James Whale | 1hr 15min
Before Universal Studios’ monster movies became parodies of themselves with such soulless sequels as Son of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, there was a brief moment in the 1930s when it looked as if its attempts at franchise moviemaking might have retained some sense of artistry. In retrospect, the brilliant success of Bride of Frankenstein can be more put down to James Whale than anything else though, as the Gothic director steps up the subtext, camp, and expressionistic mise-en-scène of his original 1931 film Frankenstein to deliver not just a lynchpin of horror cinema, but a piece of film that feels even truer to his own dramatic sensibilities.
If it feels like Bride of Frankenstein carries a little less narrative elegance than its precursor, perhaps that can be put down to Whale’s diversion from Shelley’s original story. What he does offer though is an increased fascination in the more humanistic side of Frankenstein’s monster, lending the story a transgressive edge that frames him as a lonely outcast searching for genuine companionship, no matter how unorthodox. Where society deems him an inherently unlovable figure, Dr Pretorius decides that giving him a wife of his own kind might just be the answer. After all, isn’t that a perfectly conventional expression of happiness? The fact that the most honest, meaningful connection the monster makes is so quickly destroyed by strangers speaks volumes about the cultural restrictions placed upon individual happiness, particularly as they pertain to those who do not fit its most conservative definitions.
And indeed, it is in those areas beyond the ordinary, quiet village that the monster prefers to dwell, keeping out of sight for as long as he can. In this sense, Pretorius isn’t all that dissimilar – he too is a macabre figure who basks in the gloom of crypts and uses coffins as picnic tables. If there was anyone who could possibly understand the minds of both the monster and creator, it is him, a mad scientist who recognises his own innate darkness and yet brushes it off with grim jokes and a foppish theatricality. He is in a better position than anyone to realise what sort of friend the monster needs, and even in spite of this, the solution he poses is nothing more than a cruel, self-serving experimentation and tribute to his own ego.
Pretorius’ new world that places him at its centre is truly one of “gods and monsters”, and Whale recognises it as such in all its magnificent menace. Stark shadows are cast across faces and bodies caught in high, low, and canted angles, twisted in grotesque shapes like ghastly extensions of the Gothic architecture surrounding them. The influence of German expressionists pervades Whale’s aesthetic all through Bride of Frankenstein, its ubiquitous atmosphere forcing his characters to either struggle against or submit to its dark, eerie power. Towards the end though it is the Soviet montage theorists whose impact emerges in Pretorius and Frankenstein’s major experiment, as Whale builds a kinetic rhythm in his rapid cutting that climactically leads to the reveal of the Bride herself.
In the short few minutes she appears onscreen, Elsa Lanchester gives a performance that, like the monster himself, has become the definitive icon of the character. Her eyes darts around the space in twitchy motions like a bird, stretched wide open in horror at her own existence. She does not react kindly to the monster either, as she screeches in fear at what has been thrusted upon her. “We belong dead,” is not so much his assertion of the natural order than it is a poignant submission to social convention, and a damnation of those other souls consumed by necrotic decay. One can’t help but feel in these final minutes that the empathy Whale holds for the monster is of an entirely different kind to that held by Shelley. Perhaps in the original 1931 film he was an abomination that Dr Frankenstein should have never created, but Bride of Frankenstein gives him the inalienable right to human life, and realises that he will only ever return to the place he came from when any chance of living that life outside the boundaries of social convention is well and truly destroyed.
Bride of Frankenstein is currently available to stream on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.