I have seen so many horror movies, and there are a few staples I have to see every year. This film not only falls into that category, but also into the category of films I can watch at any time. If pressed to name my favorite movie of all time, 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein is one of the titles that escapes my lips. I love this movie completely, from the Franz Waxman score to Elsa Lanchester’s portrayal of Mary Shelley, to Karloff’s heartbreaking turn as the Monster. Yes, this is a sequel to James Whale’s 1931 adaptation of the Shelley novel, but in many ways this is a superior Frankenstein film. (If you’ve never seen it, head to Netflix now and watch it. I’ll wait. OK, good? Let’s begin.)
The film opens with Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley and their companion Lord Byron at home during a thunderstorm. To entertain the group, Mary mentions that she has an idea of what happened after the end of the story, thus beginning this sequel where the first film left off. The Monster (Boris Karloff), believed dead, rises from the ruins, and the townsfolk once again panic. This scene is where Una O’Connor shines. As serious as much of this story is, O’Connor’s performance as Minnie is hilarious. (Some things are unintentionally hilarious, but we’ll get to that in a moment.) Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), believed to be dead, is carried back to his home, where his bride Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) is waiting for him. He awakens to a visitor, his old professor Dr. Pretorius. Pretorius has a proposal–to once again create life as he did before. Right away Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) establishes himself as the sinister villain of the story. Though Frankenstein protests, Pretorius persuades him to accompany him to his home to see his latest creations.
This is where the movie gets a little silly, since Pretorius has created life, but it’s doll-sized. He has a set of glass jars containing his creations, including a tiny Henry VIII type that always tries to escape his quarters. Critics argue that this scene takes away from the overall dark tone of the film, but I’d argue that a little levity makes Pretorius’ actions throughout the rest of the movie even more sinister, as he wants to find success as Frankenstein has. In the meantime, the village has discovered what Minnie was trying to tell them is true–the Monster has indeed survived. He’s captured, but manages to escape into the forest, where he happens upon a blind hermit’s humble abode.
In this sequence is where Karloff establishes the Monster as more than a bewildered reanimated corpse. His face reflects the Monster’s pain and confusion, and the tears that roll down his face as the hermit shows him kindness in tending to his wounds and feeding him show that the Monster needs companionship as much as he needs food and shelter. The hermit teaches him about the wonders of food, music, cigars, and wine, and it seems the two will live as friends forever. Of course, two travelers stopping to ask for directions spoil their idyllic existence when they recognize the Monster. The hermit’s home catches fire, and the Monster is once again doomed to wander alone. Despondent and dejected, he happens upon Dr. Pretorius in a mausoleum. Pretorius is gathering a body. He convinces the Monster he needs a mate, and Pretorius knows just how to get it. They kidnap Mrs. Frankenstein, and as the tagline on the poster says, “The Monster demands a mate.” Pretorius’ nefarious plan to create life is underway.
As they did in the first film, the special effects department for this film go out of their way to make you feel they’re actually creating life. It’s hard to believe how much they had to manufacture for this film, especially the laboratory scenes. From the lightning to the reanimation of the heart, everything is spooky and perfect.
At this point you realize that you’re over an hour into the film and you haven’t seen the Bride. And it is in this realization that you see just how solid and lasting Elsa Lanchester’s performance as the Bride is. Even people who haven’t seen the film can easily recognize her reanimated bouffant and iconic stare. She’s gorgeous in every way, and her reveal is one of my favorite movie moments of all time. Lanchester captures the fear and uncertainty of the reanimated Bride perfectly, hissing at her betrothed and screaming. Seeing that his new mate is never going to love him, he decides to destroy the lab and Dr. Pretorius, leaving Dr. Frankenstein and his wife to live. This moment is my favorite of the film, as he utters “We belong dead.” I dare you not to at least get a lump in your throat during this scene.
This is my favorite of the Frankenstein films because it explores the humanity of the monster and how, even though he’s the monster, he’s not the villain. Sure, he has killed, but most of these have been either people attacking him, or in the case of the little girl in the first movie, an accident. He’s lonely, in pain, and sad that he’s so misunderstood. He could be any one of us, really. Later versions of the character may portray him as a monster only, but Karloff always played him with pathos to spare.
The Bride herself makes pop culture appearances regularly. It’s such a unique look that it’s irresistible. One of my favorites is in the pinball game, Monster Bash. She’s the lead singer of the Universal Monsters band. The costume has been worn by sitcom stars, most recently Rebel Wilson in the Halloween episode of her new show Super Fun Night. The Monster and his Bride have also been the subject of music videos. Here are a couple I remember:
As we draw closer to the big day, I hope you’ll spend some time with my favorite monster couple. The film is gorgeous, and it tells a touching story of the Monster and his humanity.