Bride Of Frankenstein
US (1935) Dir. James Whale
With the classic 1931 film version of Mary Shelley’s seminal tale ending on a fairly conclusive note with the death of the monster, the idea of a sequel to Frankenstein was a proposition of some temerity by Universal. To dig themselves out a metaphorical grave the scriptwriters opened Bride Of Frankenstein with Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) having just finished telling her amazing impromptu horror story to fellow writers Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon). At their urging Mary continues the story, picking up from when the first film left off.
Having survived the fire at the old mill, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is taken back to his castle home with his creation (Boris Karloff) thought perished. However this wasn’t he case and he survived, once again roaming the countryside, injured and confused. He is quickly caught by the local mob but breaks free again. Deep it the forest he comes across a tiny hut inhabited by a blind hermit (O.P Heggie) who takes the monster in and feeds him, teaching him basic words like “good”, “bad” and “friend”.
Meanwhile Henry’s former professor Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) shows up seeking Henry’s help with his experiments in creating life. Henry refuses but when the monster inadvertently happens upon a grave robbery conducted by Pretorius, he provides the leverage Pretorius needs to persuade Henry in participating in his experiments – a female mate for the monster!
Arguably the most remarkable thing about this sequel is how it was not only a huge success but is considered by many to be superior to its parent film, when you take into account that director James Whale, decided to play the whole thing for laughs since he felt the story had been told and that was that. The film is littered with scenes that are plainly seeking laughs and threaten to undermine – quite successfully at times – the horror this film is meant to represent and engender in the audience.
It is until the arrival of the rather camp Pretorius, who is more the embodiment of the mad scientist than Henry ever was, that this becomes apparent. The scene where he shows his current experiments – mini people he has dressed up as members of a royal court – may be a triumph of visual effects for 1935 but debatably suffers from being a rather futile attempt at subliminal mock levity within the context of the gothic horror umbrella it stands under.
Boris Karloff, for one, was strenuously against the monster talking (despite in the original novel him being verbally articulate and not a mute), feeling it ruined the entire mystique and menace of the monster. It also led to an aesthetic change – the sunken cheek effect in the first film was due to Karloff removing his dental plate; the need for speech meant he had to keep them in. It seems however that many fans embraced the monosyllabic monster with his childlike pigeon dialogue and felt it added to his macabre charm rather than detract from it.
In that respect it reminded us that the monster was a benevolent and misunderstood simple minded creature who was trying to make sense of a world around him which continues to reject and fear him. The pivotal moment for this comes when the hermit thanks the lord for finally sending him a friend and huge the monster, who sheds a happy and mutual tear, a genuine smile forming on his face. From this point on his position as sympathetic protagonist is cemented – in fact, the monster becomes more human than the ones who created him.
After the success of the first film and the subsequent success of Whale’s take on The Invisible Man Whale was partly persuaded to make this sequel with a boosted budget which is very much on display in every frame. The building and set designs are much more luscious and detailed thane before, the scientific equipment looks far more advanced than before and the locations look a lot less like a Universal sound stage than they did four years earlier.
One area that probably goes unnoticed by some viewers is the subtle changes in Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up for Karloff. The monster has been burned and buried in rubble when he first reappears so his hair is singed and his face covered in cuts and bruises. These gradually clear up as the film progresses but this astute and perspicacious touch by Pierce has remained largely overlooked for years, so next time you watch this film spare a thought for the make-up genius who understood the concept of continuity.
Speaking of continuity, as part of his many conditions for making this film, Whale insisted that Else Lanchester should play both Mary Shelley and the Bride, the idea being that from behind a pretty face comes dark thoughts. Again the make-up and Lanchester’s wonderfully jaunty and prickly performance have made the Bride another iconic horror character and finally gave Lanchester the chance to match the Stateside success of her husband Charles Laughton.
Reprising his role as Henry Frankenstein Colin Clive was drinking heavily during filming but this surprisingly added to the nervousness and internal torture of his character, which played off nicely against the overly festive campness of Ernest Thesiger’s delightfully pawky Pretorius. And if you weren’t aware, Dwight Frye makes a welcome cameo as Pretorious’s simple henchman Karl. Una O-Connor is once again on form as Henry’s maid and the town busy body Minnie, while the original Elizabeth, Mae Clarke, was ill so she was replaced here by the much easier on the eye Valerie Hobson.
So is Bride Of Frankenstein better than Frankenstein ? I prefer to see them as separate films largely as I have a soft spot for the first film! Bride is indeed the way to make a sequel and even if I am not sure if it is the superior film its status as a horror classic is unequivocally evident to all.