The Essential Movie Library #89: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The Bride’s revelation is that what haunts the heart is more terrifying than what shocks the senses

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“She’s alive!” In 1931 Frankenstein, based on the novel by Mary Shelley, was such a phenomenon that while a sequel was a no-brainer to some, including the studio that produced it, it was an obvious mistake to others, including the man who directed it. James Whale had to be badgered and cajoled, and the more he resisted, the more certain everybody grew that he was the only one who could do it. Seizing on one of Shelley’s afterthoughts in her story about the mad scientist who flirts with immortality, Whale did what artists sometimes do when they have nothing to lose: raised his own stakes and turned the sequel into something at once more lyrical and deeply strange. An unsettling eroticism between Boris Karloff’s Monster and the Bride played by Elsa Lanchester—styled as an electrified Nefertiti, her unearthly hiss emulating swans that the actress heard in London parks—alarmed censors around the world, where the movie was banned from Asia to Europe to Scandinavia. The Bride’s revelation is that what haunts the heart is more terrifying than what shocks the senses.

A former World War I British POW with hopes of becoming a cartoonist, Whale may have been the only person who ever found a steadier line of work in theater, where he acted, built sets, and finally directed. Needing someone who had a way with dialogue, Howard Hughes lured Whale over to the States when movies started talking and stunt pilots flying their airplanes was no longer enough for Hughes’s Hell’s Angels; along with the Frankenstein pictures, Whale proceeded to make The Invisible Man and The Man in the Iron Mask before his career was sidelined by bad luck and bad choices (he turned down the ‘40s melodrama Since You Went Away, which was a big hit). Gay and defiant of the closet—and portrayed by Ian McKellen in 1997’s Gods and Monsters—Whale drowned himself in his own swimming pool following a bout of depression, electroshock, and a series of strokes. “I have had a wonderful life but it is over,” declared the note left behind. “I cannot bear the agony.”

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