It’s a truly rare thing when a movie becomes so iconic as to stride across the public imagination like a colossus as 1931’s Frankenstein did. It’s an even more rare thing for a sequel to be considered… better than the original. But if you ask those in the know, most will tell you this is the case with 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein.
It was only natural that director James Whale return to tell “the rest of the story,” picking up where the original feature left off, and Mary Shelley informing her colleagues that there is more of the story to tell. But there is a lot that’s different this time. For starters, 1933’s King Kong introduced audiences to the idea that a fully-scored orchestral soundtrack could help to heighten the emotion and themes of the story, that it could be as much a storytelling tool as the makeup, sound effects, lighting, or costume. Music has a way of getting into the souls of the audience without them knowing it, and so it’s one more weapon in the arsenal that Whale used to full effect. And by this point, the Motion Picture Code was being newly enforced, so Whale had to be more subtle in how he approached his subject matter.
The film sees young Dr. Frankenstein as beaten and chastised in the wake of the first film’s events, but his old mentor, Dr. Pretorius, comes to call. Pretorius has also been experimenting with the creation of life from lifelessness, but his experiments are decidedly different. Where Frankenstein has created his creature from corpses, Pretorius has created homunculi from nothing, allowing them to grow into fully-formed organisms. They have fully-developed personalities. They scheme and dance according to their nature. He’s even created a miniature mermaid. The problem is, his creations are not full-sized. He keeps them in jars to keep them from running off. It has to be said, while this seems goofy to us today, the special effects were astounding at the time.
Pretorius’ grand idea is to team up with his former pupil in order to learn the secrets of Frankenstein’s creature and to improve upon it with the creation of something far more complex… a woman. He goes so far as to enlist Frankenstein’s creature to help him, telling him it’s to be a mate for him. So it is that the driving emotional thrust of the creature’s need for a companion in this lonely world continues to build on all that was established in the first film. To do that, Whale had Karloff build on the creature’s development, and Karloff rose to the challenge with an equally memorable performance. Thanks to a blind man who befriends him, the creature learns speech and to differentiate “good” from “bad.” He learns to overcome his fear of fire as he learns the pleasure of smoking. But mostly he learns what it means to be in the company of someone who doesn’t know to fear him. This means that the idea of a companion is not only possible, it’s now mandatory for his happiness.
The Bride is seen only in the last few minutes of the film, played by Elsa Lanchester, who also played Mary Shelley in the beginning of the movie. The finale makes the ultimate statement about what’s right and wrong about the world. Happiness lives, despair and horror ends. But it’s not happily ever after.
I’ll leave you with two points of trivia. The first is that Lanchester’s performance is based on her observations of a swan, from her jerky head motions to the way she opens her mouth to scream. The second is the Bride is a redhead.