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See also: Frankenstein
It's the perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters.
Anyone wanting to be a horror film buff, or just anyone who enjoys movies in general, needs to experience the great Universal monster movies of the 1930s…and even the 1920s. One of the best starting points, of course, is James Whale's immortal 1931 Frankenstein, a film that has outlived its many descendants and still shines as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. From there, naturally, a person watching the great classic monster movies would carry on and watch 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein, also directed by James Whale. This movie, of course, is seen as one of the few sequels that surpasses the original, and it is forever enshrined in the pantheon of horror. Even the audio commentary on the DVD begins with a statement that "We're about to watch the perfect horror movie."
But then, a newcomer to black-and-white horror movies would come away from "The Bride of Frankenstein" confused and even disappointed. This movie differs so greatly from its predecessor that it often leaves newcomers scratching their heads in bewilderment. "Is that it? What's so great about it? The Monster wanders around the countryside, is captured and escapes, and then Henry Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius create a bride for the Monster. Why do they all say this movie is so great?"
Why, indeed? Because, my dear Watson, this movie is so amazingly different from anything else to come along as horror, and it continues to stand out in contrast to the vast majority of horror films produced since its day. Though this statement is not truly accurate, I propose The Bride of Frankenstein be seen as "The 2001 - A Space Odyssey of horror movies." There is so much going on in this movie – and nearly all of it was intentionally prepared by director James Whale and screenwriter William Hurlbut – that like Stanley Kubrick's science fiction masterpiece, it can seem confusing and even slow-paced at first. This, even though the movie is only 75 minutes long!
Frankenstein was a straight-out horror movie, which was why it connected so well with audiences. It was subjected to censorship, of course, and among the most well-known instances of this are the scenes when the Monster is injected with a syringe, and especially when he throws the little girl into the pond, where she then drowns. But one particular moment where the movie was also censored is what gives birth to the major theme of The Bride of Frankenstein. Henry Frankenstein brings the Monster to life in the midst of a raging storm, with thunder crashing and booming so prominently, it (intentionally) drowns out his cry, "Now I know what it feels like to be God!" And this is how "The Bride of Frankenstein" begins, by deliberately defying this censorship, as we see Mary Shelly accompanied by her husband, Percy, and the flamboyant Lord Byron ("England's greatest sinner"). This luxurious opening scene sets the stage for the entire film, beginning as it does in the midst of another raging storm. It immediately begins with blasphemy, as Lord Byron cheerfully defies God in his words, while admiring the lovely Mary (whose decolletage tested the boundaries of censorship itself!) and recapping the events of the first film. Mary states, "The publishers did not see that my purpose was to write a moral lesson of the punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God." And this statement spells out the theme this movie then follows, spinning a tale of rebellion and redemption that explores these ideas far more than the first film.
In Frankenstein, Henry begins the movie obsessed with his goal of creating life, so much so that he abandons his own fiancee until the deed is accomplished. His performance is one of the great Mad Scientist roles of cinema history…and yet, we know that Henry himself isn't evil. His goal is to create life, more for the accomplishment of doing so – and the morality of this action isn't really questioned in the first movie. He creates the Monster, and he finds he has to deal with the consequences of his actions…but the movie focuses on the physical consequences, namely with the Monster breaking free and escaping, thereby terrorizing the countryside. And so the movie climaxes with a chase scene, as Henry and the villagers pursue the Monster to the old mill and burn it down, cleansing the world (and Henry's soul) with fire. Henry himself is nearly killed in his final struggle against the Monster, but he survives to learn his lesson.
However, it is in The Bride of Frankenstein that Henry – and the story itself – ponders the moral implications of playing God, or defying God, by creating life. Henry is tortured by the thought of what he has done…and this is more than many horror movies would dare to discuss. Horror is usually meant as a release, for the audience to sit and be scared, only to know they are innocent and that the bad guy will be defeated at the end. Few horror movies truly explore the grey areas of morality, and The Bride of Frankenstein is one of those rare exceptions that does so.
This is also why the movie provides far more blatant Christian symbolism and parallels than seen in the first film. Neither James Whale nor William Hurlbut were devout Christians, and yet the Christian imagery is obvious all throughout the movie. The Monster is captured by villagers and raised up on a pole in an unmistakably Christ-like crucifixion; the crucifix shines down on the blind hermit and the Monster as they meet and become friends; it is there again, observing as the Monster descends into the earth and enters the crypt where he meets Dr. Pretorius; and of course Dr. Pretorius openly and cheerfully compares himself to the Devil, as he has his own reasons for wanting to create life from lifelessness.
