The original Frankenstein (1931) is a monster classic in its own right. It is dramatic and iconic, starting some of the tropes that make monster movies what they are today. Yet for all of its old horror charm, it lacks the heart and the intricacies from great works of art to make it anything more than a monster film. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) continued its predecessor’s gothica, but added humor, emotion and heartache. Combined with the story behind its director, James Whale, the story takes on a whole new type of artistic brilliance, a representation of homosexuality and estrangement.
Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff in both Frankenstein and its sequel) is the most sympathetic of all of Universal’s monsters. He is not inherently evil like Dracula or insane like the Invisible Man. He can not change to a normal guy after the full moon like the Wolf Man or desires to exact vengeance on the world like the Mummy. He is a poor creature, childlike, hated because of his appearance and for what he is: an experiment gone wrong.
James Whale grew up a gay man in a world that did not accept him. Much like the monster, he never felt as if he truly belonged and was persecuted simply for being himself. During the film, the viewer can feel that personal connection that Whale has with the monster, that pained sense of ostracization. And rather than accentuate the innate hurt the monster feels, he focuses on the comedic elements that contradict the previous film.
Horror and comedy may feel like two separate sides of a coin, but they are closely linked. We laugh at terrifying things sometimes and cringe at certain humor. They each produce a strong emotional reaction out of us, a jump of fear and a knee slap of laughter not that different really.
Whale uses that dichotomy of emotion to illustrate the strangeness of his monster and of his own life. During the film, the monster confronts a woman after crawling out of a burning mill. The woman turns to the camera, screams and runs away. In a way, he is saying, life is both terrible and hilarious, an elaborate joke that makes us cry.
The very idea of a man (Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive) creating another man is laced with latent homosexual underpinnings. Frankenstein is attempting to create his own form of masculine perfection, something he can claim as his own, a direct affront to God and to society. The monster, then, yearns for companionship and love, but is met with a world of scorn. Both men, searching for completeness, have nowhere to go.
Frankenstein’s tutor, Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), is a flamboyant, maniacal man, similarly humorous amidst a world of death and decay. He seems to be in love not only with replicating Frankenstein’s work, but also in love with his student, an unrequited desire. This connection to another man ties him to Frankenstein’s dream to create a new being, something that can actually generate love in a world of torment.
And yet, the person they create, the mate of the monster, hates him just like all the others. The monster can find no peace. Pretorious can find no peace. Only Frankenstein, repentant of his ways, normal, with a woman, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), by his side, gets to live. The world is made for those like him, the film suggests. The outsiders are monsters meant to suffer.
The only man who truly shows any sympathy to the monster is the blind man (O. P. Heggie) who teaches him kindness and words like “friend.” It is a haunting scene, the lure of emotional connection snatched away because of how the world looks at you. It is probably something that James Whale dealt with quite often.
James Whale killed himself in May of 1957 at the age of 67. His story is excellently presented in Bill Condon’s film Gods and Monsters (1998) starring Ian McKellen.
While current filmmakers resort to violence and gore and jump scares to produce modern day horror films, perhaps the simplest scares are the most lasting, the balance between comedy and horror so thin, the real world creeping into our characters we watch whether we realize it or not, and the knowledge that we are all outsiders and can not escape our destiny.