Synopsis: On a dark and stormy night, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley beg Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) to continue her story of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his Monster (Boris Karloff). Picking up where she left off, Shelley reveals that neither the doctor nor his abominable creation died at the hands of angry villagers, but in fact both survived the windmill blaze that was intended to signal their doom. Frankenstein is brought back to his bride Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) and vows to cease all efforts to create life, except within the more traditional bounds of marriage. However, he is quickly tempted back into his old diabolical ways by the charismatic Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who proposes an even deadlier plan: to create a female version of the Monster, with the hopes that their two unnatural offspring will procreate, spawning “a new world of gods and monsters.”
James Whale‘s sequel to 1931’s Frankenstein is oft noted for its camp sensibility and homosexual undertones, although it is fervently denied by many who personally knew the openly-gay director that these motifs were intentional. It doesn’t matter whether Whale intended his film to act as a sly commentary on sexual mores or not; films are living, breathing beings, which are open to an infinite number of interpretations depending on when and where the movie is seen as well as the lived experiences of those seeing it. Like the Monster itself, Bride of Frankenstein is its own entity which was out of Whale’s control as soon as the chains were off. The entire field of film theory would be obsolete if each movie had one correct reading and one only. I say, if it makes the film more entertaining for you to construe queer undertones, go for it. As for me, it always does.
That being said, there are some truly delicious moments of camp here. Although the prologue is very brief, Gavin Gordon as Lord Byron clearly had a lot of fun in his role. But it’s Dr. Pretorius who really pulls out all the stops and is the character that has most grabbed history’s attention. Thesiger truly relishes his diabolical role, and it’s obvious. Whether he’s dining with skulls in a crypt or begging Dr. Frankenstein to “reconsider” his plans to marry Elizabeth, Pretorius is a joy to watch from beginning to end. The moments of over-the-top creepy silliness (and even outright humor) are tempered by stretches of action and even some of extreme poignancy, most notably the famous sequence in which the Monster meets and befriends a blind hermit. All throughout, the cinematography is truly eye-catching and beautiful, a testament to Whale’s ability to grab the viewer’s attention and never let go.
However, I expected to like this film a lot more than I actually did. When Whale resorted to standard horror fare, I just found myself bored and wondering when the Bride would be revealed. Then again, this film really set the standard for that horror fare, so maybe it isn’t quite just to criticize it for being cliché. After all, it’s not the movie’s fault if every other horror film afterward copied from it. Still, I have to consider the film in the context of my own experiences, and I can’t deny that I was disappointed. A beautiful movie, for sure, and worth watching without a doubt. It’s just a shame that Bride of Frankenstein was spoiled for me by all the copycats that came after.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – 3.5/5 stars