“It’s a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters” – Elsa Lanchester, Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Before I started this blog, I put together a short list of horror films I knew I absolutely wanted to write about. Bride of Frankenstein by James Whale was one of the first added to that list. While intended as a follow-up to Frankenstein (1931) that also stars Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster, Bride contains enough unique substance to stand on its own.
The story begins in a castle on a stormy night. In company are Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), her husband Percy Shelley (also a writer), and poet Lord Byron. To make the evening more interesting, Lord Byron proposes they each share a frightening story. Following the impact of her novel, Frankenstein, Mary uses the opportunity to share what happens next. She begins her story where Frankenstein (the 1931 movie) left off. She reveals that both Henry (not Victor) Frankenstein and the Monster survived the burning windmill. While Henry (Colin Clive) recovers with his fiancée, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) by his side, he is visited by a strange newcomer.
Henry gets to know the work of the man who visits, Doctor Pretorius. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) creates “homunculi” (small, living human figures) from single cells. Pretorius proposes that Henry and he combine their skills and imagination to create a female version of the Monster in an effort to start a man-made human race. Pretorius plans to grow a perfect brain if Henry will complete the body. Meanwhile, the Monster faces a series of violent encounters with the villagers who want to get rid of him. After being forced from the one true friend he has ever had, the Monster meets Doctor Pretorius and learns about the plan to create a female. Now in alliance with Pretorius, the Monster forces Henry to rejoin the project by kidnapping Elizabeth. Through long hours of work and high anxiety from the Monster’s impatience, the doctors achieve their goal. Once the Bride meets the Monster, however, the plan rapidly falls apart.
Bride of Frankenstein is a horror film unlike any other. This film embodies fantasy, humor, humanity, and terror in a blend of dreamlike and nightmarish sequences. In the fashion of Mary Shelley continuing Frankenstein herself, this film appealed to audiences with its allegorical punishment of people who attempt divine creation. It may not have the same effect today, but the emotional terror of the Frankenstein legend will never fade away. In the case of Bride of Frankenstein, deep-rooted horror tropes combined with haunting music and captivating imagery take this viewing experience beyond a casual midnight movie.
The Bride is only on screen for a few minutes at the end of the movie. Despite this brevity, she is one of the most iconic figures in horror film history. Elsa Lanchester’s performance as both the Bride and Mary Shelley (to whom horror and science fiction owe pretty much everything, just saying) took me by surprise the first time I noticed the casting, and I know I am not alone. Any time you see that iconic “electrified” hair portrayed somewhere, please appreciate all that it represents for the legacy of women in horror.
Until next time,