WARNING - THIS ARTICLE PRETTY MUCH GIVES AWAY THE ENTIRE PLOT OF THE MOVIES!
Ironically, I bought The Bride of Frankenstein in a DVD pack alongside Frankenstein for £4.99, as a promotional effort geared towards Van Helsing. With the latter serving as an homage to the classic Universal monster movies, rereleasing the old things in cheap, accessible double bills was a great thing to do, only they happen to be far superior to the Hugh Jackman affair, which by most standards was somewhat underwhelming. Not only could Helsing’s director, Stephen Sommers, have learned something from watching these movies again, but their budget price availability brought them home to a new generation of viewers. Whether you find the horror flicks of the 1930s to be defined by their tameness or their contemporary power, you can’t really call yourselves fans of the genre if you haven’t soaked them up at some point. Alongside the likes of Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman and their mates, ‘Franky’ stands as a template for most horror movies that have followed. You can see its influence in nearly everything, from the cheapest nasty through to £100m blockbusters. And of those classic monsters, Frankenstein’s monster remains the most powerful.
Both movies were based on Mary Shelley’s novel, the gothic bestseller that has its mythical roots in a contest between Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and herself whilst holidaying, an attempt to see who could come up with the scariest yarn. Mary’s tale, about the moral horrors of dabbling with creation, effortlessly beat the lads, and went on to become a favourite not only of readers, but also those looking for a good story to be adapted for the theatre. By the time James Whale made the now definitive 1931 version, it had been doing its rounds on the stage for some years, and various silent efforts for the screen were already gathering dust.
Yet for all that, Frankenstein the novel is hardly an obvious source for all this attention. It’s a good read, but the scares take some time to arrive, and in fact it works much better as a philosophical poser than as straight horror. In the book, the creature is most certainly not the real monster. Reviled by its maker almost as soon as he brings it to life, the luckless thing finds itself shunned and wandering the local forests, scaring everyone who comes across its path until by chance it is taken in by a blind hermit desperate for company. As a result, it learns to speak, and eventually confronts Frankenstein to demand from him a mate. With the threat of danger to his own fiance hanging over him, the scientist returns to his research and indeed creates a woman, only the thought of these creatures propagating detests him to the extent that he destroys it before it gets a chance to live. The fiance then dies at the hands of the creature, exactly as he grimly promised. What follows is a spiral of self-destruction as both creator and creation dance around each other, one demanding the other’s obliteration, the second unable to understand its own existence.
The immediate loathing that strikes every character who sees the monster seems to have been the reason for all the plays and films. Everyone loves a good scare and make-up maestros worked their socks off to knock out creations that could inspire ever greater degrees of revulsion. Quite often however, the aim of the producers was simply to frighten their audiences, to turn the monster into a mindless killing machine. Whale’s film was the first to take a different approach.
It was released in 1931, on the back of the box office winner, Dracula. That movie’s star, Bela Lugosi, was originally scheduled to play the monster, but turned down the role because of the lashings of make-up involved. It instead went to little-known English actor, Boris Karloff, whose gaunt, angular features were perfect for bringing out the deathly, pallid visage of the monster. In the movie, he doesn’t put in an appearance for thirty minutes or so. Until that point, the narrative concerns itself with Henry (Victor in the novel - no idea why it’s changed) Frankenstein, a brilliant young scientist who has been shunned by the community for his blasphemous belief in the ability to produce artificial life. Played by stage star Colin Clive, he’s a study in barely suppressed dementia, a genius who is forced to rob graves to provide body parts for his creation. Eventually, he strikes gold. On a visually stunning stormy night, the monster lies under sheets and bandages, waiting for the final spark of life. A burst of lightning is the key, the sudden electrical energy that is the secret of animation. Amidst Frankenstein’s laboratory, a playground of machinery, flashing lights and crackles and hums, the monster’s fingers move, and with a triumphant cry the doctor declares he knows what it’s like to be God.
