(Another in the ongoing series looking at the individual movies that make up The SLIFR 100.)
James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein is just about everything that the endless parade of sequels to the iconic Universal horror films of the ‘30s and ‘40s were inevitably not. It remains true to the moorings of old dark houses and Promethean unease provided by Mary Shelley herself, seen in an opening cameo played by Elsa Lanchester, who will reappear rather famously later on in the film. In fact, those old dark houses, and moss-covered crypts, and shadowy laboratories, have a primal visual weight and power provided by director Whale, whose ability to imbue that imagery with the elements of his own sardonic personality masterfully balanced heightened black comedy with an overall tone of moral transgression that conveys with utter conviction the insistent chill of the dead. Where subsequent Universal sequels like House of Dracula and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman were often just simple, satisfying retreads or smorgasbords of creatures jammed to the creaking rafters of the old castle, monster mashes with little rationale beyond Saturday matinee spectacle, The Bride of Frankenstein dares to invest real emotional power in the continuation of its story of a scientist flirting with supplanting God (and the inevitable madness that comes packaged with such arrogance) and the creature he unleashes, who turns out to be far more articulate in his needs and wants, and his desire to understand the precarious landscape of existence which he occupies.
The Monster, in the previous 1931 film, was certainly a figure of sympathy, but had to be ultimately understood as one ruled by the murderous impulses that coursed through his stitched-together frame at the command of a brain which offers him no comfort or coherent way to process the humanity that surrounds him, that runs in fear from him. (And the one who doesn’t run in fear, the little girl at the well, is dealt a most horrendous fate.) But in Bride, the rage inside the Monster’s brain abates long enough to establish tentative relationships with people he encounters while loose from Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments—mostly tenderly with the blind man in the woods (an encounter leavened by Whale’s sardonic pranksterism at the expense of the old man’s religiosity), and most treacherously with Dr. Praetorius (the eager and funny Ernest Thesiger), who manipulates the creature by promising to give him a bride, and uses the creature’s newly inspired visions of companionship to strong-arm Frankenstein (Colin Clive) into helping Praetorius deliver on his promise.
When Lanchester finally reappears in the laboratory as the Bride, bolts of white lightning streaking through her molded woolen hive of hair, eyes ablaze with unfathomable anger, delivering a hiss that could shatter laboratory glass, and will shatter at least one heart, the movie adds to the already powerful reserve of empathy for the Creature, who cannot fathom why he may not have someone like himself to spend his new life with. For this is, unfortunately, too much to ask. Holding his arms out to his potential mate, muttering his plea for understanding (“Woman… friend?”), the Creature becomes a crushing spectacle of rejection, one undoubtedly understood by the thousands of fumbling young boys of my generation who grew up absorbing every frame of this masterpiece under the guidance of Forrest J. Ackerman and Famous Monsters of Filmland. The pain of the Creature, which causes him to literally bring down the house on this ghastly parody of the marriage ceremony, is never, in all of the Universal monster cycle, more instantly, justifiably accessible than at this moment. The Bride of Frankenstein ends on a note of both triumph and despair—the Creature accepts his fate of loneliness, but forces Praetorius and the Bride to experience it with him. “We belong dead!” he growls as he pulls the switch that brings the laboratory to crumbled ruin. The movie, of course, insists on giving Frankenstein and his bride the final shot—embracing, saved from death, superficially triumphant over their circumstances, but also primed for a lifetime of anguish and, in later films, generations of descendants who will insist on retracing the blasphemous steps of their ancestor. Frankenstein would go on to create new life in subsequent Universal sequels, but director Whale, in congress with Karloff’s brilliant portrayal, would assure that their achievement in The Bride of Frankenstein, a masterful blend of supreme emotional resonance and mordant wit, truly bringing life to the dead, would never be equaled.