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Only a handful of sequels have the distinction of being as good as or better than the originals. Bride of Frankenstein is one of them. At first reluctant to take on a follow-up to his highly successful Frankenstein (1931), director James Whale finally gave in to the demands of Universal, the studio that gave birth to a distinctive series of horror films, beginning with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and reaching its heights in the 1930s with Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), and a handful of pictures based to varying degrees on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Whale made two of the most significant contributions to the genre, The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), as well as the pair of films based on Mary Shelley's man-made monster. Even among such an impressive line-up, Bride of Frankenstein shines as one of the most inventive, atmospheric, and slyly humorous movies in the Universal series. More notable is how well it stands up to some of the best films of the decade, bringing even those critics who looked down on the horror genre to begrudgingly admit its merits.

There is much to recommend it, and film scholars have written volumes on its expressionist lighting and camerawork, deft mixture of dark comedy and gruesome thrills, Franz Waxman's evocative score, the film's Christian symbolism and allegory (occasioning more than a few arguments), and the tenderness of human emotion exhibited by the unfortunate creature reanimated from the dead. This last aspect owes a great deal not only to the script (worked over by at least ten writers) but to the performance of Boris Karloff. Credited only as "?" in the 1931 original, Karloff had established himself as such a major presence in the genre by mid-decade that he was afforded above-the-title billing with only his last name. Although consigned to the cinematic ghetto of horror movies for most of his Hollywood career, Karloff's obvious talent and gentle nature emerged from under the image created by make-up artist Jack P. Pierce (itself a film milestone) to bring startling life, sympathy, and pathos to what might have been just another standard movie monster.

One of the best descriptions of the achievement of Karloff, Whale, and company came from contemporary horror-fantasy master Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, 2004; Pan's Labyrinth, 2006). Speaking at an October 2012 screening of the film in Los Angeles, del Toro said, "If the first one was about the essential loneliness of man, a Miltonian episode about being thrust into a world that you didn't create and didn't understand, then the second one is the absolute compulsion for company, the need not to be alone." He went on to acknowledge how Pierce's work gave birth to modern film make-up artistry and how Whale's often cold and cynical nature was "palliated by the incredible talent of Boris Karloff, who understands, like Whale, what it is to be an outsider" (referring to Whale's homosexuality and Karloff, perhaps, as a British transplant to Hollywood without the typical leading man assets). For all its thrills and dark jokes, Bride of Frankenstein gets its heart from this understanding, the recognition of the pain of being a misfit or freak in the eyes of the world. "The films we love are emotional biographies and partial prophecies of who we are and who we can be," del Toro said. "The moment I discovered the creature I discovered in him a twin soul, and in his suffering and disenfranchisement I discovered a kindred spirit." He might well have added just how much fun this movie is to watch.

by Rob Nixon

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