Tuesday, 20 January 2015


1818 saw the publication of the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and with it the origin of one of the horror genre's most iconic characters, simply known as "The Monster". The story was based on the idea that just because science can do something does not mean it should, in this case through the questionable process of reanimating corpses. The title character of Dr. Frankenstein is a scientist who creates a man by combining bits and pieces from dead bodies and figures out how to bring it to life. Unfortunately, upon doing so he is horrified by his creation and disowns it. The Monster (it is never given a real name) is confused and has a child-like mindset as he is released upon the world. All he really wants is a friend, but he is feared by everyone he encounters leading driving it to violence.

Since the publication of Shelley's book, the character of Frankenstein's Monster has become an icon of the horror genre. He has been the subject of countless movies, not all of them adaptations of the book. Many have spoofed the character in various ways, ranging from H.P. Lovecraft's Herbert West: Re-Animator to Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, or in some way paid homage. Several adaptations of Frankenstein have been made, but the most iconic is arguably the 1931 film of the same name directed by James Whale.

Whale's film was such a success that Universal Studios decided a sequel had to happen. James Whale was initially reluctant but eventually agreed to take on the project which would provide a "continuation" of the 1931 film, the result being the strange 1935 horror film The Bride of Frankenstein. In order to justify continuing the story, the movie was framed in the form of Mary Shelley herself relating what happens next to her friend Lord Byron and her husband Percy. This whole setup makes one wonder if the creators of the film actually read her original novel, to which a sequel of this sort would be extremely unlikely.

In the book, Victor Frankenstein (who for some reason had his first name changed to Henry in the films) spends the final act of the book travelling the world in pursuit of the monster, only to get sick and die a few days after being found by the crew of a sailing ship in the Arctic (these last few days of his life also serve as a framing device). The Monster follows not long after, deciding to burn himself. Most of the supporting characters have also died by this point, so there is not really any way Mary Shelley herself could have continued the story if she wanted to, at least not with the same characters. The only way the story could really go on is if another scientist figured out Victor's formula and tried to build on it, and even then she would have to find a creative angle to take or else it would just be the first book all over again.

Obviously, this framing device is a somewhat misused, as The Bride of Frankenstein is a sequel to the 1931 film rather than to the book. If anything, the only real contribution it serves story-wise is to provide a recap of everything that happened in the previous film. Mary Shelley begins telling the story but this scene is never revisited. No voice-over narration is incorporated, nor does the film ever return to these three. Mary Shelley claims that her story did not end where it did (which raises the question of why she ended it there) and it reveals that the Monster somehow survived being burned alive in the previous film, with Victor Henry Frankenstein also being found alive but injured.

What is especially strange about this movie is that for a film called The Bride of Frankenstein, she is barely in the movie. There is less Bride of Frankenstein in The Bride of Frankenstein than there was a towering inferno in The Towering Inferno. Most of the movie instead focuses on Henry Frankenstein encountering a mad scientist named Dr. Pretorius who forces him to into a collaboration to create another reanimated corpse. This leads to the idea being proposed to use a female body this time, and to create a "mate" for the monster. A similar idea actually appears in the original book, in which Victor Frankenstein is convinced by the monster to make a woman like him (though he panics and destroys the female monster before she can be reanimated), but in this case, the "bride" only appears right at the very end, and even then for only a few minutes and having no dialogue.

Even James Whale did not initially want to work on a sequel to Frankenstein, so why did he eventually agree to do it? Studio pressure had a hand in it, since his previous film was such a huge success. However, even if Whale turned it down, Universal Studios still had the rights to his film and could have hired another director to get the sequel made. It was actually because Whale was a homosexual working under the Motion Picture Production Code formed by William Hays, something which contained a very strict list of what filmmakers were not allowed to show in their movies.

The code included opposition to a lot of things and can easily come off as offensive today. It contains prohibitions on such things as adultery (unless it is essential to the plot and treated as immoral, and even then cannot be explicit) and interracial relationships. While the code does not specifically name homosexuality as something unacceptable to depict, it does refer to "sexual perversion" which I can only assume was meant to include any depiction of gay sex, among other things. In any case, homosexuality was generally frowned upon, and filmmakers were not allowed to acknowledge its existence. Whale took on the project because it provided a venue to present themes of homosexuality that could go unnoticed by the censors. It worked, and it was not until years, possibly decades later, that scholars and critics began to notice the unsubtle undertones.

These elements form in large part through the interactions between the three central characters: Frankenstein, Pretorius, and the monster. The relationship between the two scientists does in some ways play like a romantic couple. Pretorious essentially "seduces" F. rankenstein into taking part in his experiments. He also has a tendency to visit Frankenstein at night, and invite him over to his place. When they are working together in the lab, there are plenty of scenes in which both of the men are placed very close together in a way that makes them seem intimately connected.

