Four years after Frankenstein was a runaway hit, Universal brought us the first major monster movie sequel. The Bride of Frankenstein is one of those rare sequels that’s better than its original (which was already damn good). It reunited Boris Karloff’s Creature with Colin Clive’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein under the skilled direction of James Whale. We also get a few new characters and some fascinating themes and motifs.
Gods and Devils
Of all the characters in The Bride of Frankenstein, the most monstrous is obvious: Dr. Pretorius. While Dr. Frankenstein regrets his past experiments, Pretorius revels in his. He delights in showing off his homunculi, explaining with glee the role he’s assigned to each. That he’s styled the one that resembles himself as the Devil is not the most subtle foreshadowing.
Indeed, for being a story of monsters and God-defying science, the movie is rife with Book of Genesis overtones. Pretorius delights in his role as serpent, luring Dr. Frankenstein back to the pursuit of forbidden knowledge and manipulating the Creature into demanding a companion from his Creator. The cost of disobeying God’s natural order (in the moral universe of the story) is disaster for all involved.
Nor is the movie subtle about that last part. In the first movie, Dr. Frankenstein exclaimed, “Now I know what it’s like to be God!” That line at least acknowledged a singular God. Pretorius takes the next step in Bride, toasting this “new world of gods and monsters.” Now that they can create life of their own, in other words, the world has more than one god. This heretical stance eventually earns Pretorius a fiery end, while the more reluctant Dr. Frankenstein escapes.
These plot choices were very likely shaped by Hollywood’s morally punctilious production standards of the time, which wouldn’t have allowed so flagrant a violation of society’s norms to go unpunished. Still, the use of Pretorius rather than Dr. Frankenstein as the vehicle for the worst offenses was a good choice, allowing Dr. Frankenstein to show some personal evolution from the previous film to this one. While by no means a fully good person, Dr. Frankenstein at least tries to learn some lessons from last time before being bullied into revisiting his work.
The Old Testament themes of the main story also allow the movie to get away with several small moments where explicitly Christian symbols do absolutely nothing to help anyone. A minor subversion, perhaps, but an interesting one nonetheless.
The Man-Made Woman
For a movie whose longest-lasting legacy is the striking visual of its eponymous character, The Bride of Frankenstein is a remarkably male film. Indeed, its core story is of a group of men creating a woman so that one of the men can be less lonely.
The movie’s depictions of women fall into a few categories:
- Victims (assorted peasants)
- Women who are condescended to or ignored by the men around them (Mary Shelley and Dr. Frankenstein’s wife, Elizabeth)
- Comic relief (Minnie)
- The Bride
Few of these women are taken seriously by the men around them (sometimes/often to the men’s detriment). The Bride herself is barely a character. She gets to live for only a few minutes, which is not even enough time to make sense of who she is or what is happening to her. She exemplifies the Woman as Goal trope. Instead of defeating Bowser like Mario or slaying a dragon like Prince Charming, the protagonists of the movie overcome natural order to receive their “prize.”
Pretorius, Dr. Frankenstein, and the Creature in this movie are prototypes for the sort of men who get together on the internet to gleefully anticipate the day when they won’t need to seek relationships with real women because artificial women will have become realistic enough. It’s a tried-and-true story, running from Pygmalion all the way through Ex Machina. Ultimately, this is the result of Pretorius’s manipulations. Without his influence, one can imagine Dr. Frankenstein settling into his new marriage and pursuing more wholesome endeavors while the Creature gradually improves his language and social skills if given the opportunity to do so (as he did in the original novel).
That, of course, would have been a less interesting movie. That the Bride’s story has been so rarely revisited or reinterpreted does create opportunities for contemporary filmmakers, although the track record of Universal’s Dark Universe movies so far does not offer much hope for the next official version of The Bride of Frankenstein. Still, it would be powerful to see what women could do with the story (or perhaps a subverted incarnation where women are creating a man or a woman is creating another woman). As it is, we do have Penny Dreadful’s distinctly Penny Dreadful take on the story. For those interested in short fiction, there are also some stories that tackle similar ideas in the anthology Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists!
A Man Scorned
The Bride’s immediate rejection of him is the last indignity for the Creature, who spends much of the original movie and this one being hated and feared. That he tends to kill people when angered is part of the reason others hate and fear him, but most of the deaths he causes are accidents or the result of him lashing out after having been hunted or tormented. This keeps him a sympathetic character, if still an occasionally monstrous one.
Perhaps the cruelest episode in the Creature’s life to date is the loss of the one true friend he is able to make in this movie, the hermit. When presented with kindness, patience, and acceptance, the Creature becomes quite sociable. He enjoys sharing food, wine, and cigars with his host, who is himself grateful for the companionship. It is only the intrusion of the villagers who are hunting the Creature (for a crime he did commit, to be fair) that disrupts this. (That the hermit’s gratitude to Jesus for the new friend is repaid with not just the loss that friend but the destruction of the hermit’s entire home is one of those moments where Jesus proves distinctly unhelpful.)
Given that his entire life, more or less, has been a constant string of rejections, it is no surprise that the Creature leaps at the chance to have a companion more like him. From his moment of self-reflection by a pool of water early in the film, it is clear that he knows he is different from other people. A desire for someone “like me” is one of the most human drives, and the Creature is very human in his own way.
The Creature’s fatal flaw (or nearly fatal, as we know he will return in future movies) is his lack of self-control. He is prone to massive overreaction and lack of patience, especially when excited. His moment of meeting the Bride is no doubt an exciting one, the culminating moment in his quest for friendship and acceptance. When the Bride initially displays the same rejection of him that everyone else has, that tendency to overreact manifests yet again. Rather than display the patience and acceptance he received from the hermit and would have appreciated from Dr. Frankenstein when first coming into the world, the Creature concludes instead that he will never attain his goal.
His destructive reaction again parallels some of the behavior seen from less mature men on the internet. Like a child who decides he can never win a game, he quits and throws the board over. In this case, the result is a bit more pyrotechnic, but it’s a difference of degree, not kind.
The Bride of Frankenstein is widely considered one of the best Universal monster movies for a reason. It has heart, multiple intersecting themes, interesting characters, a few laughs, a few chills, and some phenomenal production value. It continues Frankenstein’s legacy of presenting a complex “monster” surrounded by humans who are more monstrous. In doing so, it illustrates a particular strand of masculinity that views men as gods, women as objects, and social rejection as an existential threat to men’s psyches. Its use of music and a faster cutting style between shots make it more dynamic than its predecessors and the first of the iconic Universal monster movies that really feels like Hollywood style coming into its own.
And that vertical hair is pretty great, too.