Our film opens in a spacious and decadent turn of the century study, the looming windows holding the horrors of a storm at bay. Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) stands looking out, noting how it is “the crudest savage exhibition of nature”, a commentary nonetheless on Mary Shelley’s noteworthy success of Frankenstein. Or perhaps it’s both a meta-statement that also works to scrutinize the societal place women must adhere to, one that still resonates to this day.
Our Lord, who proclaims himself England’s greatest sinner amongst an angel, Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), regards the frightful storm as nature’s applause for both a sinner and a poet, Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton). It’s Mary, sitting quietly underneath the presence of men, who finds the thunder alarming. Her gown’s aura, angelic in quality, contrasts the dark nature of Mary’s mind, which pieced together the monster that terrorized a village in James Whale’s 1931 precursor, Frankenstein.
She’s viewed as an astonishing creature with a bland and lovely brow, one who will have much to answer for if her novel within the film ever gets published. She states that her purpose was “to write a moral lesson, on the punishment that fell on mortal man to emulate god.” It’s this man, emulating god, which works at both constructing man and patriarchy, further exemplified by Mary’s lack of publication with her novel.
With The Bride of Frankenstein, the societal structure is electrified and brought to life through the means of constructing a woman as an object of desire for Doctor Frankenstein’s (Colin Clive) monster, resurrected by Boris Karloff. This time, Frankenstein is controlled by a more sinister god, that of Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), whose previous work consists of homunculus, the creation of fully formed yet miniature human beings.
A king, queen, arch bishop, and the devil (a recreation of Pretorius himself), all figures of hierarchy and devotion are kept contained in bottles. It’s these fragmented creations which symbolize a repressed society, and possibly that of Pretorius’ own sexual dysfunction. “Have a cigar. They’re my only weakness,” states the doctor, alluding to the absence of desire for women, a stereotypical weakness in man, perhaps signifying an attention to godlike inclinations. There’s a tendency within Pretorius that borders on the absence of masculinity, his need to create a woman that is a complete representation of his sexual repression.
While Doctor Frankenstein looks on, strained from the incident at the windmill where he was presumed dead, Pretorius handles his creations with ease, forcing an observance of his dominance over hierarchy and power. It’s these scenes that are interspersed with those of Frankenstein’s monster roaming the countryside, a creature like that of Mary Shelley. She, like the monster, succumbs to the misrepresentation of man and is subsequently viewed as a creation of a superior being. When the monster breaks out of imprisonment, his path is not that of destruction, but that of a sexual awakening.
Within the town in which the creature escapes, the victims that befall the path of the monster are a prison guard (authority) and a young girl (purity), yet we are left to our own devices on the girl’s demise. Unlike the drowned girl from Frankenstein, a victim of playful innocence, we are to assume this youthful victim is a product of rage, a sexual awakening at the heart of it.
As our monster scours the countryside out of survival, it encounters a blind man who takes it in without question, teaching it kindness and friendship. However, it flees into the woods after being accosted by two hunters, and finds shelter within the depths of a catacomb. Here, it discovers the coffined body of a women, her deceased beauty eliciting a singular response, “friend.” Frankenstein’s monster uniquely symbolizes the separation of patriarchy as our simple being knows not of genders or the roles in which they play. Whale, who was an openly gay man, can be seen in fragments within our monster, a creation that from birth is unable to view women in a carnal and objectified light.
It isn’t until he happens upon our devilish Doctor Pretorius, scavenging pieces of women for his creation that he begins to learn and understand the sexually oppressive ways of man. Acting as both god and the devil, our fiendish doctor utilizes our monster to lure Doctor Frankenstein away from his soon-to-be bride Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), forcing him against his will to help create a mate for his creation.
When lightning strikes and our bride awakened, she screams at the monster that stands before her, though it’s one that hides a grin. It isn’t until Frankenstein’s monster shows affection does our bride reel back in horror, one that chillingly hides awareness for why she was created. As Elizabeth rushes to the laboratory door in order to rescue her love, it’s the monster that instructs the two to save themselves, stammering to Pretorius that “we belong dead.”
Our monster, a creation of man who unwillingly uses its dominance to escape the confines of society, inevitably acts as both the suppressed and the suppressor, aiding in bringing a constructed woman to both life and death. Where Frankenstein acted as a moralistic tale punishing those that sought to emulate god, The Bride of Frankenstein works as an allegorical tale on patriarchal norms and gender specific social structures, ones that are raised like the bride herself. While the she symbolizes free thought, shown in her unwillingness to become a mate to Doctor Frankenstein’s monster, our bride ultimately seeks to act as the catalyst for social change, spurring her own destruction through independence from man.