Bride of Frankenstein, The (United States, 1935)

June 13, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bride of Frankenstein, The Poster

The era of the Universal classic monster movies lasted from 1931, when the studio released Dracula (featuring Bela Lugosi’s iconic portrayal), until 1948 when Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein took the venerable horror figures into parody. During that entire time and across roughly two-dozen films, few have remained as well-regarded as The Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale’s follow-up to his own Frankenstein. The Bride of Frankenstein is without a question the best sequel in the cycle and ranks alongside Frankenstein (if not slightly above it) at the apex.

At the time Whale made Frankenstein, there were no considerations of a second installment going before cameras. It, like Dracula before it, was made as a stand-alone, a loose adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. But the public’s thirst for more convinced Universal to loosen the purse strings and lure back the three most important individuals involved in the first film: Whale, actor Boris Karloff (who played the creature/monster), and actor Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein). The screenplay went through various iterations before a shooting script, credited to William Hurlbut, was finalized. Although mostly an original treatment, the movie contains elements from the novel that were not in the first film, as well as expanding on the idea of a “mate” for the creature – something mentioned but never pursued in the source material. (When Kenneth Branagh made Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein six decades later, he moved a step beyond The Bride of Frankenstein.)

The Bride of Frankenstein opens with a prologue set in the mid-1810s, featuring a dialogue among Frankenstein writer Mary Shelley; her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley; and their friend, Lord Byron. They discuss the merits of Frankenstein and Mary, after arguing that the tale is a morality play (about the dangers of man playing God), asserts there is more of the story to tell. The scene then shifts to the immediate aftermath of the burning windmill at the end of the 1931 movie. But the monster (Boris Karloff) has not died; he is hidden in a flooded pit beneath the windmill and, when a villager discovers his hiding spot, he becomes murderous. After killing two people, he flees into the wilds.

Meanwhile, Henry is recovering from his injuries and planning his wedding to Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson, replacing Mae Clarke, who was recovering from a car crash) when he receives a visit from his one-time colleague, Doctor Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Although Henry has by now renounced his life’s work (and the monster he created), Pretorious is eager for the experiments to resume. To that end, he invites Henry to his lab to show off his own innovations – a series of miniature creatures that live in glass cases. Pretorius proposes that he and Henry work together to create a mate for the monster so that, like Adam and Eve, they can begin procreation, but Henry refuses.

The monster, on the run from the townspeople, is eventually tracked down and captured. He is put in chains but breaks free and heads away from the village. He finds refuge with a lonely blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) who feeds him and teaches him some basic words. His time of peace ends when hunters recognize the monster and force him to move on. Then Pretorious finds him and hatches a plan that will mandate Henry’s return to his lab at Castle Frankenstein.

Although The Bride of Frankenstein isn’t a perfect motion picture, there are times when it comes close. Whale’s mastery of the black-and-white aesthetic, using light and shadow to enhance atmosphere, is masterful – an extension of what he achieved in Frankenstein. The scenes with the creature and the blind hermit are touching and the ending, in which the rejected monster makes his final, tragic decision, is as heart-wrenching as any moment in a classic Universal monster movies. (The decision to allow the monster to speak was controversial – Whale believed it to be a necessary evolution; Karloff disliked it.)

There are some weaknesses. The first and most obvious (at least to a modern viewer) relates to the miniature people in Pretorius’ lab. These homunculi are intended to be darkly comedic in nature but they come across as cheesy. Their inclusion raises questions that are never addressed and their presentation is at variance with everything else in the movie. Tonally, the scene is off; I can’t say whether it worked in 1935 but it doesn’t work all these years later.

An argument can be made that the ending is rushed. From the appearance of The Bride until the end credits, barely six minutes expire – far too little time to introduce an important character and have the monster come to terms with what her rejection of him means to his entire existence. The powerful final scene includes one of the great lines of ‘30s cinema: “We belong dead.”

As was the case with Frankenstein, Whale leans heavily into the “mad scientist” trope when it comes to presenting Frankenstein and Pretorius. Ernest Thesiger’s portrayal of the latter character is deliciously unhinged and over-the-top. Colin Clive has toned down Henry somewhat but he still gets to use a variation of his signature line: “It’s alive!” Despite having less than five minutes of screen time, Elsa Lanchester’s Bride entered Universal’s Monster Hall of Fame. The character became popular because of her striking look – the result of a co-collaboration between Whale and Universal makeup artist Jack Pierce (who was also responsible for Karloff’s appearance both in the 1931 film and this one). The hairstyle, with its lightning bolt effect, was based on Nefertiti. Lanchester played two roles in The Bride of Frankenstein, also portraying Mary Shelley in the prologue. For decades after making the film, in which she decried her contributions as “minimal,” she remained surprised at the popularity of the Bride.

Karloff’s Frankenstein monster would return once more, in Son of Frankenstein. Following that film, the actor decreed that he was done with the role (although not necessarily the series – he later appeared in House of Frankenstein as another character); it was subsequently played by Lon Cheney Jr., Bela Lugosi, and Glenn Strange (who tied Karloff with three appearances). The first two films are typically regarded as two chapters of a longer work, due in large part to their stylistic similarities and strong continuity. Both movies are excellent on their own but they work best when seen in concert – an approach that allows the full tragedy of the story to come into focus.

Bride of Frankenstein, The (United States, 1935)

Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester, Una O’Connor, O.P. Heggie, Dwight Frye
Home Release Date: 2024-06-13
Screenplay: William Hurlbut, suggested by the novel written by Mary Shelley
Cinematography: John J. Mescall
Music: Franz Waxman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:15
U.S. Home Release Date: 2024-06-13
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1