The Bride of Frankenstein: A Halloween Classic or a Campy Freak Show?

By Isabella Summitt

Word Count: 1042

Rating: PG

Summary: A review of the horror classic The Bride of Frankenstein. 

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Image Credit: Universal Pictures

Everything about this movie is halved—in my opinion, most of the good juicy horror moments and the acting. The movie is praised as being the best in the classic Frankenstein Universal cycle. It is a technological step up from the first Frankenstein film, which was made more akin to Dracula by its staginess. It has a soundtrack unlike the first Frankenstein, which is fantastic, though a bit overly dramatic at times.

I love the horror moments in this film more than those in any of the other classics. Unfortunately there is a lot of silly, pointless stuff mixed in, particularly in the casting of E. E. Clive as the pompous burgomaster who belongs back in England, and Una O’Connor with her constant hysterical shrieking. James Whale, the director, has a kooky, weird British sense of humor that has not aged well.

There are truly chilling moments of Karloff as Frankenstein’s creation, but in this film he talks like George of the Jungle. It makes him kind of goofy, and Karloff himself was opposed to the idea. The camerawork and lighting on the iconic makeup are done just as well, if not better than in the first film.

The story picks up from the first film, after a pointless prologue by feminist author Mary Shelley and her lover Percy, and his friend Lord Byron. The windmill set on fire in the first film is smoldering ashes, and the mob cheers because they think the monster has burned to death. They then mourn the apparent loss of the young baronet/mad scientist Henry Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, showing the effects of his alcoholism after only four years.

Actually, neither of them died in the flaming windmill, making the ending of the first Frankenstein rather pointless. Henry wakes up in his fiancée’s arms, and the monster crawls out of the windmill wreckage and manages to kill two villagers on the way. After he recovers, Henry is left rather weak-willed and at first is only an obstacle to the creation of a bride. He wants nothing more to do with the experiments that ended in such tragedy for his family. He has made an almost complete 180 degree turn, and only reminiscences about his great vision from the first film in one speech. Henry’s fiancée Elizabeth, this time portrayed by 18-year-old Valerie Hobson, is played for laughs as the wailing damsel in distress and drowns out his speech with a fit of clairvoyant hysterics.

The character that straddles this film’s divide between silly and horrifying is the most interesting character in the film, Doctor Pretorius. Pretorius is the true driving force behind the plot, and both Frankenstein and his monster become his pawns. On the surface he looks like an effeminate old schoolteacher, but underneath is a perverted amorality, the full implications of which are too disgusting to even be mentioned by any of the characters. Henry has the line that comes closest: “But this isn’t science. It’s more like black magic.”

It’s a very adult subject being hinted at, and very daring of James Whale who had to wheedle the Hays Office into even letting him make the film. Pretorius wants to have Henry Frankenstein help him create a female monster to go with his original in order to have them breed and make a ‘man-made race’ that they could rule together as gods. Pretorius isn’t subtle about his blasphemous intentions; he toasts to “A world of gods and monsters” when he first shows his old student the little homunculi he has created.

While Pretorius tries twisting Henry’s arm, the monster has fled off into the woods and is rejected by society time and time again, in spite of his little displays of humanity. To provide contrast with Pretorius, Whale borrows a situation from Mary Shelley’s novel when the creature befriends a blind man who takes him in. But it gets a little maudlin and feels like Whale is kissing up to the Christian Hays office by including a bunch of religious symbolism to counterbalance the horrifying subject matter. There is a cut scene where he stumbles into a gothic cemetery and finds a life-sized crucifix. Only a few scenes ago, the monster was trussed up on a log in much the same manner and here he tries to pry the corpus off the cross to free him.

The monster finds Pretorius having a grim little picnic inside a crypt and falls in with him. Together they pressure Henry into helping them create a female monster, kidnaping Elizabeth and holding her hostage. Henry cannot go to the police for fear of what Pretorius might reveal about his scavenging for dead body parts. What follows is the greatest monster creation sequence ever filmed; the lighting, the sparkling equipment, the dramatic music and the quick cut shots— everything is perfect for Halloween.

As the only female monster in the Universal Monster canon, she is most unusual, and I always wanted to see more of her. She is only onscreen for a minute, and then she is destroyed by the lever-ex-Machina. She has the distinctive cone of black hair shooting up like Queen Nefertiti’s crown with a streak of white, like lightning. Pretorius pronounces her the “Bride of Frankenstein”, even though he is currently holding Henry’s actual bride hostage at the moment. This gave rise to some of the confusion about which of the two is actually called Frankenstein. The female monster’s first action in her short life is to reject the purpose for which she was created and scream in horror at the sight of her ‘groom’. The actual bride of Frankenstein mysteriously escapes, and the monster lets his creator escape with her, keeping Pretorius and the bride with him as he pulls the lever-ex-Machina. For all his brutality, even the monster (and Whale) understand that his very existence is an affront to God, and that he and the other two ‘belong dead’.

This was the last great horror film under the dynasty of Universal Studios’ founder, Carl Laemmle. The next film in the cycle, Son of Frankenstein, is the true successor to the German Expressionist The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

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