Mary Shelley’s 1818 Gothic novel, Frankenstein, is not only one of the finest works of literature in the English language, critiquing the dark limits of ambition at the height of Enlightenment positivity, it’s also considered to be the first science fiction novel. Its tale–a gruesome fiend cobbled together from dead bodies and cruelly abandoned by his father/creator to wander the night in search of cosmic acceptance and meaning–has reappeared in various forms throughout the years.
Director James Whale fashioned two classic horror films from the story, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), both of which have been out of print on DVD the last few years but have been reissued as an inexpensive box set with several of Universal’s sequels to boot. Aside from Edgar Ulmer’s exquisite The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein is certainly my favorite of the era’s thrillers.
The Universal films, visually linked to German expressionism (and often made by German immigrants working in Hollywood), defined cinematic horror and set the stage for its hybrid, the science fiction/horror film. In her book Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (1987), Vivian Sobchack offers this helpful distinction between Monster films (more horror) and Creature films (more science fiction):
The horror film is primarily concerned with the individual in conflict with society or with some extension of himself, the science fiction film with society and its insinuations in conflict with each other or with some alien other. Therefore, the arena for conflict in the horror film is usually as small as a minute town tucked away in the Carpathians, an old castle, or an English village, while the arena for the science fiction film is most often the large city, the planet Earth itself. If one genre is as large as the human soul, the other is as large as the cosmos. . .
The Creatures of science fiction films seem to roam the Earth almost as if by accident. They may fall from outer space to threaten the planet, invade it, destroy it, or they are accidental by-products of “the Bomb.” In the horror film, however, the Monster seems less accidental; he seems to arise inevitably out of a personal Faustian obsession or the inherent animal nature of Man. . . Since the horror film emphasizes individual moral conflict, the Monster must be a significant and personalized antagonist. To make the moral struggle truly protean, both Man and Monster must be given equal weight and equal time. Thus, in the horror film, we are involved in personalized conflict and combat: Dracula vs. Dr. Van Helsing, Frankenstein vs. his Monster, Lawrence Talbot vs. his animal alter ego. . .
In the science fiction film, the Creature is less personalized, has less of an interior presence than does the Monster in the horror film. Usually we are given only form, physical attributes; the Creatures of science fiction distinctly lack a psyche. After the initial shock at the Creature’s appearance, our interest lies not in why the Creature will do what it does, but solely what it will do and how it will do it–in other words, its external activity. Our sympathy is never evoked by a science fiction Creature; it remains, always, a thing.
Conversely, in the horror film there is always something sympathetic about the Monster, something which gives us–however briefly–a sense of seeing the world through his eyes, from his point of view. He is not other than Man; he is the darker side of Man and therefore comprehensible.
The Frankenstein films certainly fall into the Monster category, and Whale is as adept at presenting their moral conflict as he is at creating a visually striking and atmospheric milieu. Between the two films, he made The Invisible Man (1933), which still impresses with its clever visual effects, Claude Rains’ aristocratic performance, and touches of macabre humor. But these elements achieve their perfect maturity in Bride of Frankenstein, with its painterly and dramatic lighting, beautiful dissolves and tracking shots, sophisticated effects, and unexpected eccentricities.
For much of the latter, Whale cast Una O’Connor (whom he used in The Invisible Man and would reuse in The Old Dark House), playing a feisty, histrionic old lady who makes assorted jabs and sarcastic barbs throughout the film. After a prologue, the movie opens at the flaming windmill that ended the first film. A gust of fire rises and O’Connor enthusiastically nods, “That’s his insides, caught at last! Insides is always the last to be consumed.” When the nonchalant village burgomaster finally arrives on the scene, he perversely tells everyone to go home and get a good night’s rest, to which O’Connor alone seems to protest. “Come now, we want no rioting,” the burgomaster replies.
But in addition to the humor, the film also taps into the deep melancholy and tragedy of Shelley’s tale, framing it within the context of Man’s unbridled obsessions. In some ways, Frankenstein is replaced by a new character, Pretorious, an ex-professor who enlists Frankenstein’s aid. (“Pretorious?” O’Connor mutters. “That’s not even a real name.”) Amazingly for the early-’30s, Pretorius suggests he has grown miniature people “from the source of life–I grew them like cultures,” foreshadowing today’s genetic experimentation. In fact, various scenes suggest inspirations for later echos in Blade Runner (1982), including a murder beneath the gaze of a perched owl and various lighting effects, and the latter film’s emphasis on the ethical failings of outsized genetic ambitions is thoroughly Frankensteinian in theme.
Bride of Frankenstein is a pop culture work, but one suffused with artistry and many layers of meaning that have made it a perennial favorite among cinephiles and film commentators. It’s a genre film not to be missed.