The Bride of Frankenstein begins like Army of Darkness: with a slightly incorrect recollection of past events, dismissing how the previous film ended. Elsa Lanchester, who plays Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, insists that what happened in the first film is only half of the story. This sequel works because it really does feel like there’s more to be told. There’s a lot more crammed into the sequel and in about the same amount of time, which makes for a quicker pace and a great music score that’s adjusted appropriately.
We last saw Dr. Henry Frankenstein in the 1931 version, he was thrown from the windmill where the villagers burned the monster alive. The studio heads didn’t like that the hero died and forced director James Whale to tack on an ending in which we see the scientist recuperating in bed with his faithful wife-to-be at his side. The scene was shot from afar because actor Colin Clive wasn’t available for the re-shoot.
This time, Whale ignores the happy ending (“What a terrible wedding night!”) and picks up shortly after the windmill burns to the ground. The villagers are satisfied with their impromptu execution and return home. The one villager who isn’t satisfied, whose little girl Maria was accidentally killed by the monster in the first movie, crawls into the smoldering wreckage and discovers the monster survived.
This movie is big on memorable entrances. The first time we see Frankenstein’s monster again, he’s waist deep in murky water and creeps out of the shadows to promptly kill Maria’s father. The first time we see Dr. Pretorius, he enters the Frankenstein estate casting shadows even larger than the monster. The first time we see the monster’s bride, the movie homages its predecessor.
Like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the sequel’s tone is more fun and playful, which makes everything gleefully morbid when the required grave robbing and “playing God” begins. Una O’Connor joins the cast and there couldn’t have been a better addition to let us know we were in for a lot of humor this time around, even though the body count is higher before half of the movie is over.
Dr. Frankenstein is slowly rehabilitating from insanity and wants to get on with his life and the marriage his obsessions nearly ruined. As it is with recovering alcoholics, it’s hard to succeed when you hang around old friends who refuse to sober. Enter Ernest Thesiger as rival colleague Dr. Pretorius. We don’t need O’Connor’s humorous reaction to the stranger to know that with a name like Pretorius, he’s not bringing good luck.
Pretorius has been somewhat successful in experiments similar to Dr. Frankenstein’s, but he recognizes that both of them can benefit if they team up. Dr. Frankenstein is reluctant, but you know that before the movie’s over, he’s going to be screaming in a lab full of devices that pointlessly buzz and throws sparks. By the way, whose idea was it to install a switch that would blow the entire tower up when thrown?
Although Dr. Frankenstein is my favorite character, the best scene, of course, is when the monster befriends a lonely old blind man and tears up a little. The blind man graciously teaches the monster how to speak and tries to explain the concept of good and bad. The monster repeats the words like a parrot, but doesn’t realize an understanding of the definitions until the explosive final scene in the movie. And when that happens, boy is it a revelation.
Karloff was upset that the script called for the monster to speak. He was wrong.
The first movie was about the birth of the monster. This one might be about how he grows up. We watch as he learns to speak, makes a friend that he doesn’t kill, and begins to distinguish between right and wrong. We’ll also follow him into what amounts to his teenage years when he has to deal with courting a woman and the ensuing rejection.
Like everything else, even the special effects are upped. I thought I’d figured out how they shot the scene in which Dr. Pretorius reveals the miniature humans he created in test tubes. Just when I was sure it was done using forced perspective techniques, the camera angle goes wide and flushes my theory right down the drain. However they did it, I’ve seen worse composite effects in recent blockbusters.
It all builds up to the climactic introduction of the monster’s bride. That term proves to be unfitting. I don’t want to spoil it too much in case you’ve been living under a rock, but I have to say I’ve never seen a hotter dead chick. Few movies build as much suspense, fewer movies deliver.
This is James Whale’s final horror picture. He says goodbye to the genre with a bang.