There was a time when Universal held the monopoly on horror film. The Universal cycle of monster films is possibly the most influential in all off horror and easily one of the most iconoclastic in the whole of cinema.
Striding comfortably ahead of the rest of this pack that consists of groundbreaking films such as Tod Browning’s Dracula and Karl Freund’s The Mummy, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein is perhaps the greatest of horror film to come out of classic Hollywood. There’s something so irresistibly witty about Whale’s films in general that make them such good company on dark, winter nights. Though his first take on Frankenstein enshrined Boris Karloff into the cinematic canon permanently, it’s his 1935 sequel that showcases all of Whale’s wonderfully subversive and quintessentially British qualities.
Initially opening with Lord Byron begging Mary Shelley to continue with her now finished story of Frankenstein and his monster, the film opens roughly where the previous instalment left off with Frankenstein’s castle destroyed and the monster presumed dead. What follows is a gripping and fun tale of the monster on the run from the public mob which is desperate to see him killed. Though there are obvious elements of pure entertainment in the film, Whale mixes his keen eye for visuals with some extremely stark and subversive imagery.
When the villagers tie the monster up and prepare him to be burned, the imagery is almost blasphemous in its relation to Jesus’ crucifixion. The obvious hinting at xenophobia present in the first film is amplified here too with Frankenstein’s monster making its only real friend in the form of a blind musician, who is blissfully unaware of his guest’s looks.
If all this political and religious allegory is sounding a tad heavy, it must be stated that there is a huge dose of camp humour riddled into the film. Specifically in the form of Dr Pretorius played by the magnificently hammy Ernest Thesiger who steals every scene he graces as the creator of the monster’s bride.
Whether it’s his marvellous introduction and scheming with Frankenstein to his wonderfully camp flourish as he announces “The Bride of Frankenstein” as his womanly creation comes to life, he brings a healthy sense of fun to this story filled with discourse about xenophobia, racism and misogyny. The monster’s wife (played by English actress Elsa Lanchester) is another highlight of the film, though is a perverse concoction of womankind. Her rejection of the original monster leads to the climactic finale, which results in more explosions and chaos in similar vein to its prequel.
Whale would leave Frankenstein and his monster after this film for other directors to attempt a continuation of the story. They would never be able to match Whale for visuals or calibre of subversive direction though and in Whale himself we found the first real godfather of American horror, ironically in the form of a shy and retiring British gentleman, willing to push boundaries while creating splendid and timeless horror.
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