During the last season of Penny Dreadful, once more the sensations of guilt, lust, and repression intermingled for a montage of Victorian liaisons that ran the gamut from sweet to bedeviling. Yet, the strangest (or if you’re so inclined, romantic) encounter came when the woman Victor Frankenstein named “Lily” climbed into his bed due to an ironic (and supposed) fear of lightning. To no one’s great surprise, this childlike moment then turned into a decidedly unchildish scene as Victor and Lily consummated at least his unspoken desires.
And for Victor, this meant making love to a corpse he imbued with life. The profound amount of psychological profiling this opens up for the doctor—who in many ways is taking advantage of a presumed newborn he has lied to along with Caliban since birth—is almost as tantalizing as what it means for Lily, the first Bride of Frankenstein to ever have her wedding night.
Indeed, Lily seems like the potential fulfillment of a question mark that has haunted the Frankenstein legend ever since Mary Shelley put pen to page. For Shelley, the creation of the Monster’s Mate was a plot point of vast moral ambiguity, but for nearly every Frankenstein admirer since, it has been an unknowable query that needs an answer. For the Penny Dreadful bride was been one of season 2’s many slow burns waiting to leave its mark—a macabre distortion of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion for the gothic set, with Rory Kinnear’s ever-tragic Caliban monster acting as Pickering in a play where he imagines himself Higgins. That is until this undead Eliza proved she could talk a great deal more than about the rains in Spain.
But now the die has really been cast and lightning has finally struck. This Bride of Frankenstein, conceivably in more senses than one for this turn of phrase, is going far past her literary and even cinematic history to become a fully formed character with the incoming of Penny Dreadful season 3. But to see how she has reached such a point, one must also revisit the cultural heritage that has led to such a moment.
Mary Shelley’s Bride
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus remains one of the most important works of literature. Almost inadvertently, Shelley, who began writing the story at only 18 years of age, invented the science fiction genre by accident. Far surpassing her fabled company of Lord Byron and Percy during their Swiss lake house competition for the best ghost story, Mary’s work of fiendish horror tells a tale of creation and genesis with no God, angels, or explicitly supernatural events. Rather, protagonist Victor Frankenstein is a man of both old world alchemy and romantic enlightenment when in the 18th century (the novel is set decades prior to its 1818 publication), he gives mysterious life to an amalgamation of corpses and assorted dead flesh.
But one of the great curiosities that drove the entire narrative was the unnamed Monster—called only “daemon” by his life-giving father—and his pitiable search for a mate. Indeed, the only thing the Creature loved more than finding contrasts between his life and his favorite work of literature (Milton’s Paradise Lost) was to lament his damnable loneliness: a nightmare that only his deadbeat father could fix by giving life to another.
During their first encounter since Victor abandoned his creation on the night of its birth, the Monster’s sorrow is so great that Victor can be swayed to momentarily forget that this was also the man who murdered his young brother and framed an innocent girl for his actions.
“I ought to be thy Adam,” the Creature tells Frankenstein before even recounting his sad journeys. “But I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
Perhaps too preoccupied with the romantics’ view of Genesis, the Creature has a desire to become Milton’s Adam, rather than Victor’s personal Lucifer, and he desires only an Eve to make him whole. After all, the desire for love and companionship drives almost all men, and the prospect of there being a woman that can share his joy—or likely many sorrows in the Monster’s case—is a seductively persuasive argument that Shelley’s prose would convince anybody of, save for Victor himself.
It is in this vein that when the Creature finally demands he’s procured a mate—one of the “same species” and “one as deformed and horrible as myself”—that he also imagines a future Eden that seems quite reasonable. Promising to forsake Europe for South America with his Bride, the Monster pledges that he will “quit the neighborhood of man and dwell, as it may chance, in the most savage of places. My evil passions will have fled, for I shall meet with sympathy! My life will flow quietly away, and in my dying moments, I shall not curse my maker.”
This proposition, which Victor initially acquiesces to (after all he is trapped in an ice cave with this super-human), is a luridly complex one. Essentially, to right one sin of forbidden knowledge, Victor will create another by exploring the anatomy of a woman and allowing a new species to enjoy two of a kind. Yet, there is an unspoken misogyny to this devil’s bargain that likely would have gone unnoticed by most 19th century Shelley contemporaries.
Just because there are two persons of the same deficiencies does not mean that a woman should automatically be forced to love a strange man whose betrothal to her was arranged prior to her birth. It is an inherently possessive and demeaning qualifier to femininity, which Mary Shelley—who herself created quite the scandal when she ran away at 16 with a then-married Percy—likely found all too presumptuous of her tragic antagonist. Indeed, when Victor sits alone in a Scottish laboratory, only mere moments away from giving life to a compilation of female body parts laying before him, such an arranged marriage going awry is his most convincing mental argument to not go through with her creation.
