The Bride of Frankenstein

reviewed by Allison Leonard


“Alone – bad. Friend – good!”    —Boris Karloff, as Frankenstein’s monster

James Whale’s 1935 classic, Bride of Frankenstein, expands upon a subplot from Mary Shelley’s original Gothic novel, in which Dr. Frankenstein reluctantly returns to the laboratory and constructs a female companion to subdue his horrific creation. The film’s title, at first glance, suggests a vital importance to the role of the eponymous Bride, and further analysis of the narrative clearly confirms this sentiment. Just as the future of the human race relied on Eve’s cooperation in Christian mythology, humanity also depends upon the Bride for survival within the film’s diegesis. The key difference is that Eve’s partnership with Adam was meant for the procreation of new lives, while the Bride’s intended union with Frankenstein’s monster was for the preservation of existing lives. The monster’s satisfaction with a mate would eliminate his motive for further chaos and destruction, and thus restore peace and harmony to civilized society.

Indeed, for all of the Bride-centered hype and fanfare generated by the film’s gradual build-up to the infamous creation scene, her brief appearance in the last five minutes of running time seems rather anti-climactic. The notorious author Neil Gaiman describes her performance perfectly – “She is revealed; she hisses, screeches, is terrified, is wonderful, and once we have seen her there is nothing left for us.”[1] Although the Bride’s overall significance in this film is by no means diminished, the brevity of her on-screen existence begs a few critical questions for scholars and spectators alike – what is the Bride of Frankenstein known for, and how does her meaning contribute to the film? Since her purpose for being has already been established, it is essential to investigate additional dimensions of her identity, aside from the obvious why. Her principle relevance in a film that’s abundant with Christian symbolism, queer interpretations, and feminist themes consequently earns her the right to be perceived as a more fleshed-out character by all who would otherwise question her presence.

The story of Frankenstein has invoked plenty of feminist critique since its publication in the year 1818, mostly due to the fact that it was written by a woman. Cultural historian and author David Skal summarizes that “the changing role of women in a world driven by male scientism is an arguable subtext of the Mary Shelley novel… dramatizing, among many other things, a feminist writer’s anxiety over scientific man’s desire to abandon womankind and find a new method of procreation that does not involve the female principle.”[2] Regarding the production of Bride of Frankenstein during the height of Production Code-era Hollywood, Skal writes that director James Whale “instinctively dipped into the feminist subtext of Frankenstein for his sequel, decades before any formal feminist inquiry.” It has been theorized that Whale, an openly gay man during his professional career, wanted to encourage audiences to sympathize with the monster’s plight as a misunderstood outcast. It would then be logical to assume Whale’s alliance with feminism when studying this film’s depiction of the Bride and examining its treatment of the male and female characters.

Bride of Frankenstein opens with a framing device – the author, Mary Shelley, is sitting in a parlor room with fellow writers Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. When they offer praise and express disappointment about her story ending so soon, Mary informs them that there’s more to tell. She begins the film’s main narrative situated between the two men as the camera zooms out, never showing or mentioning these characters again. During the revelation of the Bride in the film’s final scene, Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius are positioned on either side of the Bride with the camera zooming in, inversely mirroring the prologue shot. It is here that the audience may notice the re-appearance of actress Elsa Lanchester, who plays the uncredited dual role of Mary Shelley and the Bride of Frankenstein. This double-casting is designed to bookend the narrative and make a further statement on the Bride’s authority, according to feminist theorist Elizabeth Young. In her view, Mary’s opening words are “forming the story that gives voice to the bride’s scream,” which is “the most visceral and impassioned version” of Mary’s story. Young concludes that the power of their voices combined will “offer a rejection of the systems that would disembody, dismember, exchange, and erase them.”[3]

The role of the Bride in this film stands as a central pillar that resolutely anchors the other major characters to her. For the males – Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius – she represents the common Freudian anxieties about the female body and sexuality due to innate fears of castration, and her sexless production by the joint efforts of the two men incites feelings of reverent awe and sheer disgust between them. For the females – Mary Shelley and Elizabeth Frankenstein – she projects herself as a mirror image, a doppelganger that’s fitting for the film’s German Expressionist style. Though the connection between the Bride and Shelley’s character is apparent, viewers might question her relation to Elizabeth Frankenstein. Young points out the subtle clue hidden in the film’s title. “Frankenstein, of course, is Henry’s surname, and his bride is Elizabeth,” she writes. “There are, then, not one but two brides of Frankenstein – or perhaps even more than two, for the film’s title phrase, ‘bride of Frankenstein,’ omits the definite article, as if to suggest endless repeatability of this most common female role.”

Certainly, the “role” of a bride was the ideal standard that women were expected to achieve in 1930s American society, and the ultimate prize that men were pressured to obtain. Frankenstein’s Bride, created for the sole purpose of fulfilling the monster’s desire for companionship, not only refuses to yield to the masculine demands for submission, but also acts effectively as the glue that holds Bride of Frankenstein together. She is the impetus that drives the action, and the catalyst that brings the destruction. She is wanted, hated, feared, and admired more than any other character in this film. Given the extremely limited amount of time she is present on-screen, her influential power and commanding presence warrants attention and respect from today’s contempor

[1] Gaiman, Neil. “Bride of Frankenstein.” Cinema Macabre. Ed. Mark Morris. Hornsea, England: PS, 2006. (accessed November 8, 2013).

[2] Skal, David J. “Bride of Frankenstein.” The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Norton, 1993. (accessed November 8, 2013).

[3] Young, Elizabeth. “Here Comes the Bride: Wedding Gender and Race in “Bride of Frankenstein”.” Feminist Studies 17, no. 3 (1991): 403-437. (accessed November 8, 2013).