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The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester, Valerie Hobson

Written By: William Hurlbut (also adpatation), John Balderston (adaptation) Directed By: James Whale

The Short Version

The first of the truly great “highly anticipated sequels.”

Was it worth the wait?  Mostly.

The moralizing front face of the movie is heavy handed, distracting, and inaccurate… for a reason.

The filmmaking is deftly handled, excellent, and spot on… and may hide more.

If you love classic horror (or even if you don’t), The Bride of Frankenstein is required viewing.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Tasty, but not as sharp.

Pairs Well With...


“Do you like gin?  It’s my only weakness.”

“To a new world of Gods and Monsters!”

When Frankenstein became a smash hit in 1931, the first thing that Universal honcho Carl Laemmle, Jr. wanted to do was get cranking on a sequel.  But director James Whale objected; he had no interest in a second story, feeling that he’d already given the tale of the monster made by science its full due the first time around.  In a move that would be almost unthinkable today, the studio didn’t kick Whale to the curbside, find a new director, and start shooting a second picture; instead, Laemmle and company waited for four years while working to persuade their original man to change his mind.  With the (delivered) promise of complete artistic control, Whale was convinced, and the so the world finally got what can rightly be considered the First of the Great Highly Anticipated Sequels.

In the decades that have followed, The Bride of Frankenstein has come to be considered by many as the greatest of the Universal horror films, and indeed, one of the greatest works of classic American cinema, period.  I cannot even come close to going that far with my own praise, but a movie needs no top shelf hyperbole to be good, and this is indeed a damn good film.  For the sake of your own cinematic literacy, I suggest that you see it, whoever you are and whatever your normal tastes happen to be.

With that in mind, let us talk now of gods and monsters.

The Bride of Frankenstein opens with a quaint scene in which Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley are whiling away the night during a thunderstorm.  For the sake of audiences who lived before home video on web-based synopses, Byron helpfully rolls his ‘R’s through a quick recap of the first Frankenstein film, marveling at how Mary Shelley could have come up with such a frightening tale.  She quickly and rather bluntly declares that the point was to be cautionary and to warn others not to trifle with matters best left to God.  She then asks if Byron would like to hear what happened next, and our new film is allowed to begin in earnest.

But first, it’s worth pausing for a moment, because to fully understand what’s happening on the screen, there are some relevant bits of history to be explained.  Most notably, the real Mary Shelley neither held nor wrote of having such holy convictions; she was, in fact, an atheist.  The script, of course, cares nothing for such facts, and besides, the religious moralization hammered down not just during the intro but indeed throughout the film serves two important purposes.  First, it serves as an expedient storytelling device that solves several plot problems and keeps things moving.  Second and most importantly, it distracts the censors and keeps them from noticing things that might otherwise have been considered objectionable under the yoke of the Hays Code that was Hollywood’s morality police in the 1930s.  (Things like, say, physical violence, a relatively high body count, homosexual overtones, and other such “deviant” morsels.)

This leaves you with a choice to make.

On the one hand, you can take things at face value and get whacked over the head with heavy-handed religious themes and moralistic admonishments every few minutes.  Whatever your own personal beliefs, these elements do get to be very distracting very quickly, and after a while can definitely erode the film’s overall enjoyability if you let them.

On the other hand, you can be a symbolism detective (you were the teacher’s pet in high school English, weren’t you?) and/or conspiracy theorist and look for evidence of just-beneath-the-surface homosexual storylines, explorations of the idea of necrophilia, and attacks against the notion of heavy-handed religion, just to name a few of the possibilities.  (Whether or not these things actually exist and/or to what degree is an admittedly interesting matter of much debate which, nonetheless, I’m not going to delve into further here.  As noted, I’m leaving you the choice of whether or not you want to dig further into all of the possibilities.)


You can just say “screw it” to both camps, ignore the blatant moralizing and the whispered undertones of other things, and just enjoy The Bride of Frankenstein as a fun horror movie.

Let’s proceed under the assumption that we’ve chosen the latter, shall we?

At that point, the talents of James Whale were absolutely worth waiting for.  Easily one of the most able – and creative – talents of the classic Universal horror era, Whale, like Dr. Frankenstein himself, brings an inimitable spark of life to his creations that makes them stand apart from the pack in ways that are both readily defined and utterly intangible.  And since he has the final say on absolutely everything about The Bride of Frankenstein, well… let’s peek at a quick checklist.

