All throughout October, I’ve been posting movie reviews of Universals eight classic monster movies. Now I’m at the half way point, and today’s monster movie is a big one. The 1935 motion picture titled “Bride of Frankenstein” is often regarded as the absolute best of Universals monster movies, and is often regarded as a horror movie legend. Any list of the greatest horror movies of all time would probably feature this movie among the top ten best. It’s also worth noting that of the eight classic Universal monster movies, this is the only one that’s a direct sequel to one of the previous films. Interesting because every one of these classic monsters would have their own chain of sequels, and even “Frankenstein” would have several more sequels after this one. Even though this is a great movie, it’s only excuse for being among the classic eight is due to the introduction of the Bride. So, what do I think of this film, well, it’s personally not my absolute favorite of the Universal monster cannon, but it is still a really good one, and easily among the top three best.
This is the third of the Universal monster movies to be directed by James Whale, and he still proves to be the best in the business. The movie begins with a prolog featuring Mary Shelly, the author of the original “Frankenstein” novel, but she’s played by actress Elsa Lanchester. She and some house guests recap on all the events of the last film, set to a clip montage, and in the end Mary Shelly comments that the story doesn’t end with the burning windmill. Even though the first movie was nothing like the book, I still like this opening a lot because it gets me excited for what I’m about to watch, and it’s also nice for the movie to give direct mention to the source material. Anyway, the movie then continues immediately after the events of the last film. The family that lost their doubter in the first movie are exploring the remains of the downed windmill to make sure the monster died. Too bad for them, the monster immerges from the ruble, kills them both and tries desperately to find its place in the world. Meanwhile, Dr. Henry Frankenstein is ready to leave all this science behind and spend more time with his wife, but a new mad doctor named Pretorius inters the picture, and plans to continue Frankenstein’s work.
It’s interesting to note that first movie was all about the doctor, and the monster was a secondary character. Now things are reversed, it’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein who gets pushed to the side lines, and the monster gets all the attention. He may not seem like an interesting character to hold an entire movie but the writers handle him very well. First of all, the monster has an intellect in this movie, and even speaks. While the creature does kill some people, the film also gets us to sympathize with the beast on more than one occasion. There’s a scene when a girl falls into a lake and starts drowning, then to make up for drowning the little girl in the first film, the monster willingly leaps into the lake and rescues her. Unfortunately he’s rewarded by having people shoot at him. There’s another scene in which he sees his own reflection, and is ashamed of what he looks like. The best scene of all is when he takes refuge at the home of an old, blind man, who he forms a friend ship with. Seeing these two form a friendship is just a funny as it is heartwarming, and it’s become a classic scene. It’s here that the creature learns to speak and forms an intellect, but most importantly, it shows that the creature does have a heart.
There’s also a lot of religious symbolism and metaphors laced throughout the movie, which feels a touch out of place. Personally, I don’t get what James Whale is trying to get across by connecting Christianity with monsters. I think the big question this movie asks is “What makes something a monster?” All throughout the movie, we see this creature try his best to just fit in with the world, but it’s everyone’s hatred and actions that cause him to become a murderous fiend, this is also how he gets an intense hatred for living things. Boris Karloff is back in his signature role as the monster, and this time he’s given a lot more to work with. Unlike most of his villain roles, this film allowed Karloff to display a wider range of emotions, and it just livens up the creatures overall screen presence.
Colin Clive also returns to his signature role of Dr. Henry Frankenstein, and still does a good job, but like I said earlier, his character isn’t the focus of the movie, and he doesn’t leave as big an impression as he did in the first film. The real star who steals the show is the new evil Doctor Pretorius. Even though he’s not one of the eight classic monsters, he’s personally one of my favorite villains from the universal catalog. This is the classic mad scientist, and actor Ernest Thesiger is fantastic in the role. There isn’t a hunchbacked assistant in this film either, although Dwight Frye dose make an appearance as a lab assistant named Karl. This of cores is the same actor who played the hunchbacked assistant in the first movie, and the crazy Renfield in “Dracula”, in other words, these movies really liked to recycle their cast members.
On that note, the only character with a noticeable cast change is Dr. Frankenstein’s wife Elizabeth. In the original she was played by Mae Clarke, but in this film she’s played by Valerie Hobson. While this new actress is certainly more attractive, I also felt that the other actress was more classy and dignified. There’s just something about this new actresses performance that comes off as annoying and over the top. Also, she falls victim to the classic cliché of getting kidnapped by the monster, however, unlike all the other films, this monster has no interest in her at all, and is only using her for leverage, which is slightly more original. Speaking of annoying performances, remember what I said in my review of “The Invisible Man” about that really annoying woman played by Una O’ Connor, and how she ruined every scene she’s in. Well, the same actress is back in this movie, playing a painfully annoying, over exaggerated house maid named Minnie. Her acting is so loud and over the top that it actually hurts to watch, but it doesn’t ruin the film by any means.
