Premise: Mary Shelley reveals the main characters of her novel survived: Dr. Frankenstein, goaded by an even madder scientist, builds his monster a mate.
The first direct sequel in the Universal Classic Monsters chronology is also the final one to be helmed by James Whale (after Frankenstein and The Invisible Man). Bride of Frankenstein is replete with themes of creation and destruction amidst subtext involving identity politics, nature vs nurture, and a healthy of dose of homosexual undercurrents thrown in for good measure. The film builds upon what was previously established in Frankenstein by introducing a more menacing mad scientist character and further humanizing Boris Karloff’s monster. It also pays homage to the woman who created the monster and brings some light religious commentary to the forefront as well.
Bride of Frankenstein begins with a look into a stormy evening with Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester, who later appears as the titular Bride), Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton) discussing Mary’s Frankenstein story. The men heap praise upon Mary for the scares she conjures in her writing. Mary then reveals there’s more story to tell as the scene shifts to the aftermath of 1931’s Frankenstein and into Bride of Frankenstein. It’s a satisfying introduction that allows the movie to dispense with exposition, retcon what needs retconning, and present a sequel without being too pigeonholed by the events of the original. It also serves to pay respectful homage to the woman behind the monster.
The story begins in the aftermath of the mob’s destruction of the windmill and the presumed death of the monster. What happens next reintroduces the monster to the audience in a way that’s laden with tragedy. The parents of the young girl the monster killed in the original film, filled with vengeance and grief, seek proof that the killer of their daughter is gone. The results are disastrous and tragic for them while also reaffirming the instinctual danger that lies within the monster.
The brutality inherent within the monster’s first scene gives his arc throughout the film much more meaning and resonance. As the film progresses, the monster undergoes something of a transformation. He learns and adapts to his still newly created life as he makes friends, increases his vocabulary, and eventually comes to terms with what he is and what he needs.
The monster’s personal growth is in direct contrast to how the townspeople have ostracized him and are still hunting him. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition and excellent way to deepen and enrich an already iconic character. Can we allow ourselves to root for a killer of children? It’s a question that Bride of Frankenstein winks at in its presentation of a monster with an identity crisis.
Having survived the events of the previous film, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is suddenly pulled away on his wedding night by his mentor, Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger). Pretorious is consumed by the news of Frankenstein’s monster and wants to expand upon Henry’s creation. By all accounts, Dr. Pretorious is much more calculated and deranged in his madness. The lunatic manner in which this mad scientist is depicted is a perfect counter to Frankenstein’s naive God complex from the first film and his slightly remorseful viewpoint in this film.
Frankenstein and Pretorious’ relationship is also ripe with homosexual undertones. Considering the era and the fact that director James Whale was as openly gay as one could be in the 1930s, Bride of Frankenstein has a subtle but apparent queer spin to it. Pretorious and Frankenstein are not openly lovers in the film. However, Pretorious’ arrival on Frankenstein’s wedding night with the temptation to pull him back into actions that Frankenstein’s betrothed had just deemed blasphemous and unholy in a previous scene hints at a deep homosexual subtext beneath the surface.
Frankenstein’s battle between remorse and temptation is countered nicely by the monster’s evolution in the film. The monster has his own identity crisis, which is most evident when he sees his reflection in the water of a stream. He is seeing himself for the first time and it elicits an expression of disgust and shame within him. In that moment, we see the monster not as a monster, but as a creature fighting his burgeoning sense of identity. The moment is quickly interrupted by a woman wearing a crucifix necklace who immediately screams and tries to escape. While not as overtly sexual as Pretorious and Frankenstein’s plot, the argument can be made that the scene doubles down on the idea of religion dictating what’s natural and unnatural.
When it comes to the titular Bride of the film, she is almost an afterthought. The real drama resides in Pretorious’ power hungry desire to create a companion monster and the way that desire battles with Frankenstein’s remorse and fear. When the Bride is finally created, she has an unexpected reaction to her newfound life. Her reaction to seeing her arranged marriage mate brings an additional layer of pain to the monster’s arc. He attains a bigger sense of himself and can finally reconcile what he is and what must be done. There’s a surprising amount of pathos and catharsis in the climax of the film for the monster.
Although The Invisible Man may still reign supreme as the strongest of Whale’s three contributions to the Universal Monster canon, Bride of Frankenstein is one hell of a strong entry to hang his hat on. The growth of the monster as an individual and the choice he makes at the end of the film helps cap off a strong character arc that began with the original film. Although there are plenty of Frankenstein films to come, it’s hard to imagine any of them topping this entry.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.