1935 – Starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Clive Collin, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Una O’Connor – Directed by James Whale – Screenplay by William Hurlbut, adapted from the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I feel this requires some explanation. I am not, even with the most generous definition, a horror fan. The closest I’ve ever come to the genre is Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man and Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. However, I am a fan of Elsa Lanchester and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to see at least one classic horror film, on the understanding that a 1935 horror film was not the same as a 2014 horror film.
And it’s certainly not like anything I’ve ever seen before. It wasn’t scary or horrifying – though I probably would have been scared as a child. It has been described as campy, as possessing sly humor; one commentator from a documentary on the DVD called the performances operatic, which is to say, grand, sweeping, expressing heightened and stylized emotions. It is atmospheric and I will admit that it is startling the poignancy and feeling Karloff gets out of his character.
The Bride of Frankenstein is the sequel to the unexpectedly massive hit in 1931 of Frankenstein that made Boris Karloff such a great star. He was billed in The Bride of Frankenstein not as Boris Karloff, but simply as Karloff.
The film begins with Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley in a castle in Italy, where there is a fearsome story blowing outside. Lord Byron is gushing about how marvelously horrible Mary’s book was – which is also a nice opportunity for some flashbacks to what happened in the original 1931 Frankenstein movie. Looking rather evil herself, Mary says that the story is not finished.
The scene shifts to just after the big fire that ended the first movie, which supposedly killed the monster (and Dr. Frankenstein apparently fell off a windmill to his death). The villagers are all standing around the charred remains of the mill and exulting that the monster is dead…except that he’s not (and neither is Frankenstein).
Right off the bat we meet Una O’Connor, who does a marvelous turn as a slightly hysterical and somewhat bloodthirsty maid to Frankenstein’s fiance, Elizabeth. When the monster drags himself out of the burning wreckage, he kills two peasants, but when he runs into Una O’Connor her reaction is so oddball funny that he just stands there as if even he doesn’t know quite what to make of it.
Soon, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, unforgettable in his role) arrives at Dr. Frankenstein’s door, with suitably creepy music. He’s the kind of character that gives eccentrics a bad name. He wants Frankenstein to return to the quest to create life. Pretorius has succeeded in making very small (several inches tall) humans with good brains, while Frankenstein has succeeded in making full sized human without good brains.
Frankenstein says no, but Pretorius has the monster kidnap his fiance, forcing Frankenstein to collaborate with him in trying to create a woman for the monster, who just wants a friend and is getting rather tired of having people react to him in abject fear and horror.
There is a very famous scene where the monster meets a blind hermit who is longing for a friend as much as the monster is and he teaches him how to speak a little (unlike in the book, in the first movie the monster does not speak). However, when several other people come upon the hermit and the monster, they try to kill the monster and take the hermit away for his own safety, so they think. It is after this that the monster runs into Pretorius, who promises him a friend.
I was amazed at how seriously this movies is taken by commentators and critics: the lighting, symbolism, acting, even the makeup. It is what I would consider iconic.It is rather well done, one of those rare sequels that is supposed to surpass the original. The theme is otherness. The monster is other, outside of everyone else and to a certain extent so is Dr. Pretorius and Frankenstein. It’s about loneliness, mad ambition and the desire to create just as God did. The religious symbolism is thick, which some people think makes the monster a Christ figure, but most people agree that since the monster is man made, the symbolism is more ironic.
On a less philosophic level, the music near the end, when Pretorius and Frankenstein are about to bring the bride to life using the energy of the thunder storm is quite something and the electronic dissonance created by all their equipment gives the music a very contemporary, heavy metal kind of sound.
I would like to know what a cosmic diffuser is, though. It appears to be something Frankenstein uses to diffuse energy into the dead body, but it sounds more like the brand name of a hair dryer.
Spoiler! In the end, the irony is that even the bride who is created does not care for the monster. She is confused and not aware that she is supposed to be a monster created for the other monster and she reacts with fear. The monster, who all along has felt he should never have existed, kills himself and Pretorius – who he recognizes as rather evil – and the bride, but allows Frankenstein and his fiance to escape.
There is some debate about what time period this movie is actually supposed to set in. The book was published in 1823. The film is a blend of the early 1800s with the contemporary 1930s. Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth looks very 1930s, with her clothes and hair. There is even a telephone device invented by Pretorius. But the village looks like the early 1800s. According to the director, it was his intention to create a world that encompassed both times.
In the credits for the original Frankenstein in 1931, there was a cast list with the corresponding characters they played. At the bottom, it just read “Monster – ?” Since everyone now knew who played the monster in the sequel, the film was advertised as Karloff the Uncanny (also billed that way in the 1932 The Mummy) returning as Frankenstein’s monster. However, the bride was kept a mystery. It read “monster’s bride -?” She was, of course, played by Elsa Lanchester, who also played Mary Shelley in the prologue to the film. I was a little surprised at how a short a time the bride is actually in the film, but she certainly makes a splash.
I can see why people speak about the make-up artist Jack Pierce. One usually doesn’t hear much about make-up artists. He had as much to do with the look of the film and creation of the characters as the cinematographer or director or composer.
Turner Classic Movie has many essays on the film, which contain more analysis of the meaning of the film and trivia about the making of it and those people involved.