The next we see of Henry, he’s having a satisfied smoke and looking decidedly pleased with himself. Confronted with his former University professor, he reveals his creation for the very first time. Painfully slowly, wringing out every last knot of tension, the monster enters the room, shuffling in backwards, so that the camera can linger on him as it turns around to face us. We all know what we’re going to see, but imagine it’s 1931 and you don’t have all those other horror movie precedents to cushion the shock. Lifeless eyes stare out from a heavy brow, thin lips stark against pale, alabaster skin, and above the scar running along its forehead is the flat head, mottled with limp black hair that barely covers the stitches. It’s a horrific sight, designed to repulse, and later the monster’s attitude seems to match its cruel visage by killing Frankenstein’s assistant and going on the rampage. It turns out the same assistant had been teasing it with fire before it turned on him. And then we see Frankenstein’s look of terror as he is informed the prized brain he stole for the monster is that of a sub-intelligent criminal. Oh dear…
But the monster itself is an innocent. It plays with a little girl for a moment, tossing flowers into a lake with her, before it unwittingly throws her in after them, not knowing what’s going on as she drowns. The scene was considered so hard going by the censors of the time that it was cut out, only being restored much later. In the original edit, we see the monster and girl larking around in one scene; the next shows her father carrying her dead body through the streets. It’s enough to assemble an angry mob of villagers, wielding the vintage pitchforks and torches and determined for retribution. It’s joined by Frankenstein himself, who’s just as keen to destroy his creation. He has seen the monster almost kill his own bride, Elizabeth, and is thus persuaded it has to go. The crowds pursue it to an old mill, but not before it captures the doctor himself. In a final act of pathos, as the mill is being burned to the ground it throws Frankenstein to a fiery death and then falls itself, presumably gone for good.
Or has it? The success of Frankenstein brought demands for a sequel, though Whale himself was far from enthusiastic to be involved again. The same was true for Karloff, who didn’t miss the hours of preparation before each day’s filming. His was a painful experience, partly from having to act in weighed down boots to give him a lumbering gait, also after a scene in which he had to carry Frankenstein and damaged his back. Money however talked the loudest. The production team were handed a considerably larger budget to come up with the follow-up, a sequel that would fly in the face of conventional wisdom by being far superior to its predecessor.
The 1931 original remains a true classic, and much imitated in later years, but it’s by no means perfect. For one thing, it moves slowly, taking as much time as possible before revealing the monster, which increased the anticipation at the time, but surely has current viewers watching the clock. It’s clear also that the first sight of the monster - artfully done, with successive shots moving in closer to Karloff’s dead face - is its biggest treat. Once that’s out of the way, the narrative moves to a quite obvious conclusion, whilst it’s never fully clear why the doctor doesn’t take a more protective role over his creation. He’s persuaded quickly enough that it’s a bad thing and that he must abandon it, despite all that work putting it together in the first place. Like everyone else, by the end he wants nothing more than its destruction.
All the same, it’s a masterly work in terms of technical production. The lighting is superb, the acting consistently good. Frankenstein’s laboratory looks great, and of course the amazing make-up work done to create the monster itself is the stuff of legend. What Bride does is take these elements, throws in a gripping story and adds humour to produce what may be the great horror film of them all.
It opens by taking us back to the moment after the novel was first written. Byron and Shelley are both spellbound by Mary’s work, and make a big fuss over the fact that - in their terms - such a pretty thing can conjure up a book as frightful as Frankenstein. She explains that the story doesn’t end with the twin deaths of creator and creation. Taking us through a brief recap of earlier events, she begins the story at the very point the last one ended. Frankenstein’s supposedly dead body is pulled from the wreckage and carted off to his stately home. In the meantime, the parents of the first movie’s murdered girl determine to ensure the monster is gone. It hasn’t. As luck would have it, the creature dropped into an underground cavern, and makes short work of both mother and father before shuffling off into the wild once again.
