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Bride of Frankenstein (1935): Hollywood’s First Great Sequel

I have to confess: I didn’t like Bride of Frankenstein as much as Frankenstein. It’s bigger, bolder, campier, and draws a lot more from fantasy than science-fiction. While Colin Clive’s sallow, tense performance remained a solid constant through the two films, everyone else might as well be acting in different movies altogether.

Elizabeth had been turned into a more classic horror damsel (and a new actress, Vera Hobson), with long brunette locks and flowing white dresses, but in turn had lost the agency that the Gothic elements had granted her (to be fair, the book itself didn’t give her much to do either). The Burgomaster is a completely different actor altogether, and there’s a million more kooky supporting characters this time around. The most annoying was that of Una O’Connor’s Minnie, whose sole purpose it seems is to deliver a funny one-liner every other scene and get saddled with the repeat of the iconic “It’s alive!” line.

I had mixed feelings about Dr. Pretorius, whose hammy scene-chewing I enjoyed (I just wanted to mention that my notes describe him as “putting the goth into Gothic”), but whose presence disrupted the steampunk-science vibe of the original. His motivations are also unbelievable for most of the film, but as he’s set up as the traditional villain of the movie, I can’t expect too much for that. Plus he gets to dramatically utter the famous line, “A new world of gods and monsters,” so that makes up for his somewhat confusing presence.

Considering the fact that Bride of Frankenstein is one of Hollywood’s early attempts at a direct sequel, it’s understandable that they would be ironing out a few kinks. Much of the film is original story with a few elements drawn from the book — the blind man, the Monster learning speech, the Bride — but remains firmly in the stark, stunning world that James Whale created in his first film. Still, that doesn’t stop Whale from using the dramatic device of author Mary Shelley narrating the beginning of the sequel to Lord Byron and her husband in the famed retreat where she conceived of the idea. I love that Mary Shelley has become so mythic that she is as much a part of the Frankenstein story as her characters.

Surprisingly, the titular bride only appears in the last 10 minutes of the movie, in an unsettling scene that bears astounding visual parallels to Frtiz Lang’s Metropolis (I knew that German Expressionism would find its way back!). But brief as it is, the Bride immediately captures my imagination — her hair standing up on end as if to simulate being electrified, her mummified white gown that subverts the horror damsel’s garb, and her dark lipstick that would become a staple of every Halloween party are inspired work by the costume designers John Macfarlane and Vera West. Gushing about the Bride’s design aside: Bride of Frankenstein quickly becomes another lesson in hubris. Upon finding his Bride scared of him too, the Monster entraps Pretorius in the tower before destroying it — but in an act of mercmy allows Frankenstein and Elizabeth to escape. It’s as much of a Hollywood (and post-Hays Code) ending as you’ll get in a movie about a monster whose very existence is an allegory for humanity’s darkest capabilities.

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Gothic Goodness

Shortly after I finished watching both movies, I finally picked up that forgotten copy of Frankenstein. The story idea was famously spawned from a ghost story-writing competition between Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John William Polidori as they spent a summer in a Lake Geneva retreat. While James Whale’s films are a mishmash of elements, Shelley’s book was pure Gothic Romance. The “romance” in the genre name shouldn’t be misconstrued as having to solely to do with romance or love, though those elements often do make their way into the story. Rather, Gothic Romances are closer to mysteries or thrillers, set to the eerie backdrop of a medieval castle or a dilapidated mansion. It’s all about how extravagance and wealth is a facade for the corruption of the human spirit. Gothic Romance is one of my favorite literary genres — I devoured Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca which, yes, I realize are both romantically inclined.

Shelley’s Frankenstein perfectly fits within the genre, taking much of the unsaid elements of the Gothic Romance and manifesting them into a literal monster. But the monster in Shelley’s story is less a lumbering hulk than he is a deformed, fallen philosopher, launching into weighty monologues about the essence of man and the cruelty of the world.

“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all things!” the monster says when he and Frankenstein first meet — a far cry from the grunts and “GOOD” that make up the dialogue from Karloff’s Monster. His journey is much the same, though — he begins naive and pure, but is slowly corrupted by the hatred and venom that others direct his way, eventually becoming a murderer and savage. See? It’s society that is to blame

But the simplicity of the movies have percolated into the popular consciousness far more than this erudite “daemon” as Frankenstein calls him. The imagery of the lynch mob chasing a creature who accidentally committed a crime is so much more powerful than the slow existential poisoning of a wandering creature.

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Final Thoughts

It’s always eye-opening to go back to the beginning. Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein deserve their high standing in the pop culture pantheon, not just for their illustrious visuals, but also for how surprisingly funny they are. The films aren’t all Gothic anguish — though Clive has a wonderful monopoly on that — but charming films that balance the grim, existential loathing of humanity with banal moments of every day life. The doddering Baron Frankenstein from Frankenstein, the quirky villagers from the second, and Dr. Pretorius’ hamfisted villainy all lend levity to movies that wouldn’t be the same without.

And though Frankenstein has all the makings of a rapidly assembled B-movie, there are the beginnings of familiar film tropes that even I, unacquainted to the genre as I am, recognized right away — the suspense of a terrifying unseen monster in a mirror, the unsettling use of high, low, and Dutch angles. They’re all techniques that will be honed and perfected by masters of suspense like Alfred Hitchcock, and used incessantly in horror movies today. (That mirror trick, it gets me every time.)

To this day, it’s rare to find a movie with such depth of character and such overwhelming empathy as Frankenstein. I can understand the adulation for it, and will confess that I’ve now become a fan. And how couldn’t I be? Gothic goodness, pre-Code pulp, the birth of science-fiction, and the beginnings of a cinematic genre? My bread and butter.

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