster to her true creator, as Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary and The Bride. As barrier-breaking ideas often do, the prologue had its obstacles. Editor Ted Kent wanted Whale to cut the sequence, feeling it detracted from the horror. The décolletage-baring gown Lanchester wore as Shelley set off alarms with the censors. Fortunately, Whale ignored Kent and a few minor cuts placated the censors enough for the prologue to remain, providing Bride of Frankenstein with its cleverest postmodern touch.
2. Woman… Friend… Wife
She only has four minutes of screen time in the film named after her, but Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein is without question the most memorable female monster in cinema history and certainly the first significant one. With her lightning-streaked fright wig and childlike awkwardness, The Bride has inspired countless imitators and been captured on an innumerable amount of merchandise. Her unsettling combination of morbid weirdness and early-Hollywood glamour (designed by Universal’s resident makeup whiz Jack P. Pierce) laid the groundwork for all of the sexy grotesques that followed her, from Vampira to Princess Asa Vajda of Black Sunday to Morticia Addams to Elvira to Lady Sylvia Marsh of Lair of the White Worm. Her hairstyle has been appropriated in one form or another by personalities ranging from Lily Munster to singer Dave Vanian of The Damned. Her teasingly brief presence in Bride of Frankenstein sparked numerous attempts to fill in the gaps (Elizabeth Hand’s imaginative feminist novel The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora’s Bride; Franc Roddam’s film The Bride), yet she packs a lot of living into her four minutes on film. She learns to walk by leaning on the shoulders of her creators, takes in all around her with a wide-eyed mixture of wonder and disgust, tentatively considers a romance with an ugly but sensitive brute, and ultimately says “no thanks” to it all. That concise arch from childlike hesitancy to aggressive self-reliance makes The Bride a fully realized personality despite her lack of screen time. Couple that complexity with an iconic appearance and you’ve got the most unforgettable female monster of them all.
3. A Perfect Human
You can take your Freddys and your Jasons and your Michael Myerses. When I hear the word “monster,” I immediately think of Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and The Gill Man. The Universal monster movie cycle supplied cinema’s most iconic monsters. When it came to giving those creatures memorable human foils, it was less prolific. Most of the humans in those films suffer from a severe lack of personality. Jonathan Harker? The guy’s a snooze. Colonel Montford? Blah. David Reed? Who? The same cannot be said of the humans who share the screen with the Frankenstein Monster and The Bride. Sweaty, tortured Henry Frankenstein. His shrieking, positively loony bride Elisabeth. The sneering, mugging housekeeper Minnie. The sweet hermit. The deliciously wicked Dr. Pretorius. Sniveling and immoral lab assistant Karl. Even that guy who tells Minnie, “Aww, go bite your tongue off!” is great. Bride of Frankenstein is fully populated with funny, fascinating, full-of-personality people.
4. There Have Been Developments
Boris Karloff’s performance in Frankenstein was brilliant because he conveyed all the Monster’s fearsomeness and humanity with nothing more than expert physical movement and the occasional grunt. It is the kind of acting that separates the giants from the amateurs. When Karloff became aware that his old friend was to speak in Bride of Frankenstein, he protested. He felt speech would rob the Monster of his menace (what he must have thought when he learned Frankie would also smoke cigars and dance!). I personally agree that the Monster is more frightening in the first film. However, his ability to talk gave him new layers in Bride. He sure isn’t eloquent, as the creature in Shelley’s novel is. He is succinct. His words are direct, immediate, impactful. “Friend.” “Alone: bad.” “She hate me.” Despite his reservations, Karloff delivers his fractured lines intensely, imbuing the Monster with a level of sympathy and humanity he did not have in Frankenstein. Karloff insisted he return to silence for his final turn as the Monster in Son of Frankenstein. We were left with an infinitely less interesting and emotionally resonant performance.
5. More Amusing
Universal surely expected a hair-raising shocker when they ordered Bride of Frankenstein. James Whale, his screenwriters John Balderston and William Hurlbut, and a cast of comedic wonders such as Ernest Thesiger and Una O’Connor turned in something more like a black comedy. The Monster was still frightening enough for Bride to play as a full-blooded horror film. This became totally clear to me when I had the good fortune to see it with an audience that was probably old enough to have seen the movie in 1935—they gasped every time Karloff came on screen! The humor is a lot more apparent to modern audiences, and I felt like a jerk when I was the only person regularly laughing during that screening. But Bride of Frankenstein is funny, and with a wit like Whale at the helm, there’s no question that he intended it to be. Minnie and the Burgomaster are obvious comedic figures, broad in their daffy deliveries and goofy mannerisms. As Dr. Pretorius, Thesiger gives a subtler comedic performance, delivering his numerous jocular lines (see the ninth entry on this list) with perfect timing and emphasis. While I support tsking at viewers who snicker during the scene in which the hermit expresses sincere gratitude for meeting a new friend, I believe it’s OK to laugh along with much of a film James Whale designed to be laughed along with.
