The Hero’s Journey in “The Bride of Frankenstein”

To a new world of gods and monsters.

So intones Dr. Praetorious to Dr. Henry Frankenstein, toasting their new friendship with a glass of gin (“my only weakness”) before proposing a partnership. He unveils a series of miniature living humans, each in its own bell jar: Homunculi, he says, which point the way to full-scale experiments in the creation of life. “Alone,” he tells Frankenstein, “you have created a man. Now, together, we will create his mate.”

Their quest forms the inspiration for James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), the best of the Frankenstein movies–a sly, subversive work that smuggled shocking material past the censors by disguising it in the trappings of horror. Some movies age; others ripen. Seen today, Whale’s masterpiece is more surprising than when it was made because today’s audiences are more alert to its buried hints of homosexuality, necrophilia and sacrilege. But you don’t have to deconstruct it to enjoy it; it’s satirical, exciting, funny, and an influential masterpiece of art direction.

The film works perfectly well on its own terms, as a sequel to Whale’s “Frankenstein” (1931), recasting the Monster as an outcast yearning for friendship. The credits for “Frankenstein” said it was inspired by a novel by “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley.” “Bride” improves the billing of the feminist heroine, calling her “Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley” and adding a prologue in which Mary; her husband, Percy, and their friend Lord Byron imagine a sequel to the first story: The Monster survives being burned in a mill and staggers forth, alive and misunderstood.

Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley and also has the unbilled role of the Bride–where she provides one of the immortal images of the cinema with lightning-like streaks of silver in her weirdly towering hair. Whale based the film’s look on the stark shadows and jagged tilt shots of German Expressionism (from such horror films came the look of film noir in the 1940s). His inspiration for the Bride was Maria, the artificial woman from Fritz Lang’s ¬®Metropolis (1927)–where he also borrowed ideas for Praetorious’ laboratory, with its platform that lifts the Bride up to the heavens to be penetrated by lightning bolts.

The central figure of the film is, of course, the Monster (which is not named Frankenstein, despite the movie’s title). He is played by Boris Karloff, who in “Frankenstein” got only this credit: Monster…………………? but in the sequel is billed in bold capitals above the title: KARLOFF. Despite the broadness of the character, Karloff finds room for subtlety and small gestures; although he opposed it, he benefits enormously from the decision to allow the Monster to speak. In “Frankenstein,” he only bleats piteously, but in “Bride” he stumbles into the forest hut of a blind violinist, who teaches him words (“Wine … wine!”) that later evolve into his poignant statement to Praetorious: “I want friend like me.”

The 1931 film was famous for a scene in which the Monster happens upon a little girl who is floating daisies upon a pond. The Monster joins her in throwing flowers into the water; when the flowers are gone he takes the next logical step and throws her in. She drowns. The sequel begins with the girl’s parents searching the ruins of the burned mill, to be sure the Monster is dead; the father dies, and the mother clutches a hand in the wreckage, discovering it is not her husband’s but the Monster’s. Such cold-blooded scenes are in a way more shocking than the forthright violence in the films, but it is interesting how Whale allows his sympathy for the Monster to soften the second story. (This time the Monster saves a drowning girl, although his heroism is misinterpreted as an attack.)

The famous scene in which the Monster dines with the hermit (O.P. Heggie) is quiet and touching (the hermit thanks God for sending him a visitor to break his loneliness). That first meal is poignant, the second one farcical, as the Monster stumbles into a crypt where Praetorious has interrupted his search for spare parts to sit down to a candlelit dinner. Praetorious invites him to join in, and the Monster puffs contentedly on a cigar.

“Bride” belongs largely to Praetorious and the Monster, despite the subplot involving Frankenstein and his fiancee (whose wedding date is postponed by the doctor’s distractions in the laboratory). The climax comes in Praetorious’ gothic tower, with the bizarre apparatus that uses lightning to animate the cobbled-together body parts of the Bride. The scene makes such an unforgettable impression that it’s easy to forget how little of the movie the Bride actually appears in.

Whale and his screenwriter, William Hurlbut, add wry humor wherever it will fit. They have fun with the character of Minnie, Frankenstein’s housekeeper, whose scream could break glass. And they enjoy moments like the one where the Monster saves the shepherdess who has fallen into the water, and muses, “Yes, a woman. Now that’s real interesting.”