There are many discussions over what is the greatest sequel of all time: The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, The Godfather Part II, or any of the Toy Story sequels. But there is one movie that often gets forgotten in that discussion. And while it might not be the definitive greatest sequel of all time, it is certainly was the first great sequel…
The Bride of Frankenstein.
Many of the early Universal Monster movies have sequels to their credit, as each of their famous monsters crossed over into what could be considered the first-ever cinematic universe. Frankenstein itself has six sequels bearing the Frankenstein name (while also appearing in House of Dracula), but it wasn’t long after the original that Universal was considering its first sequel after preview screenings left audiences floored.
Universal kept trying to court the original director, James Whale, back into the project, especially after the success of Whale’s other horror film, The Invisible Man.
Whale came on board bringing the same creative team back from the first critically acclaimed outing a(with some casting changes) taking time to get the script right.
The Bride of Frankenstein picks up exactly where the film movie left off as Whale frames the film with a scene of a fictionalized version of the book’s author Mary Shelley.
Both Dr. Frankenstein and The Monster survived the events of the first film as the Monster goes on the run and Frankenstein attempts to recover from his injuries as a man named Doctor Pretorius enters Frankenstein’s life and wants to replicate his god-defining experiment.
Evil Dead Before Evil Dead
The Bride of Frankenstein brings everything back that works in the first movie while enriching the story. James Whale didn’t believe he could top the first movie and decided instead to go into a different direction with the sequel imbuing the film with camp energy.
In that approach, Whale finds a delicate balance of horror and comedy forcing you to think it is a precursor to what Sam Raimi would eventually do with his Evil Dead trilogy.
This movie is as hilarious as it is scary and atmospheric. Later, entries in the Universal catalog would become campy because they were relegated to the budgets and talents of B-level cinema.
Bride of Frankenstein‘s camp is created with intention and sincerity. It provides levity in the midst of the mood piece. Whale’s belief that he couldn’t top the original seemingly freed from the constants of trying to capture the horror of the first movie.
While there is still horror, Whale is able to carve out a sequel with an identity of its own (which is something many sequels today are still afraid to do).
Karloff and Thesiger
The film packs a lot within the short running time of 75 minutes. It manages to juggle multiple characters–old and new–and develop the main players quite nicely. Boris Karloff gives arguably his best performance as the Monster here, a performance that has great power and innocence.
Here, Whale develops the Monster with an ability to speak, which he uses to search for friendship. The violent actions do not come from ill-intent but from a reaction of the violence thrown toward him. At the end of Monster’s acceptance of death is a poignant one, especially considering he was born of death.
He isn’t the true monster in this movie and neither is Frankenstein (played wonderfully by Collin Clive). Whales cast Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius, the true monster of this movie, a more ruthless and devil-like version of Frankenstein.
A memorable villain, Thesiger plays him gleefully manipulative and with great humor, a man willing to threaten and kidnap to get what he wants in his pursuit of power and glory.
The idea of the monster in the movie with flesh and blood is something that filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro would frequently visit in his own horror movies and Whale, while still making Karloff’s Monster frightening, seems to always believe in him as a victim. He allowed him to turn our hatred not towards the Monster but towards the real monster, Doctor Pretorius.
The Depths of Horror
The whole movie is loaded with subtextual layering. The film was called blasphemous in its time in Frankenstein’s evocations to God and faced trouble with censorship for its violence (the film was even rejected from some European countries).
Some film scholars have noted the religious and Christian imagery throughout the film. Film scholar Scott MacQueen called the Monster a “mockery of the divine.” Whale frames him as an almost inverse of Christ. He is raised from the dead and then crucified for it, destined by his creator to be feared and hated.
In a brilliant stroke of casting Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue and The Monster’s Mate, the one who would reject the Monster.
What does this say about creation? Is the film saying that creation is a reflection of one’s self? How much of ourselves becomes apart of our creation? The novel is all about the idea of creation and the dangers of playing god (The subtitle of the novel is The Modern Prometheus).
The first movie does play into but doesn’t dive as deep as one would hope. Bride delves further into this idea asking large questions and leaving much up to interpretation.
In some ways, this question almost extends to Whale himself as many film scholars have attempted to put forth a Queer reading of the film in part of Whale’s sexuality. Although many of Whale’s friends railed against this reading of the film but this does present the idea that we are alive within our creations and maybe Whale himself imbued the film with parts of himself that he didn’t intend too? Placing Mary Shelley before the film’s opening allows us to ask, how much of Whale is in Bride?
We won’t know for sure but the film is open to a lot of interpretation because if art is an iceberg then Bride of Frankenstein has much ice hidden beneath the surface.
This movie brings it all–the horror, the comedy, the incredible set design and the wonderful cinematography from John J. Mescall, whose camera glides across the expressionistic set designs while his shadows elicit the horror and darker sides of us all (while Jack Pierce’s makeup designs take center stage again).
The Bride of Frankenstein does what the best sequels have done, enrich the characters, manage to be bold, and go in new directions and tell a story with as much, if not more, depth than the original. Whale might have believed he did everything he could with the idea in the first movie but he proved himself wrong. Bride of Frankenstein is a great film and the first great sequel in North American cinema.