Initially reluctant to do a sequel to the smash hit “Frankenstein”, director James Whale finally relented when Universal agreed to give him full creative control. With the studio out of his way, the only thing standing between Whale and his ultimate vision was Joseph Breen and the Hays Code.
Having survived the inferno at the windmill due to an underground waterway, Frankenstein’s creature escapes. As the monster tries to find his place in a world which fears and rejects him, Frankenstein is goaded into returning to his work by an even madder scientist, intent on making a bride for the monster.
There’s some lovely model work once again to open the movie and this time, instead of a prologue from one the cast in front of a curtain, we get a fully staged stormy night prologue featuring Mary Shelley herself (who gets her full due in the credits this time too). She’s enjoying an evening with husband Percy and a deliciously florid and camp Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) who cajoles her into sharing the story of what happened to the creature of her book after the windmill.
Thus Frankenstein’s monster becomes a pioneer of the principle that ‘the monster always comes back’ which would become such a staple of horror movies in the decades to come. “Bride Of Frankenstein” properly opens by restaging and expanding the finale of the last film, adding in new scenes and, oddly, playing up the possibility that HEnrty Frankenstein is dead even though we the audience know from the previous movie that…ahem…he’s alive!
Whale takes the opportunity to add in a few new characters to events, including a welcome (or not, depending on personal taste) return for Irene O’Connor (the landlady from “The Invisible Man”) as a maid from the Frankenstein house.
Played once again by Boris Karloff (so famous by now that he;s billed merely as ‘Karloff’), there are a few changes to the monster for this sequel. The creature is more bloodthirsty than before and its mere moments after his first appearance before he claims his first couple of victims. To be fair, the entire village has just tried to burn him to death so I suppose we can give him the benefit of the doubt, even if the couple he kills are the parents of Maria, the little girl he accidentally killed in the first movie. It’s a particularly nice touch that the monster make-up has been improved and updated, reflecting the burns the monster has suffered, creating a scarier yet somehow more sympathetic appearance.
The new Mrs Frankenstein, played this time by Valerie Hobson, safe to say, is somewhat hysterical about her husband’s fondness for blasphemous scientific experimentation and, despite everything that happened before, Frankenstein retains his ambition to create life. Mind you, now he’s married, its high time somebody had a word with him to let him know there’s an easier and more fun way to create life. I guess that wouldn’t have been allowed by the censors.
In the event, it takes the appearance of the Mephistophelian Doctor Septimus Pretorius (a deliciously mendacious Ernest Thesiger) to kick off the monster mash, convincing Frankenstein to work on creating a mate for the monster. There’s a sinister, predatory quality to the way Pretorius grooms the monster, cruelly manipulating the creature’s loneliness and naïve innocence. Despite his wariness of allowing the monster to speak, Karloff uses it to the full advantage and turns in an astonishingly tender and emotional performance. The monster’s encounters with various folk throughout the picture highlight the complexity and depth of the character. His relationship with the blind man is genuinely touching and Karloff manages to squeeze every ounce of pathos from the witty and beautifully structured script, making the hurt the monster must feel being rejected by his ‘father’, Frankenstein, palpable.
As good as the original “Frankenstein” was, “Bride Of Frankenstein” is better in every way. The score, sets, special effects and lighting are all better, still technically impressive even today. It’s constantly fascinating to me that the lighting and cinematography in black and white films can be more challenging than for colour films and there’s an astonishing level of skill on display. The script, while suitably dramatic, is laced with Whale’s mischievously black humour, razor-sharp wit and wonderful performances. The bride of Frankenstein herself (played by Elsa Lanchester, pulling double duty after also appearing as Mary Shelley) has a mere three minutes of screen time but the make-up, hair design and performance are so instantly iconic that she remains one of the most recognisable of Universal’s pantheon of fiends. The final lines of the movie, spoken by Karloff as the monster, are amongst my favourites of any movie and cement the reputation of James Whale’s final horror movie as the original sequel which was better than the original. Without a doubt, “Bride Of Frankenstein” is the pinnacle of Universal’s golden age of monster movies.