We don’t see much of the monster for a while. The story picks up with Henry, who recovers from his near death experience, and nobly vows to Elizabeth that this is the end of all his experiments. He should be so lucky. Enter Doctor Pretorios, played with a unique combination of sinister campness by Ernest Thesiger. Pretorios has been working along similar lines to Frankenstein, and now wants to collaborate with him on creating a mate for the monster. At first, the Baron wants nothing to do with it, but Pretorios persuades him with a mixture of threats and tapping into his desires to improve on his work. There’s a comic moment where Pretorios demonstrates the results of his own science, as a number of miniature humans are revealed, living in jars and dressed up as kings, queens and wizards. At one point, the king escapes from his bottle and attempts to woo the queen, before he’s picked up and dumped unceremoniously back.
At first, Frankenstein is willing to share his knowledge, and the pair work together on a new creation. They’re assisted by two grisly heavies (as opposed to hunchback Fritz who worked alone in part one), whose duties consist of finding bodies to be used. This mainly involves robbing graves, but they’re not averse to killing the odd citizen themselves if needs be.
We then cut back to the monster, who is wandering through a lush forest. The music joining it is light and cheery, like it’s the start of a new and better chapter for the misunderstood creature. In a marked contrast to the first episode, the monster discovers a young woman drowning, and pulls her out of the water to safety. Her reaction? The usual abject horror. Her cries bring the mob back, and this time they catch the monster, tying it to a stake and later locking it up in a prison cell. But normal bars can’t hold a monster such as this. Within moments, it has broken free, torn through the village and returns to the wild.
Is there any hope for the monster, who by now could be forgiven for developing a complex? Clearly, it’s a ‘he’ by now, as it takes on greater human attributes, and at one point comes close to knowing happiness. Chancing across a house in the thick of the forest, the monster learns it belongs to a blind old man living by himself. By chance, the man wants exactly the same things as the creature - companionship, and pretty soon, they’re shacked up together, enjoying food, wine, and what looks to me like a decent-sized spliff. The reaction to smoking on the monster’s face suggests as much, in any case. Most importantly, ‘he’ learns speech, something Karloff was quite opposed to, though he was wrong - the monster is suddenly even more human, an important element to his character as he remains a fugitive. His bliss can’t last. Hunters arrive at the cottage, and upon sight of the monster chase him back into the woods. Alone again, he stumbles through what else but a graveyard shrouded in mist. One gravestone is a crucifix, which carries enough obvious images for the viewer, but the more revealing one is a grim figure of Death. However much the creature wants peace and friendship, he will always be associated with death, and we see him disappear in a catacomb.
But he isn’t alone. Pretorios and the henchmen are removing corpses, and as the latter take their coffins away, the doctor remains, enjoying lunch on top of a sarcophagus. Enticed by the sight of wine and the smell of cigar smoke, the monster is lured out. Pretorios doesn’t shrink. He shows not the mildest concern as he shares his table. These unlikely allies are about to learn that working together is very good for them, as meanwhile Frankenstein is having big doubts. His initial enthusiasm for the scheme has passed, and his own morals are telling him that once is enough, twice quite ridiculous. Unfortunately, he isn’t given the chance to turn aside. Pretorios kidnaps Elizabeth with the monster’s help, and they both force Frankenstein to complete his work… or else.