Efficiency.  Whale is a master of both focus and economy, so even with the aforementioned censor-throwing material, the pacing of the film is lightning quick, and yet, in one of those remarkable tricks that only an especially talented director can pull off, it never feels rushed at any point (save for the very end, which is typical of this era), despite there being so much material to dwell upon.  Characters appear for exactly as long as they are required to in order to make their respective points and no longer, but thanks to the efforts of Whale, his crew, and his generally outstanding cast, they all makes impressions that resonate across the ages. 

Brief, But Unforgettable.  Consider our title character, the Bride herself (Elsa Lanchester): she’s on screen for no more than five minutes, and yet she endures as one of cinema’s all-time greatest monsters (despite never killing anyone).  It takes more than a memorable coiffure to make that happen, folks.  And who could forget the blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), despite the fact that he only appears in two scenes for barely more time than the aforementioned Bride?  Fire: good.  Drink: good.  Performance: better.

Those Who Loom Larger.  I think it goes without saying that the one person even more essential to making The Bride of Frankenstein work than James Whale is Boris Karloff, here returning to the role that made him a superstar and indeed one of the first actors to be credited by last name only.  Karloff had some objections to this film’s choices of how to evolve the monster’s character – he’d have preferred not to speak – but, needless to say, he went along with what he was told to do, and the results are outstanding.  His presence ensures that any changes to the monster play smoothly, and he lumbers about with bolts in his neck like simply no one else can.  (Truly.)  As before, Karloff brings a complexity to the character that the script alone simply cannot convey, even with the added help of dialogue, and his performance in the final scene… Elsa Lanchester is damn good, but playing opposite Karloff is the push that makes her great.

Meanwhile, newcomer to the scene Ernest Thesiger makes a strong bid at stealing most of the show as the sinister Dr. Pretorius, a darker personification of Baron Frankenstein’s ambitions (here presented as a former teacher) who indeed may be looked upon as a template for Peter Cushing’s portrayal of the Baron in later Hammer films.  The character of Pretorius brings a needed dash of evil to this film about otherwise misunderstood gods and monsters, and Thesiger clearly enjoys the intellectual mayhem.  He owns nearly every frame in which he appears, even managing to successfully stare down Karloff, leaving only Elsa Lanchester to steal his own stolen thunder.  Quite a feat indeed.

Eye Candy of All Sorts.  The sinister portrayal of Pretorius is balanced by the introduction of his first set of creations: miniature people kept in little glass jars who squeak at each other with either longing or admonishment.  This is a gamble: the effect could either amaze the audience, or just look really damn silly.  Much to my surprise every time I see this film, it doesn’t look silly.  Even with the outstanding visual effects, given the period, it should take one right out of the picture… but it doesn’t.  Chalk up another one for Mr. Whale and crew.

Meanwhile, the production design and the cinematography that highlights it are quite excellent indeed.  The vaulted ceilings are gorgeous, as are the diagonal camera angles, the classic nods to German Expressionism, and the reconception of what a monster making laboratory might look like… though perhaps the most stunning set of all is the simple catacomb made up to host a rather macabre picnic.  Sometimes, you don’t need Tesla coils to get the point across.

And then, of course, there’s the single most inspired hairdo in the history of motion pictures.  (Of course I had to bring it up.)  It doesn’t matter that all of that hair couldn’t possibly have been hiding under those bandages just a few moments before.  All that matters is… well, come on, you’ve seen it!

Like I said before: intangibles.

Is there more?  Of course there is, but you do eventually have to see this movie for yourself.  Cinematic literacy demands it, and really, there are worse ways to spend your time.  I cannot bring myself to call The Bride of Frankenstein the greatest of all the Universal horror films or one of the ultimate triumphs of American moviemaking, as so many have – even though I know why it’s there and can see what it’s hiding, the heavy-handed moralizing is just too damn distracting for me – but that won’t stop me from calling it one of the truly essential films of the classic era.

Bottom line, if you haven’t seen The Bride of Frankenstein yet, you really need to do so, after which you and your chosen viewing companions can spend hours debating what is or isn’t really going on up there on the screen.  And perhaps consider a makeover with the ultimate in retro hairstyles.  Come on; you know you want to.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, June, 2013

More From The Bar! | The Black Cat | Son of Frankenstein | The Mummy |

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