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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Many Brides of Frankenstein: The Evolution of an Icon

Bride of Frankenstein celebrates its 85th anniversary this year and remains one of the greatest horror films of all time. It is the gleaming jewel of the Universal crown and gave us the ultimate female monster icon. Over the years, the Bride has become a regular staple of Frankenstein films and there are dozens of iterations. For the sake of relative brevity, I will focus primarily on three films that feature the Bride as its key element: Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), and The Bride (1985), while touching on several others along the way.

The Bride first appeared over a hundred years before being embodied by Elsa Lanchester in Mary Shelley’s original novel, at least in concept. After recounting the lengthy story of his miserable life to his creator, the Monster demands, in rather poetic language, that the doctor create a female companion for him, reasoning that it will placate his murderous tendencies. “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” he asks. He promises to retreat to the hills and live a secluded life of peace with her and argues, “my vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal.” That is the heart of most Bride narratives: the outcast seeking companionship and acceptance from someone who is also by nature an outsider; but the variations on this simple theme are endless.

Though a prototypical version of the character can be found in the robotic female creation of the sinister Rotwang in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis (1927), the Bride’s first true appearance is in the 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein, and it has never been surpassed for sheer impact and influence. With a look inspired by ancient Egyptian aesthetics popular at the time, she is one of the most inspired and memorable images ever committed to film and stands among the greatest of make-up innovator Jack Pierce’s creations. Despite her popularity and the box office success of the film, the Bride would never appear in another Universal horror film, even as others were brought back time and again for numerous sequels and matchups. In fact, this most iconic version of the Bride has only ever reappeared in homage and tribute. Her Nefertiti-like hair with its white lightning streaks has been endlessly parodied in everything from Young Frankenstein (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Bride of Chucky (1998) to moments in The Carol Burnett Show, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live and the Disney Channel tween sitcom Jessie

Along with perpetuating the themes of the outsider, Bride of Frankenstein started several trends that would be explored in a myriad of forms in the coming years. Starting with this appearance, the Bride has regularly been equated with her creator: not Dr. Frankenstein, but novelist Mary Shelley. In this film, Elsa Lanchester plays both the female creation at the end of the film and a rather prim and proper version of the author in the prologue. Similar devices would often be used in the future, giving Bride movies a meta-narrative quality rarely found in traditional gothic horror. In this film, the Bride rejects the Monster out of fear. In later versions, there is usually a variation on this sequence that comes down to rejection or acceptance of her intended mate. 

From the beginning, Bride films have explored different aspects of sexuality and a subversion of traditional roles. The very title of the film is meant to be ironic and subversive. In the context of the 1935 film as it relates to this title, “Frankenstein” could refer to either creator Henry Frankenstein or his creation. Conversely, “Bride” could refer to Henry’s fiancĂ©e Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), the female creation, or even the partnership with Dr. Pretorius (so memorably played by Ernest Thesiger). Frankenstein stories are so often filled with social and scientific subtexts; when the Bride element is added, these themes are given even deeper dimension. Bride specifically tackles the religious establishment, class, sexual politics, and LGBTQ+ identity in a time when it was strictly taboo to address any of these subjects on film. Bride of Frankenstein was decades ahead of its time and remains as fresh and engaging as ever.

Susan Denberg in ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’ (1967)

When England’s Hammer Studios began making Frankenstein films in 1957 with Curse of Frankenstein, the focus was primarily on shock with only minimal explorations into themes like scientific responsibility inherent to the Frankenstein story. By the time the studio made their Bride film in 1967, however, they were much more open to exploring deeper issues. Frankenstein Created Woman (continuing the trend of subversive titles) is largely about the British class system. The first part of the film is a love story between outcasts: Hans (Robert Morris), the peasant son of an executed murderer, and Christina (Susan Denberg), the disfigured daughter of a middle-class innkeeper. When Hans is executed for a crime committed by wealthy young miscreants, Christina throws herself off a bridge only to be revived by Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) and his assistant Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters). Unrecognizable and dazzlingly beautiful due to some reconstructive work by Dr. Hertz, Christina takes revenge upon the men who caused Hans’ death by acting as a siren, a black widow spider luring her prey to her web. By this description, the film sounds something like a cross between Romeo and Juliet and Kill Bill by way of the Frankenstein mythos, but in actuality, Frankenstein Created Woman is one of the most bizarre, fascinating, and innovative of all Hammer films and explores a number of fascinating ideas. It is without a doubt one of the studio’s best.

