(U.S., James Whale)
How hearts must have sunk when Universal announced plans to produce a sequel to their great (loose) adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What else was there to do but exploit and tarnish the legacy of the original film? That studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. didn’t rush the picture into production after the massive success of the original should have encouraged fans. Laemmle allowed screenwriter William Hurlbut time to develop a story that didn’t simply repeat the premise of the original. Instead Hurlbut expanded on the movie’s themes, continuing to explore the ethical and moral quandaries of Dr. Frankenstein’s work and tracing them to their horribly logical conclusions while considering our natural garrulousness and our conflicting aversion to anything new or out of the ordinary.
Boris Karloff brought an unexpected depth to Frankenstein’s Monster and builds on his accomplishment in this picture. All of his pathos, confusion and pain are articulated more clearly here as the Monster’s grunts and groans are replaced by rudimentary speech. (“Alone bad. Friend good.)
So the Monster isn’t a monster at all, a fact we in the audience knew all along. This makes his exile from society all the more heartbreaking. He doesn’t understand why most everyone reacts with horror when they see him. His violent outbursts usually result from people’s overreactions; he just wants them to stop screaming but becomes frustrated when he can’t reason with them and lashes out. Only a blind man, blissfully unaware of his physical grotesqueness, opens his home and heart, giving the Monster an all too brief glimpse at the joys and possibilities of companionship.
The companionship he craves though is idealized, unrealistic. Consider the relationships of the “normal” people in the movie: Hans and Helga’s obsessive attachment to their dead daughter, Edward and Elizabeth’s frustratingly unconsummated marriage, and Dr. Pretorius’s vicious hold over Edward. The Monster’s desire for a bride, a task assigned to Edward and Dr. Pretorius, is doomed to fail like all the other relationships in the movie. No one considers the possibility that the Monster’s bride will have a mind of her own and be just as repulsed by him as everyone else.
The Bride of Frankenstein is the rare sequel that surpasses the original. It is also one of the rare horror movies that isn’t satisfied with titillating or frightening the audience. Like Night of the Demon, Night of the Living Dead, and Carrie, it has something more to say about the human condition. Whale wants us to reflect on the dichotomy between our overwhelming (sometimes obsessive) need for human companionship and our conflicting aversion to anything different. That these are contradictory impulses (after all, isn’t everyone different in some way?) is lost on most of us, but Frankenstein’s Monster bitterly learns this lesson at the end of the picture. He is lost; hopefully the rest of us, rather lamely symbolized by Edward and Elizabeth, are not.