Forlorn and despondent during his entire quest to create the Monster’s Mate, which carries Victor from Geneva all the way to the United Kingdom, it is only at the last second that Victor runs through the worst case scenarios. Amongst these is the probability that she will have the same predilection to violence that her intended has already showcased. Far more sensational is his worry that with two of this new species, they will go forth and be too fruitful: “To think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race.”
However, his strongest argument manifests in what has become the defining feature of the Bride in the popular imagination: what if she turns from the Creature like all men and women must at first sight of his gruesome countenance?
“They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation of being deserted by one of his own species.”
It is for this reason, above all else, that Victor in a fit of rage destroys and disembowels the Monster’s Mate before life ever kisses her lips. Thus, Victor damns the Creature to perpetual loneliness, himself to complete and total ruination at his son’s hands, and finally the readers to always wonder what a “Bride of Frankenstein” might have been like.
It is a paradox since the astonishingly progressive and forward-thinking Shelley did not wish to fully explore the role of femininity in her House of Horrors, or the obvious plot point about what Victor might do with his own beloved cousin and wife Elizabeth after the Creature extinguishes her light for all time. Instead, Shelley leaves the possibility of a Monster’s Mate as only another unknown heart-wrenching chapter in the “Daemon’s” melancholy. However, other creative folks throughout the centuries have not been so ambiguous.
The Quintessential Bride of Frankenstein
The most iconic image of the Monster’s Mate, which indeed is so ubiquitous in the culture that most forget she had an origin in Shelley’s novel, is of course Elsa Lanchester sporting a weird bird cage haircut with frightful gray streaking highlights; the indelible image is just one of the many courtesies from James Whale’s 1935 masterpiece, The Bride of Frankenstein.
Arguably the crowning jewel in Universal’s Monster pantheon (which includes Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man), Bride of Frankenstein is inarguably the first great Hollywood sequel, which was borne out of necessity at Universal Pictures. The studio that was finally making its name on monster movies and war films in Hollywood’s Golden Age was run as a family business by the Laemmles…until they ran themselves out of the business. But part of their poor choices in business acumen was a result of giving their best directors relatively shocking autonomy in the 1930s, not least of which was James Whale. The filmmaker whose career spanned pictures ranging from The Invisible Man to Showboat was also one of the three key ingredients that made Frankenstein (1931) the biggest populist hit of its day. Along with Jack Pierce’s iconic monster make-up and Boris Karloff’s pantomime brilliance, the film remains a classic of its genre over 80 years later.
However, it was so successful that Carl Laemmle Jr. would do anything to recreate its success, including giving a disinterested Whale nigh complete creative control to do whatever he wanted for the sequel. Up until Whale’s agreement to reluctantly return to a film he viewed as an excuse to make an “old hoot” after the classier original, the sequel went through several screenwriters with dull titles like The New Adventures of Frankenstein and The Return of Frankenstein. Finally, Whale brought in playwright John L. Balderston to give the story a pass in 1934, and he was the first to return to Shelley’s subplot of the Creature demanding a Mate. Eventually, Whale replaced Balderston with writers William J. Hurlbut and Edmund Pearson, but this central conceit became the core of the final superb film.
The Bride of Frankenstein is a triumph because of a multitude of factors, but at least thematically and visually, the Bride was one of the most fascinating aspects of the film. Whale, a defiantly and openly gay man living in the early 20th century, obviously took great pleasure in a story about two men—Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger)—not only playing God, but playing parents with no women involved.
Indeed, Pretorius is personified by Whale’s theatrical mentor in Thesiger (though the role was originally written with frequent Whale collaborator Claude Rains in mind) as an exceedingly flamboyant and blasphemous eccentric that speaks with contempt for “Bible stories.” It is not hard to read between the lines as Pretorius lures Frankenstein from his hetero and supposedly healthy (or boring) newlywed marriage to Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson); he is seducing Henry back into the hedonistic world of mad science where the greatest pleasure to be had is to make a child with his fellow man.
But the Bride herself is something all together separate from the oddities of her two dads. Indeed, in the ironically sole “beauty role” of her career, Lanchester is allowed to play the Bride in what Rick Baker called “glamour make-up.” Rather than being greatly disfigured like her literary counterpart, or Karloff’s Monster, Jack Pierce’s lone contribution to her design was a “beauty scar” beneath the neck, which barely registers in the film. If not for the fright wig, she’d be possibly considered a seductive presence on Henry herself.
