Need a quick pandemic break? It’s time to return to our Year of Monsters! Today we’ll be following up Frankenstein with, appropriately enough, Bride of Frankenstein, and unlike its predecessor, I’d never seen this one before.
And while I don’t know exactly what I expected from this movie, holy shit, it wasn’t this.
Director: James Whale
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
When I watched Frankenstein two weeks ago, I noted that Mary Shelley had been referred to as “Mrs. Percy B Shelley” in the opening credits. Quite naturally, I shook my fist at the television screen and expected to do so again when I watched Bride of Frankenstein. However, Bride surprised me here because not only is the author credited under her own name, she’s portrayed in the fucking prologue. Yes. Mary Shelley (Ella Lanchester) reveals the “true” ending of her tale to Mr. Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as his buddy, Lord Byron.
Some notes on this weird ass prologue:
A. Lord Byron’s accent is definitely something. I have to assume the American Gavin Gordon is going for English here, considering Byron was English, but dude’s rolling his R’s like he’s Patrick Stewart parodying Sean Connery while playing King Richard in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. English accents are by no means my area of expertise, but the authenticity feels a little lacking.
B. Lord Byron is bewildered by how a pretty little thing like Mary (who’s afraid of thunderstorms and darkness and blood) could write such a frightening story. At first, Mary is surprisingly matter-of-fact about writing monster stories, but then quickly complains that the publishers didn’t understand that her purpose was to write a “moral lesson,” where men are justly punished for playing God. It has, admittedly, been some time since I read the novel, but I’m reasonably certain that such a lesson skews closer to the moral of the 1931 movie than the actual book. But hey, that’s the beauty of literary analysis: multiple interpretations exist! At least no one says that Mary Shelley’s husband secretly wrote the book, a conspiracy theory I’ve come up against more than once on the internet.
C. It’s hilarious to watch Byron recounting events from the novel (that is, straight up clips from Frankenstein) when they never actually happened in the book.
One thing I did enjoy about Bride of Frankenstein, specifically, is how James Whale course-corrected, or at least addressed, numerous things that I discussed in my review of the first film. For instance, Whale entirely cuts both Baron Frankenstein and Victor the Worthless, presumably recognizing that neither character actually adds anything to the plot whatsoever. Maria’s father is also summarily killed off, which I’m perfectly fine with because I stand by my assessment that he’s a garbage parent. (Maria’s mom, however, deserves justice. What did she do to deserve death? She didn’t even exist in the last movie!)
Also, Elizabeth is still randomly, inexplicably psychic! This time around, Elizabeth’s mighty powers of Psychic Foreshadow lead her to predict that death is coming–and who should appear but Dr. Pretorius, Henry’s previously unmentioned old mentor and evil Jiminy Cricket. (We’ll come back to him shortly.) Sadly, Elizabeth is still basically useless as a character. The part was also recast; bafflingly, nobody bothered to throw a blonde wig on the brunette Valerie Hobson. Since Bride of Frankenstein picks up basically where the last one left off, the change is incredibly stark. The recast itself, sadly, is pretty depressing because while Hobson is fine in the part, Mae Clarke, the original Elizabeth, apparently couldn’t get any more lead roles after 1933 because she’d been in a car accident that left her with a broken jaw and some facial scarring. Sometimes, Hollywood just sucks.
Here is another choice I found incredibly baffling: the goddamn homunculi.
Look, I kinda hate admitting when I don’t know certain things, like, confessing I don’t know basic ass math shit doesn’t really bother me because “math anxiety” has been a part of my identity since I was eight; I had a teacher comment on it on my report card, for fuck’s sake. But vocabulary and literature, you know, those are supposed to be things I’m good at. So, it is with some shame that I must admit to you now that, prior to some intense Googling last week, I was unfamiliar with the concept of the “homunculus” and was wildly unprepared to see an evil mad scientist bust out out a handful of Lilliputians. (See! I know literary references! I absolutely read maybe half that book!) Especially since one of the tiny imprisoned people is a mermaid? And another is a devil? Seriously, even armed with my Wikipedia research findings, this is some weird ass shit, particularly because these miniature people could easily be cut out of the film without fundamentally changing the plot in the slightest.
