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Bride of Frankenstein (Classic Movies Series #11)


“Bride of Frankenstein,”  while technically a sequel, bears so little resemblance to the first Frankenstein movie that it almost belongs in a different genre.   While “Frankenstein” was chilling, sombre, scary, and only funny by accident,  “Bride” is both campy and humorous, philosophical and sentimental, daring and shocking and bizarre.   And not really scary at all.   Director James Whale resisted making a sequel, and when the money got to be too much to resist, he insisted on complete creative control, which he got, and then proceeded to throw the kitchen sink at the screen.  If the theme of the original movie was “when man tinkers with the source of life, terrible things result”   the theme of the second must be considered “when man tinkers with the source of life, just about any crazy thing is bound to happen.”    It’s amazing that “Bride” works as a film at all;  it’s a miracle that it works as well as it does.   It veers from comedy to horror to melancholy and back again in the blink of an eye, introduces absolutely unbelievable but entertaining characters at every turn, and is a real hoot to watch.   And underneath all that run powerful themes of loneliness and alienation.  Which is why it’s often considered one of the best horror films ever created, despite its complete lack of anything even remotely frightening.

The weird thing is, despite the movie poster’s proclamation that the Bride of Frankenstein is “..more fearful than the monster himself!”  the movie isn’t really about the bride at all.   She has an extremely short life – she is brought to life in the final ten minutes of the film; enough time for her to see the Monster, scream in terror, and then die as he flies into a rage and tears down the laboratory on top of them all.   Instead, it’s really about the coming of age of the Monster — a giant child in the first, he learns to talk in the second, and to make friends, and then, finally, to long for companionship and thus demand a bride.   Really, he’s maturing pretty quickly, all things considered.   Give him time, and he might become a decent human being.   Alas, time is not on his side.  This is a horror movie, after all.

James Whale was one of the few openly gay men in Hollywood, and that must’ve been a lonely life.    Some scholars and movie historians have written page upon page about the homosexual themes in the movie, but I think they mostly miss the point.   There are plenty of sex jokes and double entendres, but I don’t think Whale ever intended us to see the hermit and the Monster living as a gay couple, for instance, or Frankenstein and Pretorius and gay men procreating when they make the Bride.   However, outsiders abound in “Bride of Frankenstein.”   Of course there is the Monster, who’s just looking for someone to be nice to him, but also the gypsies (historically outsiders,)  the hermit, who has chosen a life away from society for religious reasons, and Pretorius, who has made a choice just like the hermit’s, but for opposite religious reasons (ie, he can’t stand the rules and restrictions of religious people.)  It’s not about being gay; it’s about being lonely, which was certainly part and parcel with being gay in Hollywood in the ’30s.

“Bride of Frankenstein” opens on a group of friends, telling each other stories on a rainy night.  Remember the unnecessary opening on the first one, with whatisface smugly telling us that if we didn’t like scary movies, “well, we warned you?”   This one does its best to top that, introducing Mary Shelly, her husband, and Lord Byron.   The actress who plays Mary Shelley here at the beginning, Elsa Lanchester, will also play the Bride at the end of the movie.   What does it mean that Mary Shelley conceives of herself as her own Monster’s bride?   Decide for yourself.   And off we go…


After that mostly unnecessary prologue, we return to the scene of the burning windmill, the last place we saw the Monster.   We are introduced to Minnie, played with cackling delight and great comic timing by Una O’Connor. She wasn’t in the last movie, but will be the comic relief in this one- a role filled, last time around, by the elder Baron Frankenstein. I don’t know why he’s not back, as he was great, but Minnie’s even better.

Horror Movie Lesson #1 – Nobody ever dies in a burning building.  In fact, if you suddenly find yourself transported into the body of a monster in a horror movie, get yourself inside a building quick and set it on fire.  It’s the safest place you could possibly be.    After the crowd disperses, Hans – father of Maria the flower child – finds the Monster underneath the windmill in a subterranean pool, but doesn’t live to tell about it.   Neither does his wife, who reaches down to grab her husband’s hand, only to find she is holding the hand of the Monster.   A creepy owl looks on.

The mob takes Henry back to Elizabeth (played this time by Valerie Hobson, who doesn’t look a thing like Mae Clarke.)   Everybody thinks he’s dead until he wakes up, and Minnie shrieks, “He’s alive!”   Apparently no one knows how to take a pulse.   Henry’s not quite feeling himself, but still hasn’t learned his lesson.

Elizabeth’s not quite well either, it seems.

