I was about 12 or 13 when I saw the original Frankenstein, and though I recall liking it a lot I haven’t seen it since then. My hazy memory recalls the moody sets and that lovely black and white photography that I associate so much with Universals horror movies from that time period. The sequel, 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein has grown in reputation to become even more well-regarded than the original, sometimes regarded as the greatest achievement of the Universal monster movies. That’s a lofty set of expectations to take into a movie, but by the end I found myself completely engrossed in what was happening.
I’m fascinated by how sequels would have worked in the days before home video. It can’t just assume that the audiences watched the DVD before walking into the theater. Bride of Frankenstein opens with a brief rundown of what happened in the first movie, told through a hilariously hammy scene of Mary Shelly and husband Percy talking about the story with Lord Byron. Picking up right where the first film ended, Dr. Frankenstein is pulled from the wreckage of a burning mill where he and his monster met an apparent end. He swears to his fiancee that he is through with his experiments. But his mentor Dr. Pretorius has been doing his own research into creating a human life, and he pressures Frankenstein to begin his research again. The monster, who also survived the fire, is recruited by Pretorious to force Frankenstein to create a mate for the monster.
The first thing that I noticed in this classic was the acting, which might be considered a little over-the-top. Naturally movies from the 1930s are given to broad acting, but even by that standard this one is out there. I was worried it might prove distracting, but it eventually became something I internalized and accepted. Like the black and white photography, it created a tone that I could lose myself in. After that happened, I noticed a lot of terrific nuance in the acting, but none of them impressed me as much as Boris Karloff, who reprises his role as the monster. I think it might be that I live with a three-year old, but his mannerisms and his attitudes suggested a very large toddler, someone who is only just learning how to express himself. Little kids are capable of some very nuanced feelings, but they get angry and violent when they can’t convey them easily. It’s telling that the monster relates most to people who open up to him, first to the blind man and then to the sinister Dr. Pretorius.
That longing for companionship was the most poignant arc to me. The monster is thirsty for a friendship that will not recoil in horror and run away. The small taste of it that he gets actually inspires him to begin verbalizing his emotions and clearly opens his mind. Of course he would want a wife, a friend who would not leave him and with whom he could grow. But it’s not just a desire for friendship. The movie implies a certain carnal desire there as well, something that he can control and that satisfies his impulses.
The movie is called Bride of Frankenstein, which seems to refer to the woman created by the doctors. But of course, the real title character is Dr. Frankenstein himself. The struggle to resist temptation, here the desire to pursue the power that should be God’s, is something that is expressed in his love for his fiancee. She represents a way for him to move forward, and when she is not around the temptation to pursue his experiments is stronger. By the end of the film, he’s technically been forced to create the monster’s mate, but he obviously enjoys the process. Colin Clive’s eyes have a maniacal gleam to them in these scenes. The cinematography even explicitly equates Frankenstein with Pretorius by shooting them from the same angle and giving their faces the same sinister lighting.
There is clearly a lot of imagery here that more informed critics than myself could analyze, but it wouldn’t mean much if it wasn’t an entertaining movie. Fortunately, it’s very entertaining. Like all of the great Universal monster movies, Bride of Frankenstein is thick with atmosphere and lean on actual scares. They aren’t meant to make you jump, but rather they establish a mood think with fear and darkness. I’m not incredibly well-versed in the genre (aside from the first two Frankenstein movies, I’ve seen The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, and Dracula) but I think this might be the most stylish of the lot. The final scenes as they finally create the monster’s mate are riveting and just a little disturbing, and the acting that initially seemed so hammy actually lends the movie a terrific energy that drives it forward. It’s reputation as a classic is richly deserved, and it’d do well with the first Frankenstein as a good Halloween double feature.
Bride of Frankenstein is available for streaming on Netflix.