Bride of Frankenstein - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
Can lightning strike twice?
I once took a vacation in Colonial Williamsburg, and I distinctly remember two different meals I had there. The first was a home-style selection of fried chicken, green beans, beer, and mac and cheese, which was served in a dimly-lit and frankly not particularly clean basement restaurant with wooden bench seating, loud music, and obnoxious people dancing in the aisles. The second was more of a fine-dining experience: a black tie affair in an elegant dining hall with French wine, consummé, grilled pheasant, and a microgreen salad. By all objective measures, the second meal was by far the more refined and difficult to recreate, whereas the first meal is something that I could reasonably approximate in my own kitchen at home without much difficulty. That doesn't change the fact that, if given the choice between the two meals, I would--ten times out of ten--choose the fried chicken.
In the same way, I can easily make the case that James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein is a far more fleshed out and competently put together film than its predecessor. It has more tonal variety, more things to do, and a deeper sense of characterization and cinematic refinement. It is usually lauded by critics and fans alike as the superior film, but for whatever reason, I find myself preferring the straight-forward simplicity of Frankenstein to the more fussy business of its sequel.
Bride of Frankenstein begins with a playful re-enactment of Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron's fateful summer in Switzerland where Mary came up with the story of Frankenstein, and it is clear from the get-go that this is going to be a very different movie from Frankenstein, which begins with the somber warning that what you are about to see might be too shocking for audiences to handle. Then it picks up immediately following the events of the previous film, and again, it is clear that this is not going to be like the original movie.
I don't know about this blind guy--he does get the creature addicted to nicotine
Let's talk about Una O'Connor, shall we? Whale uses her well in The Invisible Man as the shrill hostess of The Lion's Head Inn, an entertaining, comedic role that doesn't overstay its welcome. However, she has far more screen time in Bride of Frankenstein, and she is even more shrill, to the point of being straight-up annoying. As much as I like her in The Invisible Man, I can't stand her in Bride of Frankenstein, and she dominates the early sequence in which it is revealed that Frankenstein's monster survived the mill fire by falling into a convenient underground watersource.
So, for me, as the monster is quizzically studying Una O'Connor, who looks directly into the camera to give the kind of goofy expression you expect to hear a laugh track over, this movie is already well off on the wrong foot. I don't mind an irreverant tone or a self-mocking one, nor do I mind when a sequel goes in a completely different direction than its predecessor (I'm on record as a huge fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, after all). However, this just does not work for me at all, and by the time the ultra-campy Dr. Pretorius shows up and displays his miniature king and queen in glass bottles, the movie has totally lost me.
I'm just going to say it: this scene is stupid
As it goes on, though, the ridiculous tone of the first act softens and sobers up, with fewer and fewer gags and a growing sense of dread about what Dr. Frankenstein is inevitably going to be forced to do, namely create a female monster. On the way, Frankenstein's original monster develops rudimentary speech and grows as a character, highlighted by the deservedly famous scene in which he spends some time with a blind man who treats him like a friend. These two plot threads are loose translations of certain pieces of the novel that had been dropped long ago by the various stage performances and were notably absent in the previous film, but just as before, this movie improves upon Shelley's ideas.
This film absolutely soars at its climax, with the creation of Elsa Lanchester's equally iconic monster. This creation sequence is an improvement upon the original film's creation scene--which was an Act I closer rather than a climax--and it ends poignantly with the "bride" finding herself as horrified by her own creation as she is by the appearance of the original monster. Frankenstein's monster then tells Frankenstein and Elizabeth to escape before he blows up the entire laboratory, presumably killing himself, his supposed bride, and the cartoonishly evil Dr. Pretorius in one enormous display of miniature pyrotechnics.
One of the best reveals in creature feature history
As I said before, I don't deny that Bride of Frankenstein is an incredibly well-made movie that balances a lot of competing tones with startling adeptness. Rather than just a straight horror movie like its predecessor, it is equal parts comedy, camp, horror, suspense, and action, and Whale directs each of these with startling care. Karloff delivers an arguably even better performance as well, since his character has more growth in addition to actual spoken lines to deliver. Even Colin Clive at the very least matches his performance from the previous film, this time showing how tormented he is by being forced to do the one thing he swore he could never do again.
But still, it's like that consummé, pheasant, and microgreens; it's just too fussy, spending too much time trying to be smart and not enough time being as straight-forward and satisfying as fried chicken and mac and cheese. I know this opinion will be unpopular, but I stand by how I feel. Given the choice between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, I would--ten times out of ten--choose Frankenstein. (For my thoughts on the third entry in the series, check out my review of Son of Frankenstein!)