“An audience needs something stronger than a pretty little love story. So why shouldn’t I write about monsters?” Actors portraying Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron introduce the second installment of her Frankenstein story (something she never actually wrote). Mary Shelley, played by Elsa Lanchester (who also plays the monster’s bride), asked question I just quoted. This is the mindset that undoubtedly has guided director/screenwriter/producer Guillermo del Toro’s career, leading to his passionate and sensual (but definitely not pretty or little) love story about the relationship between a deaf-mute cleaning lady and a sea monster that just won four Academy Awards including Best Picture.
In James Whale’s first Frankenstein film, he produced a perfect retelling of Mary Shelley’s masterwork for film. Just as Shelley did, that film emphasized the horrific results of playing God. But Bride of Frankenstein goes even farther to condemn the actions of the mad scientist while finding empathy, and even humanity, for the monster he created. The evil actions committed by the monster are not the monster’s fault but the creator’s fault. Beginning just where the earlier film left off, Dr. Frankenstein is about to be married, and his bride reminds him of just that. She will not allow him to continue a life that does not take responsibility for his destructive creation. Wanting to please her, he tries to turn from his ways until an even madder scientist, Dr. Pretorius, convinces him to return to his former ways and to build a wife for the first monster.
Our empathy for the monster is built through his desperate pursuit of connection. As he’s being pursued by all the people of the town who wrongfully blame him for the murders that have occurred instead his maker, he is marginalized to the point of feeling invalidated and dehumanized, much like Sally Hawkins’ character and her sea monster in The Shape of Water. But the monster begins to gain a sense of humanity not initially through romance but through the sound of a violin. As he’s drawn to the beauty of the music, we see something that the monster has a soul, something that the first movie only hints at.
As the monster follows the sound of the violin, he meets an old, blind hermit who welcomes him and teaches him to speak. His first words are “bread,” “drink,” and “friend.” He is now becoming human as is finally experiencing the fulfillment of the most basic human needs. Through this first taste of humanity, he learns to embrace his desire for mate all while his maker and the even madder scientist are trying to make that happen without even knowing he wants or needs it. They’re motives of course have nothing to do with the monster’s humanity or the safety of the community but with their own insatiable lust for power over things no human has power over. As they proclaim the beginning of “a new age of gods and monsters,” they continue to dehumanize both their creations and the rest of the world around them. But for a brief moment, the monster has the opportunity to embrace life and to be a human, making this monster, as played by Boris Karloff in both films, one of the most profoundly moving character in cinematic history.