Bride of Frankenstein (1934)
Written by William Hurlbut & John L. Balderston
Directed by James Whale
The best Universal horror film, hands down. I will fight you on this. James Whale returns, but he was a hard sell at first, believing the story had been squeezed dry in the first picture. The success of The Invisible Man has Universal begging Whale to please do the sequel. Cleverly he used their desperation to get them to greenlight a more serious picture he wanted to make. When he sat down to figure out Bride, Whale decided to make it a “hoot,” as narratively there wasn’t much more to say. And then he completely blew all the competition out of the water with one of the wildest, most insane horror movies I have ever seen.
Picking up right where the 1931 original ended, we learn the Monster (Boris Karloff) survived and claws his way out of the guts of the burnt-down windmill. He spooks the hell of Henry Frankenstein’s housekeeper Minnie (Una O’Connor) and wanders off into the wilderness, still trying to connect with humanity. Meanwhile, Henry (Colin Clive) returns to his bride on their wedding night only to be interrupted by the camp Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Pretorius has created numerous homunculi and is rightly impressed with Henry’s resurrection of dead flesh. This new figure wants to make a mate for the Monster by growing a brain himself and pairing it with a body brought back by Henry.
Meanwhile, the Monster frightens a young woman and ends up fleeing to the cabin of an old blind man. The man mistakes the Monster for a mute, and they become quick friends. That is until a band of hunters ruin it all, and the Monster must flee again. However, he meets Pretorius, who decides to use him to threaten Henry into complying with the project. By the time the Bride (Elsa Lanchester) shows up, the movie is coming to its iconic and wild end. Oh yes, and the film starts with a flashback to Mary Shelley, her husband, and Lord Byron talking about the novel. Did I say this movie was strange?
Bride is a fantastic movie because Whale floods the picture with characters and wild directions to the narrative. There’s so much humor in this movie that I think it isn’t really a horror movie; like The Invisible Man, this is undoubtedly a dark comedy. Pretorius especially is such a camp character which is no surprise. The actor, Thesiger, was an openly gay man who I believe was playing to some of the subtext Whale (who was also gay) was putting into the film. I don’t think the director was out to make some bold statement about homosexuality; I think he just wanted to make a silly movie that would entertain himself and people he knew.
One thing that was certainly intentional was the abundance of Christian imagery and the dialogue hinting at connections with the Bible. There are prominent crucifixes throughout and a Christ statue displayed in a cemetery. At one point, the Monster is tied up by an angry mob in a pose very reminiscent of the crucifixion. Wine and bread are featured during the Monster’s meal, with the blind hermit hinting at a Last Supper of sorts. Whale was an atheist, so his reasons for including this imagery have been debated. I agree with the notion that he was inverting the Christian belief, having someone raised from death and then crucified. Bride is an incredible transgressive film for the time that this angle feels very plausible.
Everything about this production feels better than the first. Whale has been let loose to make the movie he wants. Karloff is even better as the Monster and gets across the being’s suffering. He learns some English from the hermit, which allows him sparse bits of dialogue. I find the angst of the Monster so effective. At one point, he is able to verbally express that death was a comfort and that Henry bringing him back enraged him. The idea of a mate like him is the only thing that makes this continued mad existence even possibly tolerable. Everyone involved seems to have taken what worked on the original and made it even better here. Unfortunately, that cannot be said about our next & last Universal horror flick: The Wolf Man.