The Bride of Frankenstein ★★★

"It's alive! It's alive!!"
"Ah, shut it."

Bride of Frankenstein opens with a conversation between a fictional Mary Shelley, along with her husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, on the topic of her great novel Frankenstein. She says there's more to the story than was in her book, and from there the film picks up where 1931's Frankenstein left off. But something's different: in place of the previous film's gothic horror atmosphere, there's a tone which is much lighter.

Rather than making a direct sequel to his smash hit (which broke box office records at the time) and playing it straight, James Whale follows up his success by parodying the very thing that brought him fame and fortune. Bride keeps all the memorable horror beats from the first film and turns them up to play on their melodramatic comedy. All it takes is a small change in timing to turn "It's alive!" from a shock to a laugh. Linger longer on an exaggerated camera angle or lighting cue and you go from a gasp to a chuckle.

But even as it's purposefully undermining its own imagery, it does so without making it look cheap. Bride magically maintains the odd angles of its Caligari-inspired cinematography and set design with a more comedic tone without losing any of its impact. It's all still beautiful, breathtaking, and literally awesome (in the traditional sense of awe-inspiring).

By shifting the tone of the film, it also shifts the meaning of Frankenstein's monster as a character. Bride not only undercuts Frankenstein's story beats, but also its themes: whereas in the original film he was a beast to be feared, here the citizens are the ones we ought to be afraid of. The monster is constantly misunderstood by them, as in a scene where he tries to save a girl who fell into a pool of water: they see him as trying to drown her instead of trying to help. This is much closer to the original novel's interpretation of the character, where he functioned as an indictment of mob mentality and humanity's tendency to reject what it doesn't understand.

As much as I can appreciate everything that Bride of Frankenstein does for the horror genre and for cinema in general, it never really clicked with me. I think it's an important film to study for anyone interested in horror or in genre parody (hopefully I'll eventually make a Horror Canon list to go with my Sci-Fi Canon), but for me it's a movie I'm much more interested in talking about than in watching. Fortunately, there's plenty worth talking about.

Sequels | AdaptationsIs Frankenstein a zombie?