We then move back to the laboratory. As before, everything happens in a Gothic tower, somewhere on a remote hilltop. In a mirror of the first movie, the doctors go through the routine of bringing the bride to life, amidst equipment that is spectacular enough to suggest the process of doing so is well beyond the average human mind. And give her life they do. Frankenstein and Pretorios prepare the bride, fitting a white dress around her, letting her totter around a little. Unlike the monster, she actually looks like a piece of work. Elsa Lanchester played her, in a curious parallel to her other role in the film, that of Mary Shelley herself. Despite her now famous jerky head movements and wild black hair pouring from her head, complete with white streak, she’s very nearly a vision, and a clear inspiration for Marge Simpson. She makes a step towards Frankenstein, as though he’s the one she’s intended for, but life isn’t that perfect. The monster comes into view. He’s attracted. She, like nearly everyone else he’s come across, is revolted, letting out a clipped cry of horror as he approaches. In one of the film’s best moments, he tries to sit with her, and stroke her hand. It’s not going to happen. The bride stares at what is holding her, lets out another wail and at that point the monster seems to know that whatever else might happen, he isn’t going to find a female companion. In his eyes, it’s better to die than live alone, hunted and despised. He allows Frankenstein to escape, but sends Pretorios and his bride - who hisses at him, catlike, as though he hasn’t endured enough of her disgust - to hell by destroying the laboratory. The last we see is Henry and Elizabeth running away as the tower collapses in on itself.
The film’s production is superb. With his lavish budget, Whale was able to create a much larger world for his story than in the first movie, and we never see where the money goes better than in the climax, in Pretorios’s funfair of a laboratory. In terms of effects, it’s a world away from the rest of the era. The scene with the miniatures is smooth, beautifully conceived and doesn’t clash too jarringly when superimposed against the lifesize actors. However, it’s the story and the acting that really sell it. Compared with Frankenstein, Bride is a real thriller, peeling back its revelations with every scene. If the mere sight of the monster did the business earlier, the need for upping the ante this time around is felt clearly. Giving us a second manmade creature isn’t enough. There are subplots running throughout, from the occasional focus on Frankenstein’s maid, played with hammy hysteria by Una O’Connor, to the more important bit about Elizabeth being kidnapped. It’s worth remembering that this is a 75-minute film - so much is crammed into it that there’s no chance of flabbiness. At no point does it feel ponderous and worthy.
As far as the acting is concerned, it’s difficult to see past Boris Karloff, who is billed simply as KARLOFF in the credits. That’s an improvement on part one, where a stark question mark sits in the ‘Players’ column next to the Monster, as if we may believe for a moment it really might have been created from spare parts. Here, Karloff rules. He fills every scene with a combination of pathos and menace. It’s a tough job to do, but despite the 40-odd pounds of make-up, prosthetics and weights, he pulls it off, making us both fear and feel sympathy for his creature. The scenes in which he is supposed to provide the laughs work equally well. The expression on the monster’s face as he tries cigarettes and alcohol for the first time is a picture - we’ve all been there, mate. Ernest Thesiger as Pretorios provides fine support, turning out to be one of the campest villians in horror movie history, a bit like watching a malevolent Charles Hawtrey. Thesiger can silence his opponents with a stare; he can also reduce us to hysterics with his pithy asides and black comedy. As in the first film, Colin Clive walks the line between sanity and madness suitably well, and there’s also great support from Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth. She was 17 when she appeared in this picture, but you wouldn’t know it. Franz Waxman’s luxurious score is a real thing of beauty, the music accompanying both the monster and his mate a sublime mixture of strangeness and doomed romance.
The Bride of Frankenstein does what every really good sequel ought to - it expands its own universe, offering something new in the spirit of the original, whilst not being a simple retread. It’s also a subversive film, in the sense that lashings of camp humour are allowed to float past the censors and onto the screen, hidden within the plot but noticeable to the modern viewer. This may be the best horror film of all time though like most movies from the 1930s it has inevitably dated. Scenes that might have put contemporary audiences in shock are so mimicked and parodied to our well trained eyes that its effects have no chance of remaining as powerful. But then, true horror is about more than being simply scary. When done properly, it should force us to run a gamut of emotions, particularly empathy for the monsters therein so that unlike, say Freddy Krueger, we can appreciate why they’re the twisted things they are, why they are a menace. Bride achieves that perfectly. From the opening through to Frankenstein’s ‘She’s alive! Alive!’ cry, Karloff makes us see what being a monster is all about, and indeed is the most human of all the characters by the end.