The Bride of Frankenstein
Directed by James Whale
Written by William Hurlbut et al.
For the people who take aim at the Hollywood system for its near-constant dependency on producing sequels, prequels and remakes, they should be reminded that the studio system has engaged in such a practice essentially since its inception. While it is true that fewer sequels existed in the earlier decades of the movie making business, they did happen when a film was met with significant box office success. In fact, more to the point, sequels were made in the same mindset as they are today, bigger is better, proving that things really have not changed so dramatically in the past 100 years of movie making when it comes to studios reacting to the success of one of their products.
In 1935, four years after directing the original Frankenstein movie, James Whale was convinced to return to the world of Henry Frankenstein and his monster and make a another film, The Bride of Frankenstein, which expands upon the initial instalment. In the opening scene, viewers are met with Mary Shelly (Elsa Lanchester) as she discusses the success of her book Frankenstein with some of her like-minded friends on a dark and stormy night, a rather ‘meta’ moment insofar as Mary Shelly is actually the woman who wrote the original book upon which the 1931 film was made from. Mary reveals that she has more to say about Frankenstein and his horrifying creation and begins to share to her friends the film audiences have come to see. Picking up on the same night when the townsfolk hunted down the monster, cornering him at an old wind mill which they quickly torch, Bride sees the monster (Boris Karloff) survive the deadly ordeal, murdering two people in the process, wreaking havoc in the countryside, sometimes even despite himself. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is approached by another scientist, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, convincing), who himself is steadfast on creating life from corpses. Frankenstein is clearly uninterested, especially after the disaster of his first attempt, although Dr. Pretorius will use every means necessary to get Frankenstein to acquiesce, even if it means hurting the people he loves.
In true sequel fashion, The Bride of Frankenstein opts to up the ante in nearly every department. There are more deaths, more monsters (the bride to be!), more crazy scientists, more set pieces and more special effects. Despite that director James Whale was initially hesitant to embark on the production of a sequel to what many saw as a masterpiece, when he finally did give in, he put his heart and soul into the movie, make no mistake about it. As previously mentioned, the mantra during the filmmaking process, evidently enough, was that making the world of Frankenstein’s monster as big as possible was a necessity. The first film, a very well crafted film in its own right, was smaller in scale not only because there were fewer set pieces, but because the story was far more intimate. It concerned itself with the emotional and psychological toil wearing down on Henry Frankenstein and his wife Elizabeth (here played by Valerie Hobson). That is much less a factor in Bride, which is more of a macabre roller coaster ride meant to grab the attention of the viewer with as many bizarre, funny and impressive moments as possible.
That does not imply that there is no genuine story. There is one, only that it is buried under a lot of spectacle, albeit some marvellously entertaining spectacle. The sequel, when allowing the emotional core some space to breath, is interested in expanding on the character of the monster, still played with great dedication by Boris Karloff. When last the viewer saw the creature, it had become clear that perhaps he did possess the capacity to relate to other people in non-violent manner. The problem was that no one gave him a chance at proving himself and, in the end, the humans, in their passionate response to the monster’s presence, proved to be even more monstrous than the entity they sought to destroy. With Bride, the monster does get his chance at finding a connection with someone. Of course, in films of this ilk, nothing is going to happen quite as expected, and so it is that the beast befriends a blind hermit (O.P. Prival). It does not take a genius to understand what the film is going for: do not judge a book by its cover. The sequence does not last very long, which is unfortunate because Prival gives a touching performance in the role and it allows the film to settle down somewhat after a rapid series of action and special effects scenes.
This notion that the monster is in desperate need of a friend is recurring, especially near the end when Dr. Pretorius wins his trust by proposing to create a female equivalent, which would ensure him some companionship. Despite that the movie attempts to remind the viewer what the story is about, much of Bride seems content to surprise the audience with marvels of cinematic technology and craftsmanship. There is an unexpected scene near the start when Pretorius wishes to have Frankenstein aid him in the former’s quest to artificially create life. In demonstrating some of the marvels he has already concocted, Pretorius reveals his ‘mini people’, two tiny men (a king and an archbishop) and one tiny woman (a queen), each living in a glass tube. The figures are played by real actors, who were probably filmed separately with their footage subsequently inserted into the picture as miniatures. It is a very funny moment, least of all because it indicates just how far director Whale and the crew were willing to go in order to give the viewer some great visual trickery. These little characters are never seen nor referred to again because they served no other purpose in the story than to prove how cunning and experimental Pretorius is, but it works. The set design, which was already impressive to in the 1931 original, is exponentially grander and worthy of awe here in Bride. The highlight is undoubtedly in the climax, when Pretorius and Frankenstein are working tirelessly at bringing a second being to life. The entire process must eat up at least 10 minutes of the film, yet the set design, with all its intricacies and praise-worthy scale, more than makes up for the fact that the movie makes simply want to show off what they built.
In one of the film’s few truly poignant moments, when Pretorius and Frankenstein have successfully brought to life another creature, this time a female, not even she is willing to get close to the Boris Karloff’s character. Try as he might to make her acquaintance, his efforts are met with nothing but terrifying shrieks. The movie takes a long, long road for the Frankenstein’s monster (and the audience) to realize that he, his bride and those who dare tamper with nature are better off dead, although one would be hard pressed to argue that it is not the perfect conclusion to such a macabre tale. Ultimately, Whale’s picture does not quite have the heart of the first film even though it makes some attempts at trying to be more than merely a visual feast. Despite that, there is a lot to enjoy here, most of it having to do with how grandiose the movie feels. With so much whizz-bang about, it is hard to not believe that indeed the film ‘IS ALIVE!’