For those who have yet to watch Bride of Frankenstein, you may be surprised to find that the immortal ‘Monster’s Mate’ only appears for a short-lived but powerful five minutes as the film ends. Screen time albeit brief, the Bride proved a cinematic hit and has continued to influence so much of what we now view within the female-fronted monster culture. As the film celebrates it’s 85th birthday this month, it is important to reflect on the impact of Elsa Lanchester’s portrayal of The Bride and the character’s lasting impact on popular culture and beyond.
The Bride began her life on the pages of Mary Shelley’s 1918 novel Frankenstein but ultimately, she was brought to life through the talents of Hollywood: mainly actress Elsa Lanchester, director James Whale, (uncredited) costume designer Vera West and creature make-up artist Jack Pierce. Culturally significant since her silver screen inception, The Bride has remained at the forefront of the horror genre, sitting comfortably amongst the Universal Classic Monsters boys club (including horror icons Dracula, Invisible Man, Wolf Man, Gill-Man and of course Frankenstein).
Bride of Frankenstein is often noted as one of Hollywood’s first successful sequels, following the triumphs of Universal Pictures Frankenstein (1931). The studio knew the success of the picture lay in the return of Boris Karloff with the follow-up taking on a more comedic take on the gothic tale. Picking up from the first film, we discover that the townspeople have failed to burn Frankenstein alive and the Monster is now stalking the woods of the small town.
Lured by the wickedly camp Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), creator of the Monster Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), embarks once again on an ungodly experiment, this time to create a mate for his immoral creation. English actress Elsa Lanchester plays dual roles in the film: the ‘Monster’s Mate’ and novelist Mary Shelley who recites her gothic masterpiece in the opening scene, introducing the viewer to the female voice.
Although billed as a horror, The Bride of Frankenstein flirts between jump scares and laughs, mainly from the Monster and Dr Pretorius’ dry flamboyance. He is decidedly salacious and macabre in his practice of manufacturing life, relishing in his role as almighty creator whereas Henry Frankenstein is torn between his own God complex and weak desire for his own mate Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson). Whale continues to humanise the Monster. We follow Frankenstein’s struggles to communicate with the living throughout the film before he befriends a local blind man who introduces him to the finer things in life: cigars, music and wine. Karloff’s performance is a true pleasure giving the film comedic relief in a sincere moment between man and monster. Lanchester’s brief but arresting portrayal of The Bride brings the film to a climatic end. Birthed through a bolt of lighting, hypnotic eyes are unveiled as her bandaged fingers flex through the static air. ‘She’s ALIVE!’.
Bound tightly in bandages secured with safety pins and dressed in a makeshift white shroud, the ‘Monster’s Mate’ stands 7ft tall with a shock of electrified deep waved hair with bolts of white. A wire cage creation of horsehair was fashioned to give the iconic hairstyle its unearthly height. Eyebrows are sharp shift upwards strokes, an almost more extreme take on the popular pencil-thin brows of the era. Her beauty is striking with full painted cupid’s bow and spidery fanned lashes. Unlike Frankenstein, her skin is smooth and alabaster but as she jerks to life we see the series of deep, neat stitches from the hands of Henry Frankenstein and Dr Pretorius. A blend of the grotesque and exquisite beauty, Jack Pierce’s makeup design for The Bride has been recreated for decades since on the faces of scream queens such as Lily Munster (The Munsters 1964-1966) and Elizabeth in Frankenhooker (1990).
The Bride was created solely to be a mate to Henry Frankenstein’s Monster, the fiend who so desperately wanted a friend. Within the first few moments of her artificially created life, The Bride quickly realises her purpose to be a dutiful companion to the lumbering Monster. He opens out his hand and asks ‘friend?’, trying to grasp onto her startled hands. The Bride recoils at the advances of the Monster and rejects the men’s quasi-arranged marriage with a brutal, piercing screech. In fact, she would rather die than be with Frankenstein. In this fatal act of resistance, The Bride crushes all three men’s desires of submission and effectively ends their profane experiment. Destroyed by The Bride’s rejection, Frankenstein pulls a lever and blows up the castle as Henry and Elizabeth escape to safety. Mirroring to the opening scene with Shelley in centre court, the film ends on a female’s perspective – The Bride’s voice.
Today the film is viewed as an archetype in horror, influencing a series of classic horror tropes used frequently amongst the genre. The Bride’s place within this legacy is a compelling one considering her short time within the Frankenstein universe. Following a series of failed attempts at a reboot. Universal Studios are now looking to bring The Bride back to life once again. 85 years since the release of Bride of Frankenstein, following this year’s success of The Invisible Man, it seems that now is the time to allow The Bride to reclaim her story.
Bride of Frankenstein is available to rent on VOD
by Casci Ritchie
Casci (she/her) is an independent dress historian specialising in fashion, film and consumer cultures. Her true great loves – film and fashion – began when she watched her first film noir, The Big Sleep, as a teenager and fell in love Bacall and Bogie hook line and sinker. Some of her favourite films include Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Beetlejuice, Double Indemnity and Cry Baby. You can find her over on Twitter & her blog www.casciritchie.com.
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