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Bride of Frankenstein, The

Entry updated 16 October 2022. Tagged: Film.

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1. Film (1935). Universal. Directed by James Whale. Written by John Balderston, William Hurlbut and R C Sherriff uncredited. Cast includes Colin Clive, E E Clive, Gavin Gordon, O P Heggie, Valerie Hobson, Boris Karloff (credited by surname only), Elsa Lanchester, Una O'Connor, Ernest Thesiger and Douglas Walton. 75 minutes. Black and white.

Some contemporary viewers felt that the horror and pathos of this sequel to Whale's 1931 Frankenstein were vitiated by the director's morbid sense of comedy, a deprecation of the film that perhaps unduly obscured it even in recent years – there is, for example, no entry on the film in The BFI Companion to Horror (anth 1996) edited by Kim Newman. But there is a growing consensus that The Bride of Frankenstein is not only the greatest of the many Frankenstein movies, but in fact one of the greatest sf movies. It is arguably the most intensely conscious and sustained exercise in Gothic SF to be found in the Cinema of the fantastic.

Deliberately dislocating anachronisms can be found throughout. Apparently Whale wanted to the story to be set in what might resemble a vaguely Late Victorian Eastern Europe, a mise en scene combining the Gaslight Romance, the traditional Gothic, and the German expressionist cinema. The prologue, though, is set in a specifically dated 1816, at the Villa Diodati where Lord Byron (Gordon), Percy Shelley (Walton) and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Lanchester) (who in reality would not marry Percy until 30 December) are sheltering from a violent thunderstorm (John Polidori does not appear). In the film Mary is addressed as Shelley and in reality was already using that surname, but there is a vivid sense that we are eavesdropping on an extramarital menage à trois; certainly Shelley herself is very obviously not the demure innocent she might seem to be. When Byron addresses her as "frightened of thunder, fearful of the dark", we see in her response that she is anything but: that she is, in fact, the entirely capable author of Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818). That she had not in fact completed the book in 1816 is not so much an error on Whale's part as an ironic achronic abjuring of any tight connection between that novel and his own 1931 film: Byron's summary of Frankenstein is in fact a summary of that film, not of the yet-to-be-written novel; The Bride of Frankenstein itself is based (loosely) on the second half of that tale. With an ironic smile, Shelley then tells her two partners that she had written her novel to dramatize "the punishment that befell a moral man who dared to emulate god." She then asks them if they'd like to know what happened next, as the monster – here in fact called Frankenstein (see Frankenstein Monster) – did not in fact die at the end of the first film. She then introduces The Bride of Frankenstein.

The burning tower is seen, and the remnants of the lynch mob. A Frankenstein servant, Minnie (O'Connor), provides some vaudeville-like comic relief in her operetta-like exchanges with the pompous Burgomaster (E E Clive); and when she sees that the Monster (Karloff) has survived, she scampers off screaming to arouse the castle. Meanwhile, the body of Baron Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is ceremoniously brought within the walls, where his bride-to-be (Hobson) (she is the first bride of Frankenstein in the film), realizing he is still alive, nurses him. There is a knock on the door, and Dr Septimus Pretorious (Thesiger) arrives, a sinister old dandy with epicurean taste in wine and clothing, who exercises what seems (by inference, as he is a new character) to be a deep-sourced influence on the Baron. The leitmotif for Pretorious – an integral part of the stunning motif-heavy score by Franz Waxman (1906-1967) – is insidious and unsettling. He takes the Baron to his own ornate quarters, where he demonstrates what he has done on his own Mad Scientist part to create life; he has crafted several homunculi, figures he keeps in bell jars, who provide comic relief. But he cannot create full-scale monsters. That will be the Baron's job. He then proposes a toast: "To a new world of gods and monsters!" (The title of the 1998 film biography of Whale is Gods and Monsters.)

Meanwhile, after rescuing a child from drowning, the monster is recaptured in a highly expressionist forest – constricting avenues of telephone-pole-like tree trunks, a harsh chiaroscuro bringing to mind some Via Dolorosa – but after being chained indoors he once again escapes, and discovers a quiet cottage inside which a blind hermit (Heggie) is playing a violin. The two outcasts befriend one another. The hermit teaches him how to smoke. But two hunters discover them, and cause a melée in which the cottage burns down. The hermit is led away. Adjacent to a crucified Christ (kept to the background of the sequence by censors) the monster finds an entrance to an Underground crypt, where he encounters Pretorious, who tells him that the Baron is creating a wife for him. At least one of her body parts is from a grave dated 1899 (another anachronism Whale and his team used to surrealize and to deliberately unhouse the mise en scene). The climax is approached rapidly. The abject but obsessed Baron fiddles feverishly. A thunderstorm (like that wracking the Villa Diodati in the prologue) builds outside. The bride (Lanchester again, but uncredited) is unveiled. She is seven feet tall (Lanchester's stilts are concealed by her robe), her hair coiffed upwards and back with a chiaroscuro of electrical speedlines shooting through it. In repose she seems Androidal, rather like the Robot Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). But as she stares at the world, moving her head back and forth with a supple swift marionette-like abruptness, she more resembles a caged wildcat or bird looking for an exit from this world of grotesque males. (It is possible we are meant to think that we have finally met the real Mary Shelley.) The monster, awestruck by her beauty, touches her hem, and asks her a question: "Friend?" But she hisses at him like an enraged swan and the monster goes berserk with what the viewer identifies as grief. Electrical discharges puncture the expressionist darkness. The monster dismisses the Baron and his wife. But he tells Pretorious and the Bride not to move: "You stay. We belong dead." He pulls the tower down around them like Samson. Fire engulfs the scene.

The Bride of Frankenstein shifts scenes with dreamlike abruption, and viewers may be so engrossed in its swiftness and liquid exaggerations that at first viewing they might perceive the film as no more than a scherzo spoof. Even the polished ensemble acting throughout – Whale seems to have created his own repertory team of British actors almost overnight – may cause the eye to slide from the heart of things: which is a "human" tragedy; and en passant one of the strongest cinematic statements ever made about both the revolutionary potency of science and the impotence of Scientists to govern what they make. In the sense that it is a deeply European and deeply ironic tale told almost entirely in code by foreigners in 1930s Hollywood, it is an entirely American film. Its first novelization was The Bride of Frankenstein (1936) by Michael Harrison writing as by Michael Egremont; another is The Bride of Frankenstein (1977) by Ramsey Campbell using the House Name Dreadstone; Elizabeth Hand's The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora's Bride (2007), though tied to the film, is in fact a free-form sequel which carries the Bride far afield. [JC]

2. The Bride Film (1985). Directed by Franc Roddam. Written by Lloyd Fonvielle. Cast includes Jennifer Beals, Clancy Brown, David Rappaport, Alexei Sayle and Sting. 118 minutes. Colour.

A rather different story, although with deliberate parallels, is told here. The Bride (Beals) is initially repelled by the Monster (Brown), who flees in dismay to wander afar in the company of a dwarf (Rappaport). Frankenstein (a wooden Sting) becomes obsessed with the Bride to the point of attempted rape; she is saved by the returned Monster, whose love she now reciprocates. In one of the deliberately humorous scenes the fleeing Monster encounters a blind man, who fondly touches his face and then triumphantly yells "I've found him!" to the pursuing mob. [PN/JGr]

further reading

  • Emma Westwood, editor. The Bride of Frankenstein (Hornsea, East Yorkshire: PS Publishing/Electric Dreamhouse, 2022) [nonfiction: James Whale: in the publisher's Midnight Movie Monograph series: hb/Neil Snowdon]


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