Enter Dr. Pretorius, played by Ernest Thesinger.   Vincent Price must have studied this performance every day of his acting career.      It takes a special guy to seek out a mad scientist who has just invented a monster that terrorized the village, and offer to partner with him in another “creative” endeavour, but Dr. Pretorius is that guy.   The evil Dr. PretoriusHe is tall and skinny,  with wild hair and an effeminate manner.  This is the definition  of “camp,”  and it doesn’t take long to guess that Pretorious is a  coded homosexual.   He convinces — practically blackmails – Dr.  Frankenstein into continuing his experiments, and promises him  that he has some interesting things to show him.      Frankenstein’s curiosity overwhelms him, of course, and off we  go.

It’s interesting to note the change in Dr. F from the last film to this one.   In “Frankenstein,”  he is drunk with power, mad, obsessed with the possibilities of creating life on his own.   Here, he is hesitant, afraid, cajoled into further experiments – and later, forced by the Monster to do what he refuses to do.   He has gone from being our villain to being simply caught up in forces already in motion — doomed to play the role he has unwittingly chosen for himself until the drama is played out.   The Monster, ostensibly the villain of the first film, was transformed into a character we cared for; here, the same process begins for the Doctor.

What follows next is the most ridiculous, campy scene in the movie.   Dr. Praetorius takes Dr. F to his lab, and shows him that he has managed to create miniatures – homonculi, little people who sing and dance, dress in fancy clothes, fall in love, and protest moral outrages — all with brains smaller than walnuts.  Frankenstein’s monster merely stumbles around and moans.   And yet Praetorius insists that Frankenstein’s achievement is the greater one.  Apparently size does matter.

Praetorius is clearly evil where Frankenstein is simply mad –  he shows great contempt for religion, morals, good and evil, anything that might stand in the way of him achieving his goals.   He makes Dr. F look like a babe in the woods, and preys on his innocence.

Cut to the Monster, stumbling through the woods.  He happens upon a pool, where he rages against his own reflection.  (I told you it got all philosophical.)   Little Bo Peep appears, and when she sees the Monster, she screams and falls into the pool.   Clumsy Bo Peep.   In a stunning reversal of the flower girl scene in the first movie, the Monster jumps in and saves her, but she won’t stop screaming.

Some hunters hear her, and unload some lead into the Monster, wounding him but not slowing him down much.  But now the town knows again that the Monster is alive.   So out come the pitchforks and again.   They manage to capture him, the

Frankenstein on the cross

Burgomaster barking orders and complaining, “I get no cooperation — no cooperation at all!”  and being hassled, of course, by Minnie, who offers to help bind the Monster, all 98 pounds of her.   But they manage to get him tied up without her help, and, to be honest, he looks an awful lot like Christ on the cross.  (Film historian Scott McQueen notes the reversal of traditional religious narrative occuring here — Christ was crucified, then resurrected; the Monster was resurrected, then crucified.

They haul him off to jail, and manage to hold him there for about five minutes.   He rages through town, managing to kill a little girl named Frida and both Herr and Frau Neuman.   The body count is piling up – the Monster might still be a tragically misunderstood character, but one can’t argue that he’s an innocent one.   He has little value for human life; it would follow, I guess, from his own beginning, that he has little understanding of what human life is.    Perhaps he thinks the people he kills can simply be put back on the laboratory table, zapped with lightning, and brought back to life.

The Monster makes his way out of town – he must have slipped away while everyone was running and screaming – and is drawn to the smell of meat cooking on a gypsy campfire.  Now here is an odd scene, with no apparent purpose.    He scares them away, but doesn’t take the meat, and then hears sweet and heavenly music – being played by a hermit on a violin.   The hermit is blind, and so doesn’t know his

The blind and kindly hermit.

The blind and kindly hermit.

visitor is a Monster – or perhaps he does know, but doesn’t care.   He is a hermit, after all.   In fact, the hermit’s acceptance of the Monster, and his ability to live with him peacefully, could be seen as an indictment against a society that, through fear and violence, turns gentle creatures into monsters.   The scene certainly parallels the one in “Les Miserables” where Jean Valjean encounters the bishop.

Regardless of whether it’s through ignorance or enlightenment, the two of them get along happily.   And – gasp! – the hermit teaches the Monster to talk – and to smoke.    (This is one of the scenes that people like to mention when they talk about homosexual undertones in this movie, but I think it’s a stretch.   It would be pretty easy to include double entendres and other latently sexual language an imagery into the scene, but it’s just not there.   Instead, the hermit prays to God, and there is a crucifix on the wall.   And besides, if these two men were happily enjoying a homosexual relationship, why would the Monster go in search of a bride?)

