The Monster (Boris Karloff), having survived the fire at the mill, wanders the nearby forest, hunted by villagers, until he meets a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), who treats him well and teaches him to speak. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) also survived the fire, but weakened, and is being nursed back to health, both physically and mentally, by Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). His recovery is interrupted by Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who has had his own successes in creating life, and pressures Henry into working with him on a Bride (Elsa Lanchester) for the Monster.
Is Bride of Frankenstein the greatest horror movie ever made? No other film has a better claim to the title. It takes what was good in Frankenstein, and improves most every element as director James Whale was given complete freedom and he spread his wings (well, freedom except for the censors). If the first existed in a German expressionistic fantasy, now we’re in a twisted fun-house of telephone pole forests, labyrinthine cemeteries, and echoing halls. It’s beautiful and captivating. If before Karloff gave an award-worthy, sympathetic, pantomime performance, here he give an award-worthy performance, with speech, and it will tear your heart out. The old cast was good; the new cast is better (even when we have a repeat actor, as in the case of Dwight Frye who is playing a different sadistic assistant). Valerie Hobson is an Elizabeth I can care about, though Thesiger is the best addition. He dominates scenes even when he’s with the monster. His wickedly humorous Doctor Pretorius slides the film into dark comedy. And of course, there’s Lanchester, as both the Bride, and as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly.
Bride of Frankenstein begins with a prologue intended to calm censors and churches, with Mary Shelley spending an evening indoors with her husband and Lord Byron. She claims that her tale is “a moral lesson and the punishments that befell a mortal man that dared to emulate God.” Lanchester says this with a glint in her eye that makes it clear she has other ideas: darker, sexier, and more fun. The censors insisted that her lines suggesting that they were sexually a threesome (or more) and that they cared nothing for traditional rules of marriage be chopped, but Lanchester manages to get the idea across.
Is the rest of the movie a moral lesson? Well, not that moral. The Monster is shown even more sympathetically than in the first film, being compared to Christ. As for punishment, Henry, who is addicted to acting as a god, goes on to a happy life. It is the Monster who suffers. It’s always those society brands as monsters who suffer, and they deserve better.
However, there’s absolutely a lesson in Bride of Frankenstein. There’s so much going on that there are a string of them. Books have been written on the different meanings that can be taken from the film, and to some extent, most of them are true. Is it a comment on male jealousy of the act of creation (call it vagina envy)? Sure. It is a gay metaphor? Sure. Is it a criticism of organized religion, and perhaps faith generally? Sure. It is an examination of social class? Sure. And much more.
It’s topped off with a memorable score by Franz Waxman’s, a stirring and emotional work that gives each major character their own musical theme.
Bride of Frankenstein is exhilarating, thoughtful, haunting, and funny. It welcomes us all into a new world of gods and monsters.
The other six films in the series are are Frankenstein (1931), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943), and House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945).