And so it was Whale’s intention to play up the beauty of the Creature and her brief relationship with Dr. Frankenstein. After all, the film opens on a sequence that Whale insisted be in the film: Mary Shelley, Percy, and Lord Byron discussing her frightful tale during a rainy night in the Swiss countryside. It was at Whale’s insistence that Lanchester also play Mary, as he wanted to highlight the fact that “very pretty people have very wicked thoughts.” In fact, other than the Creature destroying a statue of Christ on the Cross (it was later turned to a dead bishop), this sequence got the film in its most trouble with the censors at the Breen Office, because of Whale’s close-ups of Lanchester’s décolletage, which were promptly edited out.
However, the real importance of the Bride is how she was portrayed in her brief strut around the lab as a slinking, hissing woman that immediately gravitated toward the good doctor Frankenstein over her intended hubby. As played with some feral qualities by Lanchester (the hissing apparently came from her idea after feeding swans in the park with Charles Laughton), our first moment of actually witnessing the Monster’s Mate is that of seeing a woman who did not fit into the men’s designs.
As soon as she is forced to sit next to Karloff’s beautifully sad sack Monster, her immediate reaction is to hiss and scream, and to run to Henry for protection. Implicitly, this all-too-brief climax of the film sets up a love triangle between the doctor, the Monster, and the Bride, which has become part of the lore ever since. Some have even speculated that without censors around, Whale would have made the Bride be partially borne from the spare parts of Henry Frankenstein’s own wife, Elizabeth, thus doubling down on the triangle.
Exactly the worst case scenario that Shelley’s Victor imagined about the Mate, she rejects in total the Creature that cannot find even love or pity from one of his own species, which is heart-wrenchingly underscored by composer Franz Waxman’s three-notes of whimsical wistfulness.
As a result, he grows grim and murderous once more, killing himself, Pretorius, and even the Bride. Strangely, he spares Henry only because in the ‘30s, happy endings were required. Yet, I wish the Bride was the one spared. Only allowed one shuffle around the lab—playing keep away with Karloff—she is slaughtered by her deflated suitor in an ending that never takes full advantage of where she could go next. Over two films, Karloff progressed his Creature from a mute, six-foot infant into a pained and verbal teenager. Who knows where he or she could have gone if he had not pulled the deus ex machina lever…
Frankenstein Created Woman
While Hammer Studios and its patented form of hammy horror redos from the Universal catalogue will always have a special place in my heart (particularly for their vampire entries), I never truly loved Hammer’s long-running Frankenstein series. On paper, this is admittedly quite intriguing since instead of following the eventual diminishing returns of the Creature (and his rotating series of unsatisfactory recasts), we rather now tracked a deliberately not so good Dr. Victor Frankenstein, wonderfully played with vast arrogance and sadism by Peter Cushing over seven films. Nonetheless, these pictures always lacked the playfulness of the studio’s Dracula and witchcraft alternatives.
Still, there is an audience for them, and there are a few entries that stand above the rest. Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) is probably not one of them, but it does hold the distinction of having the most unusual and unique depiction of Victor playing with womanly flesh.
Frankenstein Created Woman marked Hammer stalwart Terrence Fisher’s return to the Frankenstein series, but it is also his lowest effort, not least of all because the film has left the realm of science fiction and entered pure magical fantasy.
While there was always a hint of black magic to Victor’s experiments in the original Mary Shelley novel, especially as he found his greatest influences to be in the alchemists of bygone Medieval and Renaissance eras, it nevertheless was a mere implication in the world’s first science fiction story, which quite profoundly featured no serious consideration of God. The equation of souls and afterlife never played a factor in Victor’s thinking.
Each adaptation henceforth increasingly embraced the sci-fi angle of our dear modern day Prometheus, not least of all because science in itself grew as more than an appendage to philosophy. By the time we reached Universal’s iconic Frankenstein films, never mind Hammer, he was a man of lightning and electricity…at least until Frankenstein Created Woman, which is the film where the doc finally dismisses brain transfers as passé, and now works exclusively in the canvas of UV-light based soul-osmosis.
Thus after his assistant Hans (Robert Morris) is wrongfully accused for the murder of his lover’s father—in actuality he was killed by three puffed up rich boy dandies that were mad they couldn’t rape the man’s disfigured daughter, Christina (Susan Denberg)—Hans will soon be in need of a soul transfer. Sure enough, Hans is executed under the guillotine, and disfigured Christina in her sorrow commits suicide in the river. Ergo, Dr. Frankenstein collects the bodies of both and instead of bringing them back, puts Hans’ soul into Christina’s body.
There is no real reason for this, and the result is confusing since she acts like Hans getting revenge at certain times, and like a woman being pressured by a disembodied voice of Hans to murder in other instances. Presumably, it is at least somewhat Hans, because this “Christina” has been helpfully un-disfigured by Frankenstein’s cosmetic surgery, and he/she is so grateful that “Christina” now embraces her inner buxom Hammer Horror cleavage goddess. Together, these two souls in the same body seduce each man who actually murdered her father and slaughters them mercilessly. It’d actually be kind of great if her voice turned into Hans’ before the knife drops, but it never does.
