“She’s alive! Alive!”
Few – very few – sequels are considered as good, let alone better, than the original. Plenty of people dislike James Whale’s follow-up to his highly successful Frankenstein (1931). But it seems like the majority of audiences and critics agree that Bride of Frankenstein manages to exceed its predecessor, placing it in an exclusive club of sequels.
Bride begins exactly where the last film left off. Well, sort of. There’s some retconning in terms of Frankenstein‘s ending that makes sense after watching Bride‘s prologue. But to make it simple, I’ll just say that we truly begin our story at the burning down of the mill, where the Monster (Boris Karloff) had fled at the end of the first movie.
An angry mob set fire to the mill after the creature threw Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) from the top. Presumed dead, the Monster escapes the charred wreckage of the mill and disappears into a forest.
Henry survived his fall and is recovering at home with his fiancee Elizabeth (this time played by Valerie Hobson due to Mae Clark’s ill health). His rest is interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), Henry’s old mentor and philosophy professor from medical school.
Pretorius has been conducting life-creating experiments of his own. Whereas Henry created a full grown being out of dead bodies, Pretorius grew miniature creations. He wants Henry’s help in creating a mate for the Monster.
Frankenstein wants nothing more to do with the whole business. Pretorius won’t take no for an answer and will do anything to complete the experiment.
Meanwhile, the Creature is making his way through the forest, scaring everyone he comes across, being strung up on a log by angry villagers, and constantly searching for refuge and friendship. His tragedy is not yet over, and his path is destined to intersect with his maker’s once again.
A sequel to Frankenstein had been in development as early as a 1931 preview screening for the original film. James Whale had no interest in directing it. He said he’d “squeezed the idea dry.” He eventually agreed to direct the movie. Confident he couldn’t top the first, he said he would make it a “hoot” with comedy and amusing side characters.
At times, Bride of Frankenstein is more a dark comedy than a horror film. Some dislike the incongruity from Frankenstein‘s straightforward horror, but I’m okay with it…Mostly.
The humor, light and dark, is in keeping with Whale’s camp and comic sensibilities on display in some of his other films.
If you’ve seen Whale’s previous film The Invisible Man (1933), for example, you’ll know exactly what to expect from Una O’Connor (who plays Minnie, Frankenstein’s maid). Her outrageous mugging and hysterical shrieking is here, too, and it’s louder than ever.
I thank the heavens we only see snippets of her in this movie, lest my eardrums burst and all the dogs in the area begin howling in pain. I don’t mean to be harsh. I actually like O’Connor when she tones it down. I’ve just never understood why Whale enjoyed her screaming routine so much.
Bride is still very much a horror film. Actually, it’s downright grim. The Gothic nature of Frankenstein is turned up several notches for Bride, with enough graveyards, dark lighting and macabre atmosphere for everyone.
Pretorius is the evilest of devilish foils. Viewers over the decades have likened him to Mephistopheles. I say he’s worse.
Pretorius enjoys death, destruction, crypts, and dabbling in things man should leave alone. He puts down the virtuous and ridicules God. He has his goals and he doesn’t care who he manipulates or destroys to accomplish them. He’s downright cold and bone-chilling. I can’t think of another character in movie history that is a better embodiment of such evil and nihilism. In other words, he’s frickin’ horrifying.
The Creature can talk this time. Karloff didn’t like the idea, but he was overruled. Thank God. I really enjoy sequels that actually progress the characters. I love the addition of speech – it allows for greater expression from the Monster without taking away any of the love, sadness, confusion, and anger.
No matter your opinions, it’s hard to deny how Whale-ian this feels. The comedy, horror, Gothic motifs, and characters all feel right for Whale. He obviously had greater control this time out.
If you’re a horror fan and haven’t seen this yet, you need to check it out. Its reputation is well deserved, and I can’t think of a Whale film that’s a better example of his style.