Just like its predecessor, the films visuals and scenery are big spectacles, and almost steal the show. The new lab for example is much busier, and has some really fun set pieces on display. For 1935, many of the effects in this movie are quiet impressive and still hold up to this day. My favorite scene is when doctor Pretorius displays a collection of shrunken people that he grew in his lab. It’s a fun variety of different characters, they blend in with their surroundings perfectly, and it might just be the first time shrunken people were ever featured in a motion picture. There’s also an electrifying musical score which only adds to the films overall charm and entertainment. Interestingly enough, the first time I ever heard this score was a scene from the 1999 movie “Small Solders”. There’s a moment when a bunch of evil female toys are being constructed, and it’s all set to the score from “Bride of Frankenstein”, which was a nice touch.
Oh yeah, I should probably talk about the Bride right, after all isn’t that the title character of the movie. Well, at the very end of the film, the two doctors do create the bride, but she’s only on screen for about six minutes. No joke, once the bride comes to life, the Frankenstein monster tries to be gentile and comforting, but even the bride is scared of him, which provokes the monster to kill her. During her time on screen, she hardly dose anything, just makes a lot of hissing sounds, and jerks her head around like a peacock. Also, she never appears in any of the squalls that followed. The Bride is played by Elsa Lanchester, who also played Mary Shelly in the prolog. I suppose she looks the part, and dose a serviceable job with what she has to work with, but the only reason the Bride has become such an icon is due to her overall design. The movie never explains why her hair is all weird and electrocuted up like that, but it’s become one of the most famous hair dues in the history of cinema, and imitated countless times after.
Her intro also serves as the finally of the movie, which may seem a little anticlimactic but it’s actually a really good ending. Once the monster is turned down by the bride, he lets doctor Frankenstein and his wife escape, but keeps the evil doctor Pretorius and the bride in the Castile to die. What I find hilarious about this climax is that Dr. Frankenstein has a convenient self destruct lever, which the monster pulls and blows up the castle. Why on earth would the doctor install that? Well, the movie does have a very corny over tone, and even though a self destruct lever is silly, it doesn’t feel that out of place when compared to everything else that happens in this film.
Boris Karloff would return to play the monster once more in the 1939 sequel titled “Son of Frankenstein”, which may not have been a classic, but it was still a very good sequel in its own right. Further sequels like “Ghost of Frankenstein” in 1942 and “House of Frankenstein” in 1944 would go way over the top with the stories, and would feature different actors in the role of the monster. For whatever it’s worth, these were actually entertaining monster movies, but not on par with either of the originals. The Frankenstein monster made several more appearances in crossover movies like “Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man” in 1943, “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” in 1948, and the creature even made a brief appearance in the 1945 Dracula sequel titled “House of Dracula”. It’s probably the first long running monster franchise of all time, and would set the template for other endless monster franchises like “Halloween” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”.
Just like all the other universal monsters, Frankenstein had a large number of remakes beginning with Hammer studios 1957 motion picture “The Curse of Frankenstein”. This led to yet another long running series of Frankenstein movies consisting of six installments, however these films focused more on the doctor, and the monster changed for each movie. In 1994, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in the movie “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”, which is probably the creatures most popular modern remake. It stayed closer to the novel, stared Robert De Niro as the Frankenstein monster and the bride even made an appearance, played in this film by Helena Bonham Carter. Over the years, both Frankenstein and the Bride have become pop culture icons, and the monster himself is one of the most famous mascots that you see every Halloween. I wonder if the real Mary Shelley ever imagined the creature from her novel going down in history as one of the most marketable and popular monsters of all time. Well, the book may be a literary classic, but it’s really the 1931 motion picture classic, parried with its sequel that helped make both monsters immortal.
“Bride of Frankenstein” is undeniably a campy film, full of hammy performances from the supporting cast, and is very short on scares, at least for modern audiences, but it’s held up remarkably well over the years. The effects are still very impressive, it’s a visual marvel to look at, the pacing is great and it’s a rare kind of horror movie that actually explores the soul of a monster. I really can’t think of any other monster movie that can get an audience to sympathize with its signature villain as well as this film, which just makes it feel special in its own way. This may not be my absolute favorite entry in the Universal monster series, but it is still pretty damn good, and it’s earned the right to be called a horror movie legend.
I give the 1935 movie “Bride of Frankenstein” 4 stars out of 5
Next Time: It’s a monster movie about a man with a really bad hair day.