Many people consider Universal's Bride of Frankenstein (1935) to be the greatest horror movie ever made. I'm not one of those people. That's not to say it's not a classic; it definitely is. And while the finale is a tour de force for director James Whale, I don't care much for earlier parts of the movie. In these parts, the subject matter leans heavily toward the magical or mystical rather than the scientific horror of creating human life.
If you think about it, it's not that much of a fantasy to believe Henry Frankenstein could reanimate a man stitched together from parts of dead bodies. All it takes is a jolt of electricity strong enough to jump-start him. That's science. But it's harder to fathom Dr. Pretorius growing a race of miniature people from seeds. They also have tiny thrones and ballerina costumes. I'm not sure what that is... magic?
Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) is a former colleague of Frankenstein's (Colin Clive) who appears at his sick bed following the events of Frankenstein (1931). He has ideas of his own about probing the mysteries of life and death, but needs Frankenstein's help to proceed. Specifically, he wants to create a female companion for The Monster (Boris Karloff). Frankenstein is reluctant at first; however, when Pretorius and The Monster join forces, they blackmail him to participate.
While Frankenstein recovers from being tossed from a burning windmill, The Monster has escaped a fiery death and roams the countryside. It doesn't take long for a mob to assemble and they actually capture him for a brief period of time until he also escapes their chains. Again wandering on his own, he encounters a blind hermit for what may be the most iconic scene in Frankenstein history.
"I cannot see and you cannot speak," the hermit (O.P. Heggie) says, and when The Monster realizes someone accepts him for what he is, he sheds a single tear. He's soon speaking, albeit in one-word expressions: bread, drink, smoke, friend = good; alone = bad. Wood? Wood = fire, which sends The Monster on the run again. Hiding in a cemetery tomb, he meets Pretorius, who shares his plan. Soon, The Monster has two new words: "Woman. Wife."
In subsequent versions of the story, the character of Pretorius doesn't exist. The fact that he's here makes me wonder if it doesn't lessen the impact of the purpose for creating a mate for The Monster in the first place. The Monster is basically a pawn for Pretorius's mad idea, instead of the driving force for his own wishes. Also, holding Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) hostage doesn't set the stakes high enough when Frankenstein was originally so unconcerned about her.
In other words, it's all a little contrived. However, it gets us to that finale, which is spectacular! During the creation, the camera angles tilt, the edits speed up, the close-ups of Frankenstein and Pretorius increase. It's very exciting, intense and suspenseful. Then there's the reveal: "The bride of Frankenstein," as bells chime on the soundtrack. In what is perhaps the second most iconic scene in Frankenstein history, she rejects her mate.
"She hate me. Like others," The Monster realizes, while stumbling dangerously close to laboratory controls. “Get away from that lever, you’ll blow us to atoms!” cries Pretorius. In the final moments, The Monster is in control, determining who deserves redemption and who does not, who lives and who dies. At the end of two movies, it seems The Monster has become the most human of them all.
Written by William Hurlbut
Directed by James Whale
Starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Elas Lanchester
US Release May 19, 1935
RT 75 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Video