The Bride of Frankenstein
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Despite what you might have seen at the end of the last film, the creature Dr. Frankenstein made isn't dead. Instead of getting burned alive in a windmill (set aflame by villagers, as they do), our friend Frankie ends up in an underground lake, unburned and very much alive. He makes his way out and starts killing again, mostly because these people tried to kill him so, really, they had it coming.
His rage is tempered some, though, when he wanders to the hut of a kindly blind man. Not knowing the monster is a monster, the blind man befriends the creature. With his new companion, the creature begins to learn language as well as finding out the valuable power of having a friend to rely on. Sadly this time of peace is cut short when two hunters come to the cabin. The ensuing interaction leads the monster to attack the men, accidentally setting the cabin on fire. The creature runs off, hiding in a cemetery away from people.
While this has been going on, Dr. Frankenstein is back home (on the mend from the events of the last movie where he was clearly thrown out of the top floor of a windmill, which we guess is something you can survive after all). Late one evening he gets a mysterious visit from Doctor Pretorious, another mad scientist with his own plans to create life. As Dr. Frankenstein learns, Pretorious has had success at growing life, but only in miniature form, creating little people like his Queen, King, and Ballerina, all of who he keeps as curiosities. he wants to team with Frankenstein to make a full-sized person. Between the two, he reason, they can make something truly alive.
Frankenstein balks, seeing what Pretorious does as black magic. He tells the other doctor that, under no circumstances, would he help in the creation of more lives (once was enough). Fatefully, though, Pretorious goes body-snatching in the old cemetery. There he encounters Frankenstein's first creature. Befriending the beast, the two hatch a plan to get Dr. Frankenstein to make a new creature, one who can be a friend for ol' Frankie: The Bride of Frankenstein.
Created four years after the first movie, Bride of Frankenstein was Universal's (successful, mind you) attempt to make a franchise out of the 1931 Frankenstein. The problem is that the script they had just wasn't very good. There's so much going on in the movie and none of it is given much room to breathe, leading to a point where you're an hour into the movie, very little has actually happened, and the titular Bride still hasn't show up. Any one of the many plot lines could have been the focus of the movie all on it's own (and many of them, in retrospect, feel like inspirations for different Hammer Frankenstein movies).
For starters, we get a lot of time with the original Creature. Now, don't get me wrong, Karloff is, as always, fantastic. His creature has real pathos, and spending more time with him, time where the movie just let's him grow and learn and become a real character, is great. This is good stuff. Sadly, it's only a thin sliver of the movie. I would have watched an entire adventure of him just roaming the countryside, learning to be human. Maybe see him get over his fear of fire, open up a blacksmith shop, and scare kids with tales of the time he was once almost burned alive in a windmill. I would have liked that movie more.
Then there's Pretorius and his plot line. He's the obvious monster of this film, the mad doctor hell-bent on doing bad things. If any character in either movie acts as a through-line to Peter Cushing's Dr. Frankenstein in the Hammer films, it's this guy. He weird and cold and pure evil and there could be a very interesting story to be had in his trials and tribulations. But, again, he doesn't get enough time. We see him with his weird little people but if we're supposed to think he's evil from this alone, I don't see it. The little people seem happy, and they're certainly well tended to (very healthy looking), so where's the horror. He goes from this to body-snatching, kidnapping, and attempted murder on a dime. It's all very rushed.
The weakest storyline in the whole thing is Dr. Frankenstein's. He's barely an active participant in the movie, guiding along more by the stories around him until, finally, he has to come out of retirement and make a monster again. And the monster he makes, the Bride, isn't even all that evil. She's as confused about her new life as Frankie was, and while a whole movie about her could have been interesting, she's barely in this flick (and doesn't appear in any of the later ones), so what was the whole point?
Oh, and there's a whole framing device at the start of the movie to try and catch us up on the events of the previous film. It features actors as Mary Shelly, Lord Shelly, and Lord Byron, and it's just an absolute bore. Worse, despite opening with these characters, they don't show up at the end either, so it's not like they were really necessary. And when you consider that the 1931 Frankenstein played regular rounds in theaters for decades, what was the point of doing a recap within a film made four years after the first. It just wastes time.
All that being said, some stuff about the film does work. The titular Bride is great (although really there are two brides if we count that fact that Elizabeth marries the Doctor in this film, a fact I picked up on but that the film didn't even seem to want to play with). She's got an iconic look, and Elsa Lanchester does a great job trying to perform to the level of Karloff. She gets close, and all the emotions and confusion and horror at what's going on around her plays across her face. We need more of her than we get, but I like every second of the time she's on screen.
Some of the special effects are also pretty good. The whole sequence with the little people in jars is amazingly convincing given the time period. The compositing techniques in play rival much of the CGI and green screen work we have now. Just stunning.
Sadly, we also have janky backdrops again, whole scenes filmed in front of obvious fabric screens with easy-to-see wrinkles as people walk in front of them. We also have yet another obvious limp, fake body thrown from a height, looking more comical than scary. These moments pull you out of the movie more than any of the good effects get you back in.
I want to like this movie. There's great stuff done mired in all the crap and slow, stupid plotting. This is a movie that really needed a whole lot of editing and some serious oversight. It's an interesting, at time quite successful, mess. I don't want to tell people not to see it -- everyone needs to watch up through the Bride's sequences at least once. Just don't expect to willingly come back to this movie past your first viewing. It's not that good.