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Never the Monster, Always the Bride: The Bride of Frankenstein in film and television

Contributed by
May 23, 2017

Everyone knows the iconic Universal monsters. In fact, Universal is betting an entire cinematic franchise on that very fact. The upcoming release of The Mummy heralds seven films already in some form of development. These films are going to cover all the classics—your Mummy, obviously, your Invisible Man, your Creature From the Black Lagoon, and the lone woman from the original lineup, the Bride of Frankenstein.

("But Clare, where's Dracula?" Languishing in the completely forgotten Dracula Untold, which was supposed to be the first installment of this franchise, and of which we will never speak again.)

Among her monstrous peers, the Bride is unique. She receives the least amount of screen time in her cinematic debut, and she doesn't kill anybody. But at least that's more screen time than she was given in the source material. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the Bride isn't a character—she's a condition. The monster informs Dr. Frankenstein that the only way he'll leave human society is if the doctor makes him a companion. Dr. Frankenstein agrees, but after he salvages the requisite corpses and builds the female monster, he becomes horrified at the idea that the two monsters might have equally monstrous children and overrun the world. Instead of the slightly more logical step of simply unhooking the relevant plumbing, Dr. Frankenstein destroys her body before he even animates her.

Basically, he's not sure what to do with her, a theme that's repeated in the following attempts to bring the Bride back to life in film and television. Before the Dark Universe (ooh, spooky) takes its own stab at the Bride of Frankenstein, let's see what's been made of her over the last 80 years on screen.

The Bride of Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1937)

The original better-than-the-original sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein conceives of the Bride not as a condition, but as a gift. Reformed Dr. Henry Frankenstein gets immediately tempted back to the dark side by the amazingly named Dr. Septimus Praetoris. If Dr. Frankenstein can provide a body for the Bride, then Dr. Praetoris will provide a synthetic brain. Most of the film is a build-up to the Bride's appearance, as both the doctors and the monster await her animation with bated breath.

And what an animation. The reason why the Bride of Frankenstein's ratio of icon status to screen time is so skewed is because of actress Elsa Lanchester and Universal makeup artist Jack Pierce. She looks like a cross between a bride, a shriven corpse and a royal mummy. In fact, her iconic hairstyle is an attempt to recreate Nefertiti's famous headdress with actual hair. For all her beauty, she's chilling and alien, moving jerkily and hissing like a swan at the Monster, whom she loathes on sight. Rejected, the Monster opts for the Nice GuyTM nuclear option, killing everyone except Dr. Frankenstein and his wife Elizabeth.

Interesting, Lanchester also plays Mary Shelley in a prologue with husband Percy and Lord Byron, who express surprise that sweet little Mary could tell such a horrifying story. (Thankfully, the film chooses to ignore what Lord Byron actually got up to that summer.) The authorial intent of this scene was to neuter the horror, by showing that's it's sprung from Mary's head to create a remove. But I quite like the reading that the doctors playing God has resulted in them creating an unnatural creature in the image of their God—Mary, their author.

The Bride (dir. Franc Roddam, 1985)

The Bride is a deeply bizarre film. It's as if a dark wave fan in the '80s watched Dune and the "Wuthering Heights" music video too fast while suffering a fever. It boasts an all-star cast — Sting! Quentin Crisp! Jennifer Beals right after Flashdance! Clancy Brown! Is! The! Monster! — but you've probably never heard of it.

Crisp (playing a brief riff on Dr. Praetorius) perishes five minutes into the movie assisting the birth of Eva, the titular Bride. (This is not an equitable trade.) After an animation process that apparently requires a full-body white gimp suit, newborn Eva recoils from the Monster. The ensuing Nice Guy Monster Tantrum leaves everyone but himself, Eva, and Baron Charles Frankenstein dead. While the Monster goes on a heartwarming quest of self-discovery in an Italian circus, poor Eva is in the clutches of the decadent Baron. (We know he's decadent because he's played by Sting.) When a somehow even more decadent Henry Clerval asks if Charles is going to turn her into the perfect mate, Charles scoffs … but eventually tries to groom Eva, dresses her like a doll, watches her sleep, and then tries to sexually assault her. "Luckily," the monster returns after his heartwarming quest of self-discovery and rescues her. They walk into into the sunset (or Venice) hand in hand, Eva's previous issues with the monster suddenly so small in comparison to what she experienced under Charles' control.

As you might be able to tell, Eva is, despite being the title character, purely an object in this film. While she does have flashes of autonomy and willfulness, she's mostly just a beautiful, wide-eyed innocent. A perfect woman, according to the rapacious male gaze of Charles, is an inherently unnatural woman. Other than the circumstances of her birth, Eva's not a monster at all, in either behavior or design. And honestly, neither is the Monster, who yearns only for human connection and understanding. The real monster is clearly Charles, but since the film's draw is that it stars Sting, the film observes that fact but largely shrugs at it. I guess in the eighties, watching Sting do anything was considered worthwhile.

