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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 title 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 flamboyont 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 the plot of the movie will then follow, 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 the creation of 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 blatant all throughout the movie. The Monster is captured by villagers and raised up on a pole in an unmistakeably Christ-like crucifix; the crucifix shines down on the blind hermit and the Monster as they meet and become friends; and of course Dr. Pretorius openly and cheerfully compares himself to the Devil and Satan, 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 "realms Mankind was not meant to know." The original film opened the door, but this film wallows in it. Why else would Satan himself – in the guise of Dr. Pretorius – show up at Henry's door and demand to see him, even as he is recovering from the defeat of the Monster – recovering from his redemption, as he thought he had repented for his sins?
The movie makes no pretense that Pretorius 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. (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.)
And I haven't even addressed 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 suggest 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 support the overriding theme of the movie, the question of the morality 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 a shotgun wedding.
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. And 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 innocent. In 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. No, the Monster is not innocent in this movie. But, we have to see that despite this, he is still good. And thus, he has to learn how to talk, as he becomes more intelligent and understanding of the world.
It could even be said that, 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 – "Hey, the Monster isn't dead!" "Great, let's all do some more mobbing!" "Yeah, get the pitchforks!" – and once they capture the Monster, they peform 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. And then the Monster escapes right away, the crowd flees in fear, and we never see them again for the rest of the movie. They've served their purpose, to enrage the Monster. And after they've destroyed his friendship (same-sex partnership) with the hermit, the Monster has lost his paradise and is angry, rebellious, rejecting Heaven at this time as he enters a graveyard and desecrates a Cathoic statue. 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.
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 mate – 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.
And when the Bride appears, one brief moment mirrors the opening Prologue, in an exact parallel. 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 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.
But although 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 takes Pretorius (the Devil) with him, and allows Frankenstein to live.