Much more than in the original, The Bride of Frankenstein plays with this question and shows us the consequences of mortal men daring to tread into the realm of the Divine. The original film opened the door, but this film basks in it. As Henry Frankenstein states, "…For what a wonderful vision it was! I dreamed of being the first to give to the world the secret that God is so jealous of." Why else would Old Scratch, the Devil himself – in the guise of Dr. Pretorius – show up at Henry's door and demand to see him, even as speaks these words to his wife while he recovers – recovering from his redemption, as he thought he had repented for his sins?
The movie makes it plain that Pretorius, not the Monster, is the true villain of the piece. He shows Henry his connection of "homunculi," little people he had created himself, growing "naturally" rather than using Frankenstein's method. I've pondered the point of this entire sequence – why does the movie spend so much time showing us these little people in jars, then put them away so we never see them again? In some ways, it could be said Pretorius is playing God when he makes these little creatures. He creates a Queen first – in much the same way he wants to create a Bride. The King is created in the manner and image of Henry VIII. Strangely enough, only a year before filming this movie, Elsa Lanchester's husband, Charles Laughton, had portrayed Henry VIII in an immortal film role himself. Could this be an intentional in-joke of the film? It's certainly possible. Meanwhile, we also see a bored Bishop – more Christian imagery – and a dancer, apparently sweet and innocent. And finally, of course, the Devil…and it is here that Pretorius blatantly and clearly identifies himself with the Devil, relishing and embracing the role as he says, "l took a great deal of pains with him. Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn't be much more amusing if we were all devils, and no nonsense about angels and being good." (It's also worth taking a moment to praise the special effects of this sequence, arguably the best seen in any Hollywood film at all up to that point…and even for a long time after.)
Which brings up the role of the Monster himself…finally. This is a monster movie starring a rampaging Monster, right? Yet we've been discussing it so long, we've barely touched on the Monster himself. The Monster grows up in this movie, finds a friend, learns to speak, seeks a mate, and finally ends himself (and the evil Dr. Pretorius) in the final scene, blowing up the entire laboratory. Boris Karloff was at the height of his popularity here, and the movie emphasized this by simply crediting him with the single name KARLOFF, all in capital letters. It's generally agreed that this was indeed Karloff's greatest role. Karloff himself objected to the Monster learning to speak, as he felt it more effective for the Monster to remain mute. But, of course the Monster has to grow and become something more than the character he was in the first movie. In the original movie, he was an innocent babe, and the world was out to destroy him regardless of his innocence. In The Bride of Frankenstein he is no longer innocent. This is demonstrated at the very beginning, as the first thing he does is kill two peasants in the wreckage of the burning mill – and not just any two, but the very father and mother of the girl who had drowned. (The Monster has passed through fire and water, and thus he has been reborn.) No, the Monster is not innocent in this movie. But, we have to see that despite this, he is still good. And thus, his first act is to rescue a girl falling into the water, much like what happened in the first movie. The Monster has learned what happened before, so he saves the girl from drowning this time. He is no longer the innocent babe of the first film. Thus, he has to learn how to talk, as he becomes more intelligent and understanding of the world.
It could even be said, in support of the theme of the consequences of defying God, the Monster actually plays the role of an avenging angel, sent by God to correct the sins committed by Henry Frankenstein. Even though the Monster murders several people, he remains "good" because he kills only in self-defense…except once, when he kills Karl, Pretorius' henchman. (Of course, Karl was the one who had murdered an innocent village girl to get the heart for the Bride. His death is mandatory, and it is the Monster who punishes him for his crime.)
The Monster is pursued by the angry mob, who seem to be enjoying themselves – "Get out the bloodhounds! Raise all the men you can! Lock the women indoors!" – and once they capture the Monster, they perform a scene that is blatantly similar to the Crucifixion, even to the point of pelting the Monster with rocks. ("Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.") The Monster is bound with chains…and as the anchor is driven into stone with a sledgehammer, the Monster panics and writhes, as if nails were being driven through his own feet. Can the symbolism be any more blatant? Then the Monster escapes right away, the crowd flees in fear, and they pursue him into the countryside.
