Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein | Two of the horror genre’s most durable, iconic stories

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Sarah Cook looks back at two of the most celebrated horror films from the 1930s, Frankenstein and The Bride Of Frankenstein. 

Mary Shelley, the godmother of science fiction, penned the literary masterpiece Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, over 200 years ago in 1818. 

Of course, most of you know the story – a scientist decides to play God, stealing body parts to reanimate and bring to life, only for there to be deadly and dire consequences.

For two centuries, the story has terrifying and titillated audiences, so naturally, there have been several adaptations including a handful of silent movies, a great big and chaotic Kenneth Branagh outing, and plenty of stage shows. 

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Credit: Universal Pictures

This past weekend saw the release of Zelda Williams’ horror-comedy Lisa Frankenstein. Starring Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse, the story is set in the 1980s and follows a young woman obsessed with the grave of a dead Victorian bachelor. When a strike of lightning brings the corpse back to life, it is up to Lisa to find him new parts and make him more huma

To celebrate this brilliant and enjoyable outing, I am going to be looking at two of the most famous adaptations of Frankenstein: The 1931 Pre-Code horror of the same name and its subsequent 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. 

I will save you the anguish of re-hashing the plot too much because it follows most of the same beats of the basic story structure just with a few embellishments – a scientist pieces together bits of human body to bring it to life again. Only when the brain is damaged, the Creature that emerges from the experiment is wild and uncontrollable. This adaptation is also infused with parts of The Golem – a Jewish folklore story.

Directed by James Whale – who also gave us the phenomenal The Old Dark House (1921) Frankenstein is a fun little outing that walks a very thin line between genuinely terrifying and somewhat silly. 

This is showcased best in the moment where the Creature throws a little girl into a lake because he thinks it is OK. That scene is a bit far fetched and for a moment, you may utter a shock snigger. But when Whale follows it with a scene of the girl’s father walking stony-faced yet grief-stricken, carrying her corpse through the village streets whilst an angered mob forms behind him. It’s these stark contrasts which serves as a reminder for the horror of man.

Credit: Universal Pictures

Boris Karloff, playing the Creature, does infuse the character with a genuine innocence as he is trying to discover about the world in which he was so cruelly rebirthed into. There is a thrilling element to knowing that his brain is beyond repair and whether that alters a man’s psyche to turn him into an absolute psychopath. Yet Karloff keeps the balance between natura and nature – a true tortured soul who is turned deadly because of his unwilling creation and the violence of being deformed and different.

Karloff is great, a true master of his craft, but it is Colin Clive’s tremendous performance as Frankenstein which haunts the most. There are not a lot of people who have succeeded in portraying the intensity in which Frankenstein operates and the following burden of realising the consequences. Clive is so juicy as the scientist craving to immortalise himself with his experiment, only to find he will be remembered for unleashing horror into the world. Clive plays this with a stunning gravitas as he is undone and exhausted by the weight of this burden.

Eventually creator and creation suffer at the hands of the mob, burning within a windmill.

The Bride of Frankenstein takes a different approach in its opening sequences, directing us to the infamous night in which Mary Shelley conceived the idea of Frankenstein with her husband Percy and Lord Byron. When she has finished her original tale, Shelley then delights with another chapter. 

Read more: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Bride Of Frankenstein adds to stacked cast

Somehow Frankenstein – and the Creature – have survived. Still tortured by his own hubris, Frankenstein recovers with his fiancé Elizabeth whilst the Monster is determined to find his own love – one that he’ll force his old master to create.

bride of frankenstein 1935
Credit: Universal Pictures

The sequel, which James Whale returned to direct, includes more elements of the original book by Shelley, including showing the Creature living with a blind hermit for a little while as the old man teaches him to talk (admittedly with a limited lexicon.) 

Admittedly, The Bride of Frankenstein does a lot of rehashing of the original movie, and its biggest selling point doesn’t really happen until the end. The movie does, however, dive into more of the morality of what Frankenstein is doing, whilst comparing the two love stories of scientist and monster.

Of course, the most exciting part of the sequel is absolutely Elsa Lanchester’s The Bride. From her impressive character design to her piercing scream, the Bride is a memorable creation. Not only that but it heightens the moral backbone of the film: If the first experiment was a mistake with horrifying consequences, then doing it again with that knowledge is near evil. 

Many throw the term ‘iconic’ around without stopping to think about its meaning. However, this duology of films has reshaped how most people see Frankenstein – especially The Creature, and his eponymous Bride. Thanks to the impressive make-up and the stocky shoulders of Boris Karloff, the image of the square-like rollicking creature with bolts and stitches is still seared into our brains. The same goes for the Bride, whose hair is so brilliantly realised – a white streak aloft an impressive updo – that even a dog in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie wore the style. Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical effects were also so widely celebrated that Universal used them in every movie involving the monster (and, after these two outings, there were plenty). 

Shoutout also goes Dwight Frye’s character, assistant Fritz with his hunched back as he shuffles to appease his master, who has also been immortalised in horror history. Dwight Frye himself is so brilliant in weird little support character roles that he gets yet another henchmen credit in The Bride of Frankenstein. That’s because Frye is the best guy.  

bride of frankenstein
Credit: Universal Pictures

Above all these things, however, and most definitely for me, the most memorable and iconic moment – not just within this film, but within all cinematic history – is Colin Clive’s maniacal bellow as The Creature first twitches on the slab.

Altogether now: “It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!”

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