The Monster also displays similar tendencies, with one of the best examples being when he first encounters Pretorius. This is one of The Bride of Frankenstein's weirder moments, set in an old crypt filled with corpses. Pretorius finds the skeleton of a young girl who died as a teenager and for some reason decides this is perfect material for his experiment. He then sends his two assistants out before revealing his brought his own dinner. By that I don't just mean he brought a sandwich, I mean he actually sets up a fancy candlelight dinner, complete with a bottle of wine, and sets it all up using the coffin as a table with the bones he just exhumed placed right next to his food. During the same scene, the Monster encounters Pretorius and is invited to join him. Pretorius shares the wine and they have an intimate conversation. The underlying implication here is actually quite simple: Pretorius has invited the Monster on a date.

At first glance, this actually seems remarkably progressive for a movie made in 1935. The fact that a homosexual not only managed to lead a successful Hollywood career but also managed to make a film criticizing homophobia and get away with it is remarkable in itself. At least, that might be how it appears at first. Unfortunately, there is a darker side to it. The movie might not be as progressive as it initially seems. In fact some might argue that it is outright misogynistic, but more closely focusing on the homoerotic undertones, there is a catch that suggest some... strange worldviews. 

James Whale was a homosexual and littered The Bride of Frankenstein with homoerotic undertones just to see how much he could get under the censors. One could argue that there is a pro-gay message (though one presented in an extremely roundabout way)... for men. Throughout the movie there are homoerotic undertones with regards to the interactions between the male leads, but there is no reference to lesbianism. Not a single woman in the movie ever behaves with the same sort of implications as the men. None of the female interactions display the same homoerotic components, as though James Whale didn't know that there are also plenty of gay women.

Of all the women who do appear, there are only two the viewer needs to concern themselves with, the "Monster's Mate" herself, and Frankenstein's wife Elizabeth. Both serve very little purpose in the story beyond a motivation for the men. Elizabeth is simply there to be captured so Frankenstein will work with Pretrorius (though she later somehow manages to escape, it isn't explained how she manages to get to the lab in the climax) while the "bride", who is barely in the movie, gets no dialogue and rejects the Monster as her "mate". These two women never even interact (ironic, considering they both appear in the same scene), let alone engage in the same sort of undertones that have been driving the men throughout the film.

Funnily enough, the closest thing the film has to a strong female character is Mary Shelley herself, who only appears in the opening scene during which she is praised as a talented writer by the two men in the room. As with the later moments, this interaction between the men allows for more not-so-subtle interactions. Whale seems to envision the "ideal family" as two gay men and a sympathetic woman. Once again, Mary Shelley is kept from partaking in these interactions, as though Whale could not conceive of the possibility that she too could in turn be gay.

The Bride of Frankenstein therefore becomes a strange film indeed. As a horror film, it is campy and not particularly effective especially during the more bizarre moments (it's a bit hard to take the film seriously when we see two guys going on a date that involves a candlelight dinner on a coffin). It becomes more interesting when you strip away the silliness and the obvious disregard for Mary Shelley's own writing despite the opening scene claiming that this is her continuation of the story. Underneath that, there are some bizarre sexual innuendos that make it hard to tell if the film is progressive or offensive.


  1. I love this film and the dark humour. Dr. Pretrorius is having more fun and is more comfortable with himself than Dr. Frankenstein. I often felt the Dr was a veiled image of the director. Frankenstein and the monster are ignorant of the subtle details and references. Elsa Lanchester made a lasting impression in this film even though she is hardly in this film. She really captures the imagination of the men at the beginning when she seems to be reading them a bedtime story. When she is the bride, she never looked lovelier. Her cat hisses are great and she is repulsed by the Monster and it is more than just his ugliness but as if she senses something more. This film does make one think and I find it compelling. One of my favourite scenes are the little people in the jar. I love that he has a Bishop and the Devil in a jar

  2. Having never read a single word about the director and perhaps, not playing close enough attention, I completely missed any homosexual subtext. Judging strictly on a surface level, I like this one better than the '31 original. Adding in what I've learned here, plus what I already thought and the era in which it was made, I find this very progressive. That Whale didn't give female characters the same subtext is not to say that the possibility of lesbianism never occurred to him. I don't think it should be viewed as misogynistic or offensive to women in any way, either. It seems as if he had an agenda and moved forward with it. While doing so, though they weren't integral to the plot, he didn't portray all of his female characters as inherently weak or evil because of their gender. In fact, I find The Bride herself to be a strong female despite the brevity of her screen time. After all, her one act is openly rejecting the man "society" intenfs her to be wih. In this case, society is pretty much Pretorious, Frankenstein, and the Monster, but still its an act of defiance against the rules of men.

    Once again, a great thought provoking post.

    1. Thinking about it afterwards, I suppose it is possible that part of the reason why the "Bride" rejected the Monster was because she would have preferred to be paired with a woman much as the Monster implies he would rather be with a man.