Here we address the question posed by many film historians, especially "revisionist" film scholars. Is The Bride of Frankenstein a gay parable? Did Whale and Hurlbut intentionally use gay (or homosexual) metaphors in the movie as a way of "rebelling" against homophobia and repression of homosexuality in society? Much has been made of this among movie essayists. It's been noted that Dr. Pretorius, played by James Whale (who was openly gay)'s good friend Ernest Thesiger (also gay), played up to the mannerisms of Whale himself; although he was of course more evil and sadistic. The character of Pretorius is a proud, old gay queen who steals Henry Frankenstein away from his (heterosexual) marriage, and builds a same-sex partnership with Frankenstein…and the result is the two men creating a new life together. This, of course, is seen by the Catholic Church as blasphemy. But how much of this is intentional?
Testimonies and reports about James Whale suggest that there is indeed an intentional homosexual theme to the movie – but, I would argue this is not the primary theme of the film. Whale was openly gay, but not flamboyantly so; and his friends and family said he was first and foremost "an artist," not "a gay artist." His gay lifestyle was incidental, because that's the way he was as a person. He did include personal elements in the plot of the movie, but this was meant to flesh out the characters and support the overriding theme of the movie: the moral question of defying God. This can be seen as the reason why the blind hermit befriends the Monster in the way we see portrayed in the movie. This was part of the original novel: the Monster encounters a blind hermit in the woods, is taken in, and learns to speak. The movie puts much greater emphasis on the hermit's feelings, as he is overjoyed to have been delivered "a friend" by God. The two of them live together briefly, in a manner that is clearly meant as a gay parallel: a same-sex couple living together, hidden from the outside world. But the outside world intrudes and destroys their bliss, forcing them apart and teaching the Monster to hate the world once again. In fact, this also supports the theme of the movie. The Monster and the hermit find each other, because they are both lonely and in need of support. Their friendship is a good thing, so much so that it is blessed by God (as the hermit thanks God, and the crucifix shines upon them). Later on, however, the evil and Satanic Pretorius forces Frankenstein to be his partner, even using the Monster to kidnap Henry's (heterosexual) wife and force him to become his "partner" in the creation of life. This is an act of defiance, and this is why their partnership is evil and must end – not because they were two men having a relationship, but because Pretorius was forcing them to be together. It was a forced "marriage." Indeed, even creating the Bride herself as a mate for the Monster was also a forced marriage, much like an arranged marriage where the bride has no choice or voice of whether she wants to marry the chosen groom.
Fleeing his pursuers, the Monster hides from the mob in a graveyard, where the villagers are not seen – either they're afraid to enter the place, or they don't understand a Monster raised from the dead would hide from them among the dead. We don't see the villagers again after this. They've served their purpose, to drive the Monster to the place where he is supposed to be. And after they've destroyed his friendship (same-sex partnership) with the hermit, the Monster has lost his paradise. He is angry and rebellious, rejecting Heaven at this time as he enters a graveyard and desecrates a statue at the entrance to an underground mausoleum. He then descends to into the Earth, as a nearly life-size mounted crucifix observes his descent. He tries to return to the dead, descending into the depths of the Earth. At this time he is open to temptation…in the form of Pretorius, who tempts him like the devil he is. Of course Pretorius would be here, robbing a grave and defiling the embalmed corpse of an innocent girl, as he prepares to build the body of his planned life. After sending his servants away, he stays in the crypt and enjoys a cheerful meal of food and wine, enjoying the company of the dead. The Devil is here among the dead, waiting for the Monster to arrive so he may be tempted. Pretorius even reveals himself to be the Devil, the consummate liar, by offering the Monster a cigar (the fires of Hell). This is "my only weakness," while earlier he said to Henry Frankenstein that gin was his "only weakness."
The Monster even reveals his own rejection of the original sin that created him:
"Do you know who Henry Frankenstein is and who you are?"
"Yes, I know. Made me from dead. Love dead. Hate living."
"You're wise in your generation."
At this time, Pretorius' control is complete and he accomplishes his goals. He has seduced the Monster into becoming his servant, by tempting him with sex – not just a friend, but a "wife" – and by using the Monster to kidnap Henry's wife, he brings Henry into his forced "partnership" and uses him to help create the Bride.
Ah, yes, the Bride. The unholy creation of Pretorius and Frankenstein, and possibly the most famous two-minute role (or cameo appearance!) in all of horror film history. She appears, an unforgettable figure who has been imitated and spoofed countless times, almost as much as the Monster himself. It is at this point that the Monster appears from out of nowhere, killing Karl as though taking revenge for his murder of the innocent girl. Or, it may be that this act of murder is what brings the Bride to hellish life, sacrificing a life for a life.