But, alas, the outside world must intrude, in the form of two lost hunters who recognize the Monster and attempt to shoot him.  In the struggle, the hermit’s cabin catches on fire, the hunters help the blind hermit out, and leave, apparently assuming, once again, that burning buliding=dead monster (see Horror Rule #1)

And now the Monster is mad again, burned and abandoned.   The mob chases him into a graveyard, where he hides in a tomb, only to encounter Praetorius and Fritz robbing graves.   They uncover a 19 year old girl – “Pretty little thing in her way, wasn’t she?”   Fritz whines.   “I hope her bones are firm!”  Praetorius answers, a gleam in his eyes.

The Monster follows Praetorius back to his laboratory and approaches him, perhaps mistaking the austerity of this tomblike lab for another hermit’s residence.   (Interesting to contrast the hermit’s existence away from “the world” with that of Praetorius.)  Praetorius is not frightened, and offers him a smoke and some food.

Notice the Monster’s expanded vocabulary and morbid leanings.   Notice the way Pretorius sizes him up, with a certain…lust in his eyes.   The Monster is putty in the evil scientist’s hands.   Interpret that however you choose.

Now it’s time to get down to business.  The rest of the movie proceeds along at a much quicker pace, and with a new urgency and grim tone.   Pretorius visits Henry again, and Elizabeth tells him off royally.   But Henry looks weak and tempted once she leaves (if there are homosexual undertones, here they are.)  When Henry refuses, all sweaty and trembling, Praetorius brings the Monster into the room.    He insists that Dr. F make him a bride.  Henry refuses to even talk about it with him there, and the Monster leaves – to find Elizabeth’s window.   If Henry won’t give him a bride, then he’ll take Henry’s.   Here we get the best horror screams in the movie – first from Elizabeth, and then from Minnie.

Pretorius takes control of the scene before the mob with the pitchforks are brought in .   “I charge you,”  he says, “as you value your mistress’s life, to do nothing and say nothing of this episode.  I assure you the Baroness will be safely returned if you leave everything to me.   Nothing, that is, except what HE demands…”

The Monster has taken Elizabeth to a cave in the mountains, and Henry can’t find her, so he agrees to cooperate with Pretorius.   They take Pratorius’s experiment to Henry’s lab, and hook “her” up to the same machines that brought the Monster to life.   Praetorius keeps on about good and evil, evolution

"It was a very fresh one!"

"It was a very fresh one!"

and morality, but Henry has a job to do.    Their heart is defective (clears throat) so they send Karl (played by Dwight Frye; his name was Fritz in the last movie) to get another one.   But instead of going to the hospital, he just goes and finds a young maiden in the street and murders her.   “It was a very fresh one,”  he tells Henry, when he brings it back to the lab.

Henry’s having trouble, but the Monster’s not interested.  “Work!  Work!…Then sleep!”  he demands.  And so Henry does.   Pretorius lures the Monster away with a drugged beverage… there’s definitely a bit of the child molester in this guy.    Also quite a bit of genius – apparently he’s invented a wireless telephone way ahead of A.G.  Bell.   Too bad Praetorius isn’t interested in getting rich… the money might’ve distracted him from his darker impulses.   Instead, they reign supreme, and the storm moves in that will bring to life the second Frankenstein Monster.

A lot more money has gone into creating the lab this time around — – many more sparks and buzzes, zaps and smoky explosions – but the scene pretty much mirrors the one in the first movie.   A bandaged body is raised into the storm, and then lowered.  The Bride blinks her eyes.   Then we cut so that her hair can emerge from the bandages.   She moves like a bird; all jerky and nervous.

And here is the scene that always gets me, and proves to me that Boris Karloff is an actor, not just a guy in a monster suit.

I feel so sorry for him…his one last effort to find a partner, a companion in a cruel world has failed miserably.   There is nothing left but death.

Elizabeth arrives (did she escape?) and the Monster allows Henry to leave with her – they are paired, they can be happy.   But he forces Pretorius – the loner – to stay, and then burns the laboratory down around them.  The message is clear: loners die. Couples live.

The Frankenstein franchise would continue on after “Bride,”  but never reach the same heights again.   The next, “Ghost of Frankenstein” is a perfectly good little movie, introducing Bela Lugosi as Igor.   After that, Karloff quit, Lon Chaney played the monster, and it just got worse and worse.   But for what it is, “Bride of Frankenstein” is an undisputed classic.

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