The Bride would continue to appear in a number of forms into the early 1970’s, particularly in those that at least claimed to remain true to the source novel. The Roger Corman produced Lady Frankenstein (1971), Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), and the television film Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) among others took their own unique spin on the Bride, but few films of the 70’s focused on the female creation. Also during this time and into the 80’s, gothic horror fell out of favor as more domestic horrors and slashers became the norm. Still the Bride showed up from time to time in various forms.

Jennifer Beals in ‘The Bride’ (1985)

In 1985, she once again received top billing in The Bride (1985), an uneven film that still has some wonderful elements. The film stars Police frontman and bassist Sting as Frankenstein and Jennifer Beals as the titular character, named Eva in the film. The movie begins with a reimagining of the final sequence of the 1935 film, but with a more open-ended outcome. Eva still rejects the Monster (played by Clancy Brown) and the tower and lab are destroyed, but Frankenstein, the Bride, and the Monster all escape. For much of the film, Eva and the Monster, named Viktor by his friend Rinaldo (David Rappaport), are shown receiving parallel education: Eva from Frankenstein in comfort and luxury and Viktor from the cruelty of the world. The Bride touches on several of the same themes from previous movies such as the outsider, class structures, and even a bit of meta-narrative, but it also plays with the idea of who is the real monster and who is truly human. While this film adhered to a more classical setting, other mid-eighties fare like John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985) and Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend (1986) gave us more contemporary Bride variations.

One of the most interesting years for Frankenstein myths is 1990, with four very different and unique twists on the Bride. Roger Corman’s final film as director, Frankenstein Unbound suffers from the constraints of its miniscule budget, but has some captivating ideas, mostly drawn from Science Fiction Grand Master Brian Aldiss’s novel of the same name, taking the meta-fiction ideas touched on in earlier iterations to a level rarely explored, and throwing in a bit of time travel to boot. Frankenhooker from schlockmeister Frank Henenlotter is the definition of exploitation film, but still manages to explore some social commentary for those willing to look for it. Brian Yuzna’s Bride of Re-Animator is the blood soaked and worthy sequel to Stuart Gordon’s original classic from 1985, featuring one of the most interesting and gory twists on the rejection sequence. 

Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is not often cited as a Bride film, but certainly shares some of its main ideas. It is a story of an artificial man, very much an outsider, and the woman who becomes an outcast because of her love for him. Like The Bride, it focuses on the ideas of what makes a person a monster and what makes a person truly human. It also introduces a more modern version of the Bride—a living, rather than reanimated, human being that very much fulfills the Bride role from previous iterations of the character. Tim Burton obviously has great affection for the Frankenstein story and the animated films he was involved with, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Corpse Bride (2005), and Frankenweenie (2012) all include unique twists on the Bride.

Helena Bonham Carter in ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ (1994)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) from director and star Kenneth Branagh has its own innovative take on the Bride. In this case, she is quite literally the wife of Dr. Frankenstein, Elizabeth, played by Helena Bonham Carter, revived after the Monster (Robert De Niro) kills her on their wedding night. In one of the most tragic versions of the rejection scenario, she not only rejects Frankenstein, who has revived her for himself, but the Monster, and ultimately herself, choosing to self-immolate rather than live the half-life she has been cursed to.

The new millennium has brought a multitude of variations on the Frankenstein legend with the characterization of both Monster and Bride continuing to evolve. Lucky McKee’s May (2002), Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing (2004), Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein (2015), Tyler MacIntryre’s Patchwork (2015), and Larry Fessenden’s Depraved (2019) are just a few of the weird, wild, and sometimes wonderful interpretations of the Frankenstein myth of the past twenty years. With the recent resurgence of interest in classic horror, thanks in part to the success of The Invisible Man (2020) and the promise of more reimaginings of Universal monsters from Blumhouse, the future looks good for Frankenstein and the Bride. More than 200 years after she wrote the novel and bid her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper,” Mary Shelley’s creation continues to do just that and be fertile ground for fresh and exciting interpretations in the hands of innovative storytellers.

As Dr. Pretorius in the original Bride of Frankenstein intoned, “a new world of gods and monsters” awaits us. I, for one, cannot wait to see what it holds.

Universal Classic Monsters


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