And when the Bride appears, one brief moment parallels the opening Prologue. Frankenstein and Pretorius hold the Bride, mirroring the moment when Mary Shelley is comforted after pricking her finger. Pretorius, the one defying God, stands in the same place as Lord Byron, "England's greatest sinner." Dr. Frankenstein, creator of the Bride, stands in the same place as Percy Shelley, to whom Mary Shelly is the Bride…and, of course, both the Bride and Mary Shelley are played by the same actress, Elsa Lanchester.
And the Monster appears, to greet his Bride. He approaches her, asking, "Friend?" And the Bride screams in terror, a single shriek forever imitated in film. Dr. Pretorius' shotgun forced wedding doesn't work. The Bride screams, not because the Monster is ugly – after all, she is innocent and doesn't know what "ugly" is. But she has the heart of an innocent, and she senses, instinctively, that the Monster is unholy (born of original sin) and does not belong in this world. And she hisses at him like a cat.
The Monster's heart is broken, as he knows he will always be alone as long as he is in this world. But although he had been tempted by the Devil – again, like a Christ figure – the Monster plays the role of the Redeemer, by sacrificing himself to overcome the sins committed in the original movie. He pulls the infamous "we belong dead" lever, destroys the tower, takes Pretorius (the Devil) with him, and allows Frankenstein to live. His use of this lever to destroy everything is indeed the ultimate deus ex machina – "God from the machine" – as the Monster once again plays the role of the avenging angel from Heaven.
This is why I suggest a comparison between The Bride of Frankenstein and 2001 - A Space Odyssey. In a manner not unlike Stanley Kubrick, James Whale has intentionally added a great deal of subtle meaning to this film. As with Kubrick's film, this symbolism is indeed intentional. It may be possible to question how much of this is intended by Whale (especially the gay subtext of the film), what we do know is that Hollywood of the 1930s was constantly battling the notorious Breen office in order to make movies of this sort. Whale was certainly aware that the censorship board took note of his use of Christian imagery, the daring and racy wardrobe worn by Elsa Lanchester at the beginning of the film, the violence as the Monster kills people, the questionable morality and even suggestions of necrophilia (the Monster desiring sex with the Bride), and so much more. These censorship battles were the progenitors of much of the subtle language of film symbolism, which movie buffs and historians enjoy studying and seeking hidden meanings. Some film directors were masters of "the language of film," including Stanley Kubrick – and including James Whale. If the audience watches The Bride of Frankenstein just to see a scary monster, they'll get one. But if they dare to realize this story is entirely unconventional and far, far removed from most horror movies ending with a bang…they'll see so much more.
As if this isn't enough, the film also ascends the heights of surrealism, presenting a world that's more dream-like than the audience may realize. The film creates its own reality, outdoing even the original Frankenstein with outlandish sets, rooms designed with columns and arched doorways at every turn, and of course the brilliant and beautiful black-and-white cinematography, casting Expressionistic shadows that mingle with and enhance the design of every shot. The other-worldly aspect is also reflected in anachronisms that appear, raising the question of what time period this story actually takes place in. We see mobs of apparently Germanic peasants with names like Hans, Karl and Fritz; yet Dr. Frankenstein himself has the more modern and British name of "Henry." Dr. Pretorius – whose name is believed to have been taken from the ancient roman praetor, a magistrate who dealt justice – allows Henry to speak with his captive wife through an "electrical machine," indicating no one in the film knows what a "telephone" is. And then there's the laboratory itself, built into a mountainside tower, with its crazy electrical apparatus (the word "crazy" itself is an anachronism, even though Henry used it several times in the first movie), producing exciting and excessive sparks and smoke everywhere as the Bride is brought to life…along with the infamous deus ex machina of the "We belong dead" switch.
It's also worth noting the title of the film itself. We know "The Bride of Frankenstein" wasn't truly accurate because Frankenstein was the scientist, not the Monster. Therefore, why would the movie even include Dr. Pretorius stating outright, "The Bride of Frankenstein!" Well, Frankenstein did create a Bride, just not a bride for himself.
But my favorite running joke is this: in the first movie, Henry addresses the Monster by commanding, "Sit down." When the Monster meets Dr. Pretorius for the first time, he also commands the Monster to "sit down." Even the blind hermit calms the Monster by telling him to "sit down." And then later, when Pretorius re-introduces the Monster to Henry Frankenstein – after the Monster has learned to talk – what is the first thing the Monster says to his creator? "Sit down."