Which does explain certain scenes in Dune

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 1994)

The lesser younger sister of 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula turned lesser '90s Kenneth Branagh joint, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is actually a perfectly decent adaptation of the novel. It may take you quite some time to accept Robert de Niro (in makeup that makes him look uncannily like Patriots coach Bill Belichick) as the monster, but he turns in an elegiac and subtle performance in a film where everyone else is either maximum bombast (an incredibly shirtless Branagh as Victor) or maximum prim period historical (everyone else).

Throughout the film, Helena Bonham Carter's Elizabeth is a constant presence, as first Victor's adopted sister and then his wife. (This is accurate to the novel, but the novel definitely doesn't include sex scenes where they appear to be getting off on the fact that they're legally siblings.) But after, as in the book, the monster kills Elizabeth on her wedding night, by, as not in the book, ripping her heart out of her chest, Victor remembers that he has the skills to reanimate the dead, a fresh female corpse in his attic, and enough strength to decapitate a small woman.

The reanimated Elizabeth is one of Helena Bonham Carter's first and perhaps deftest monstrosities. Of all the Brides, she's the only one who is meant to look grotesque. Head burned and shaved, stitching and swelling obscuring her face and reducing her features to one wild, wide eye and a quivering lower lip, she nonetheless projects the coltish energy of a confused, newborn creature at a level that matches De Niro's early scenes. Victor tries to coax any reassurance that Elizabeth's mind survived the procedure as she jerks, Lanchester-esque, and her allegiance is as vague as an imprinting duckling's when the Monster cuts in. Given how rapturously she's photographed, it's easy to think that Elizabeth is, as Eva was, a doll of a Bride.

But when Victor and the Monster begin to literally play tug of war with her, a horrified Elizabeth sets herself on fire, running through the manor for good measure as she burns to death. It seems likely that Branagh's intention was that Elizabeth feels so betrayed by Victor that she chooses death rather than her undead state, but the impact, especially after watching The Bride, feels more like Elizabeth is fleeing objectification, preferring a spectacular death over being anyone's perfect corpse bride.

Penny Dreadful (created by John Logan, 2014 to 2016)

At the end of the first season of the aggressively pulp and arch Penny Dreadful, consumptive sex worker Brona Croft is killed and then reanimated by a ne'er-do-well Dr. Frankenstein as Lily Frankenstein, who he passes off as his cousin. Initially, Lily seems every inch the guileless, charming innocent that Eva was. She's wide-eyed, British, and blonde where Brona was world-weary, Irish, and brunette. She's dainty and genteel; she comports herself well in society; and she takes Victor's virginity during a thunderstorm, which counts as sweet for Penny Dreadful.

But that impression is shattered in "Little Scorpions" and "Memento Mori," where Lily picks up a man at a public house to sleep with and then kill. When the Creature confronts Lily over her misadventure, furious that she should stray so far from being his perfect woman, Lily drops the mask entirely. Rebuking him and mocking him, she reveals she remembers everything. She remembers being Brona. She remembers being mistreated and abused as a sex worker by her male clients, she finds the gendered expectations of the upper classes equally oppressive, and she knows full well that she's immortal. As she throws the Creature to the floor, she delivers her mission statement: "Never again will I kneel to any man. Now they shall kneel to me."

Lily makes good on that declaration in the third season. With the help of fellow immortal Dorian Gray, she organizes sex workers in a violent revolution against abusive men, extolling them to avenge the women who have been silenced and oppressed throughout the years. Her fiery rhetoric and new purpose in life is, however, threatened by Victor, who wishes to inject her with a serum to render her a docile amnesiac open to his advances. Lily's only able to escape this fate by telling him about the death of her daughter, a memory so painful that she nevertheless wishes to retain. But Dorian, who betrayed her to Victor in the first place, has run off Lily's army and killed her second-in-command, leaving her without the "great enterprise" she worked so hard to create. Lily walks into the sunset at the end of the season and series, vowing to keep her passion and anger alive even in the face of how immortality can dull the senses.

It's tempting to see Lily as the best Bride. Of the four listed here, she's certainly the most developed, with the most agency, backstory and righteous fury. But, like her sister Brides, she still remains a fundamentally reactionary character, positioned in opposition to the men in her life that created her. She does kill—a lot—but it's framed in the righteous anger of a woman abused by men and pushed to her breaking point. If Lily is a monster, that's because society made her one.

When Universal's Bride of Frankenstein is unleashed in 2019, I hope we'll get an opportunity to see a different Bride. There's so much potential for the Bride that hasn't been explored on screen in the last eighty years. She could be more than the sum of her parts, the work of her maker, and the love of a monster. A new adaptation of her story could do worse than letting her rise above the peculiar circumstances of her second birth.