If you saw Bride of Frankenstein (1935) as a kid on the Saturday afternoon TV matinee, you probably have fond memories of it as a fun and scary way to spend an hour and a half. If you saw it as an adult, especially one who appreciates the artistry of fine film making, you recognize it as a masterpiece of classic cinema.
The first of multiple sequels, spin-offs and remakes of 1931's Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein is a cornerstone of the American horror genre. Considered by many to be a superior film to the original, it is one of few in cinema history with that distinction. The film's director James Whale, also directed its predecessor, making him immortal in the monster movie world. Discussions for a sequel to Frankenstein began as early as 1931 when the original was released but securing Whale as director and developing a suitable script took several years.
The story begins with a prelude presenting the novel's authoress, Mary Shelley, recounting to Lord Byron and her husband Percy Shelley, the continuation of macabre prose, on a stormy night in pre-Victorian England. The tale then picks up where Frankenstein left off with the Monster supposedly burned in an old windmill. The film continues on to display a series of memorable vignettes that have defined the Frankenstein legend, including the Monster's meeting with a blind, kind-hearted hermit who teaches him to speak a limited vocabulary. The culmination of course is the creation of the Monster's mate, with all the bells and whistles that were missing from the original (the financial success of Frankenstein made more opulent production values possible for its sequel).
Playing dual roles as both Mary Shelley in the film's prelude, and the Monster's bride is the ever delightful Elsa Lanchester. With her lightning bolt bouffant, wide eyes and long flowing gown, her bride has become an iconic movie image and a favorite at many a festive Halloween party. Though credited for her efforts as Mary Shelley, Lanchester goes unbilled for her ghoulish role. The actress portraying the Bride is merely listed with a question mark on the cast of characters. Along with Lanchester's Bride, Ernest Thesiger creates one of the horror genres most enduring characters, Dr. Septimus Pretorius, the mad scientist/physician who tries to entice Henry Frankenstein to continue his human experiments and create a mate for his monster. Thesiger fills the movie with dry wit and a flamboyant performance. His Pretorius is over the top as he displays his tiny human Henry VIII under glass grown from cultures and drinking a cocktail with the Monster among the graves in the catacombs. Dark, sly humor actually plays a large part in the film, unlike the straightforward horror and play-it-for-screams strategy of the original. And of course Colin Clive and Boris Karloff (billed merely as Karloff) reprise their infamous roles as Baron Frankenstein and his Monster.
Universal pulled out all the stops for the production. Whale, influenced by German Expressionism, molded a highly stylized work with lavish art deco sets (the interior ceilings seem to go to the moon) with the help of art director Charles D. Hall. Make up artist Jack Pierce created the images forever associated with the characters in question. The haunting atmosphere was further elevated with John Mescall's cinematography. His close ups of local peasantry particularly give an eerily chilling effect. (Una O'Connor's Minnie the maid is a hoot. Who knew an Irish brogue would fit so well in rural Bavaria). Not to be forgotten is Franz Waxman's powerful score.
Many successors to this film would be produced, the next being Son of Frankenstein (1939) with Basil Rathbone as a somewhat sturdier Dr. Frankenstein, but none would match it in style and panache. Thanks to the gifted direction of James Whale, it is a truly mezmorizing film.