One of the reasons I’m so bemused by Bride of Frankenstein, I think, is because my Writer Brain and Audience Brain are having wildly different reactions to it. Writer Brain, for instance, feels rather strongly that tiny imprisoned mermaids should probably not be included in a story if they don’t, you know, do something plot-relevant. Likewise, I think Bride of Frankenstein would be a much tighter story if you wrote out Pretorius altogether. Instead, the Monster–now possessing a rudimentary vocabulary in which to express himself–kidnaps Elizabeth and demands that Henry make him an undead companion to pal around with. You know. Close to how it happens in the novel. And learning from past mistakes, Henry can either a) try to grow an artificial brain himself, or b) just steal a better one this time. Hell, perfecting the process could actually be part of the movie.
But Audience Brain kinda loves Dr. Septimus Pretorius, and not just because of that gloriously villainous name, either. Pretorius is campy AF, like, he sits down to a nice meal in the crypt, laughing fiendishly to himself, because sure, why wouldn’t he? His table is a closed coffin, complete with candles, a bottle of wine, and a human skull placed on top of a pile of bones. The skull, mind you, wasn’t there in the previous scene. Pretorious literally added it like a goddamn table decoration. For ambiance. Moments like these are so gloriously WTF that I found Bride of Frankenstein pretty entertaining, certainly more than its predecessor. It helps, too, that the Bride herself is fucking iconic, especially considering she has all of three minutes of screen time and no dialogue of any kind. Like, I’m all about the hissing and weird noises she makes, and of course, the hair, the hair. If I ever actually get married? This is the hair I want. (Though I was incredibly amused that all that hair supposedly fits under her mummy-wrapping. Like, no.)
More importantly, though, can we talk about how the Monster totally murders his Bride because she’s just not that into him?
Like, it’s not that I don’t feel for the dude. Everyone the Monster meets instantly rejects him, including his creator. The only person who ever accepts him is the old blind hermit in the woods, and even that guy leaves. (Not by choice; he’s “rescued” by other people.) The Bride is the only person in the whole world who’s supposed to “get him”–and even she’s horrified by the Monster. It is genuinely sad.
That being said.
Remember how everyone decided that the Monster deserved to die about three minutes after bringing him to life, all because he got pissed off when Fritz attacked him with a torch? This is like the romantic equivalent of that. The Monster approaches the Bride; she screams and hurries away. Refusing to give her any space, he sits next to her and creepily strokes her hand. Again, she screams and runs off, which, frankly, deeply relatable content. And . . . that’s it. That’s all it takes for the Monster to decide that not only is he better off dead, Pretorius and the Bride are, too. The Monster literally blows them all up because a woman who’s been alive for less than five minutes wasn’t into his weird hand-fondling. (Henry Frankenstein gets to live, though, presumably because he and Elizabeth love each other, which proves their lives are, IDK, worth something? This is such typical alloromantic nonsense.) Like “we belong dead” is a nice line and all, but IDK, maybe we should hear from the Bride first before we murder her for her own good?
To recap: the Bride is an iconic AF woman who doesn’t get anywhere near the screen time that her male counterpart gets, despite the movie literally being titled Bride of Frankenstein, and is quickly murdered for rejecting a dude’s romantic advances.
Jesus. This movie’s not only more WTF than I expected, it’s also way more topical.
1. Apparently, Pretorius is widely considered to be a queer-coded villain, something that I can see upon rewatching but didn’t really occur to me on the first viewing. I can be remarkably bad about picking up subtext sometimes, though, whether it’s hetero or queer.
2. I did, however, pick up on the Christian imagery in Bride of Frankenstein because holy shit, there is a BUNCH of it. There are crosses everywhere. One of them glows at the end of a scene, for fuck’s sake. Also? The Monster gets put on a cross at one point. It’s not exactly the height of subtlety.
3. I genuinely like that the Monster learns to talk in this movie. I mean, he doesn’t quite master the vocabulary and syntax that he reaches in the novel–
“I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me?”
–but even a few words gives Karloff a little more to work with, and that’s a great thing. Not to mention, it cuts down on that weird not-quite-growl thing the Monster does whenever he’s frustrated. Which is good because wow, I cannot take that shit seriously at all.
4. I feel bad for the blind hermit dude in the woods, I really do, but also . . . who exactly does he think just wandered into his cabin? Mistaking the Monster for a mute man who’s never been resurrected by lightning is totally understandable, but then the guy just starts teaching the Monster what bread and wine are, and I’m all, wait, why are you so chill about this? Do you not think it’s a little strange that you have to teach a grown man what bread is?
It should also be said that the hermit is a nicotine pusher, and watching Frankenstein smoke a cigar for the first time is hysterical.
5. Alas, Una O’Connor, last seen in The Invisible Man, plays the comic relief in this film, too. And it’s not that she’s terrible, exactly, just that running around screaming appears to be her shtick, and it’s . . . it’s a lot.
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