6. To a New World...
Susan Sontag mapped out the parameters of camp in her landmark 1964 essay Notes on “Camp”, defining it as something that displays “a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms” and “the spirit of extravagance,” that “sees everything in quotation marks” and “is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken.” James Whale was thirty years ahead of her. A marvelous wit who had nothing but trouble taking his role as monster maker seriously, the director fashioned a film that has often been cited as a prime cut of proto-camp. The Monster’s capering put his scariness in “quotation marks,” something often lost on the film’s original audience but strikingly clear to modern ones more attuned to camp sensibility and less likely to shudder at the sight of a guy with a flat head and electrodes jutting from his neck. The acting is exaggerated beyond the beyond, with Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, and Una O’Connor giving especially hysterical performances that no doubt tickled Whale to his core. The Bride’s wild corruption of feminine stereotypes is equally exaggerated, with her glamour-puss make up offsetting her absurdly elongated eyelashes and up do. Finding much in the way of double senses, contemporary film theorists regularly read the film through a prism of James Whale and Ernest Thesiger’s homosexuality, noting how Dr. Pretorius (whom Minnie describes as “a very queer-looking old gentleman”) disdains Frankenstein’s pursuit of a “straight” marriage and is eager to hook up with him to make a monstrous baby. In Father of Frankenstein, Christopher Bram suggests that Whale intended a shot of the hermit leaning over the Monster’s prostrate figure to imply oral sex (beneath a crucifix, no less!). Those who knew Whale, including his boyfriend David Lewis, insisted he never intended a homosexual subtext in any of his films. Considering that Sontag also declares, “intending to be campy is always harmful” and “Camp rests on innocence,” this makes the argument that Bride of Frankenstein is a delightful proto-camp classic stronger.
7. It’s More Like Black Magic
In The Invisible Man, James Whale worked with John P. Fulton, a special effects supervisor on the cutting edge of movie magic. The pair collaborated again in Bride of Frankenstein to craft its most bizarre scene. Dr. Pretorius unveils his life-creating experiments for Frankenstein in the form of tiny homunculi encased in glass. A ballerina compulsively dances to Mendelsohnn’s “Spring Song.” A mermaid swims. A king scales the side of his jar to get at his queen as a bishop chatters his disapproval like a chipmunk. A devil bears a certain resemblance to the wicked doctor (or does he flatter himself?). The little people run across the table, get nabbed by a giant pair of tweezers, and interact seamlessly with the giant Ernest Thesiger. The scene is an early example of the kind of awe-striking illusion that can be accomplished in a motion picture and it hasn’t aged a single bit. I’ll leave it to you to research how Fulton accomplished his feat. I wouldn’t want anyone accusing me of breaking the spell.
8. Gooood! Music?
While Dracula was essentially devoid of music, and the horrors that followed featured little more than that, Universal sprang for a lush score to accompany its most lush monster movie. James Whale recruited Franz Waxman after meeting him at a Christmas party and explaining how much he liked the composer’s work in Fritz Lang’s Liliom. Waxman outdid himself, creating the instantly recognizable leitmotifs that electrify Bride of Frankenstein. For the Monster, Waxman wrote a raspy, four-note brass grunt. Dr. Pretorius is introduced by shuddering strings, while his drunken escapades in a crypt are accompanied by a loopy rattle inspired by Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre. The Bride is signified by a swooning ellipsis whether she’s on screen or merely discussed by other characters. Elsewhere Waxman discharges what Scott McQueen describes as a “charming period-style minuet” that devolves into an ominous fugue when Shelley and Byron recount the story of Frankenstein, a clangor of church bells when we first see The Bride in her wedding gown, and an orchestral rush that heightens the already apocalyptic destruction of Frankenstein’s laboratory to utter hysteria.
9. Whataya Say, Pal?
Few horror films—few films of any sort—have wittier, more memorable, more deliciously quotable dialogue than Bride of Frankenstein. Among John Balderston and William Hurlbut’s glimmering gems are:
Dr. Frankenstein: “She’s alive! Alive!”
Dr. Pretorius: “To a new world of gods and monsters!”
Dr. Pretorius: “Do you like gin? It is my only weakness...”
Dr. Frankenstein: “This is Professor Pretorius. He used to be Doctor of Philosophy at the university but, uh...”
Dr. Pretorius: “…but was booted out. ‘Booted,’ my dear Baron, is the word for knowing too much.”
Minnie: “Let them all be murdered in their beds!”
Dr. Pretorius: “Leave the charnel house and follow the lead of nature — or of god if you like your Bible stories.”
The Frankenstein Monster: “Alone: bad. Friend: good!”
Dr. Pretorius: “Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn't be much more amusing if we were all devils; no nonsense about angels and being good.”
Karl: “Whataya say, pal, let's give ourselves up and let 'em hang us... This is no life for murderers.”
The Frankenstein Monster: “I love dead… hate living.”
Dr. Pretorius: “You are wise in your generation.”
Karl: (On The Bride’s heart) “It was a very fresh one!”
The Bride: “Hisssssssss.”
The Frankenstein Monster: “We belong dead.”
Dr. Pretorius: “Here, have a cigar... they're my only weakness!”
10. Would You Like to Hear What Happened After That?
The reason sequels get made is no mystery. They exist almost solely to cash in on the success of their predecessors, to milk previously fresh ideas dry. That’s why there are so few good sequels. The list of ones that actually best their predecessors is even shorter. The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, and Evil Dead II are usual candidates (I’d personally include The Curse of the Cat People on that list, but I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority on that opinion). Another regular pick is Bride of Frankenstein. The original is an excellent film to be sure, swelling with Gothic atmosphere and sincere about its scares and gravity (the scene in which the Monster accidentally drowns a little girl remains powerful, disturbing, and terribly sad). However, Bride of Frankenstein is such a powerhouse of imagination and emotion that it still stands ahead. Its humor, its creativity, its characters, its magic tricks, music, and quotability; for all the reasons already examined on this list, Bride of Frankenstein is nothing less than the most.