In the end, poor confused “Christina” cannot decide what gender she really is (or what the plot is even attempting to convey), and throws herself to her death in the river. Again. At least this time, Dr. Frankenstein seems a little sad. Maybe he’s simply as confused as we are as to what the Hell just happened.
The Bride of Frankenstein Meets Sting?
The most obscure entry in this article, The Bride (1985) is probably forgotten for good reason. Essentially a revisionist continuation upon the ending of The Bride of Frankenstein, this film attempts to answer the lingering questions of who the Bride might have been in that 1935 picture, and to find a pseudo-feminist message on the tale, which John Logan also appears to be chasing (with hopefully greater success) on Penny Dreadful.
This film opens with the Bride’s creation. But if Henry Frankenstein in the James Whale movies managed to improve on hiding the horror scars between Karloff and Lanchester, this Dr. Charles Frankenstein is a real miracle worker; aye, the monster, here named Viktor (don’t ask), is played by Clancy Brown under extensive make-up. The Bride, meanwhile, looks exactly like Jennifer Beals at the height of her post-Flashdance glory. In fact, her first scene after the prologue is approaching the good doctor completely in the nude (and in terrific ‘80s hair to boot).
…I also forgot to mention that this Dr. Frankenstein is played by Sting. Yes that Sting. So for once, the Monster and his Mate are not the only lifeless creations on the screen…
More of a melodrama than horror film, The Bride deals with some curious ideas: such as after banishing the grotesque Viktor from his castle, Charles Frankenstein intends to keep the Bride for himself and turn her into the perfect woman and man’s equal—after all she already grabbed his arm in preference over Viktor when she met her intended mate during the film’s opening sequence. However, the more cultured and refined “Eva” becomes (as in Adam and Eve), the more she becomes like her namesake, resenting her life-giving god and father. He wants her to love him, and she wants to know more about the great romantic poets, and finally meets a handsome lad played by a then-unknown Cary Elwes.
Charles becomes enraged that she would love anyone else and would be this independent, so he locks her in a tower and plans to rape her. But luckily for her, and unluckily for the film’s feminist aspirations, she is saved from said rape by a returning Viktor who despite his abhorrent features proves his goodness by slaughtering their creator. Relieved that Sting has been silenced, Eva and Viktor ride off into the sunrise.
Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Mary Shelley’s’ Frankenstein
Another film that sounded much better on paper was Kenneth Branagh’s spiritual follow-up to Francis Ford Coppola’s much more delirious (and entertaining) Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While Branagh stayed closer to his author’s spirit than Coppola, the overall film is a much blurrier mess where Branagh’s usually vitalizing and operatic energy, which quickens his Shakespeare adaptations to life with whizzing cameras, becoming an albatross of excess and bombast here. This is most unfortunately true with the director being unable to find the line between lurid and disgusting (such as Coppola did) in matters of gore and violence.
Similarly, Branagh worked from a screenplay by Frank Darabont and Steph Lady to incorporate the Monster’s Mate directly into Shelley’s yarn with a bit of cleverness: after the Monster (played by a charismatic if miscast Robert De Niro) slaughters Victor’s cousinly wife on their wedding night, Victor carries her body back to the lab where he desecrates it even further with shaving, decapitation, and other monstrosities before bringing her back to life.
Meant to be horrific, tragic, and bittersweet, it accomplishes at least the first objective. But once Victor, played by a sweaty and egomaniacal Branagh at the peak of his pretensions, begins dancing with his resurrected bride to a waltz in minor, it enters the realm of comical. Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Elizabeth-turned-Bride, and Patrick Doyle’s admittedly terrific score, bring more pathos to this sequence than the actual script or direction deserves. But both are stymied by Branagh’s continued operatic misjudgments. When De Niro’s Creature appears to claim Elizabeth as his Bride, the two men have a power-struggle that forces Elizabeth to remember her name…and to promptly commit suicide by fire and absurdity.
Essentially, a reworking of the actual ending of The Bride of Frankenstein, save for the Bride dying by her own hand, the scene should have been the ultimate kick to the stomach. Unfortunately, it’s just stomach turning from the laughter it induces.
And thus other than the one with Sting in it, the Bride of Frankenstein has yet to really forge an identity outside of the lab and those early steps of rejecting the Creature.
This finally brings us back to Penny Dreadful, which has the rare opportunity to go somewhere with the Bride that has been denied from Shelley through Branagh: to self-actualization. At the moment, she is still in her first weeks of life, and deceivingly appeared at first glance to be much like Lanchester in the perennial Bride of Frankenstein–desperately gripping to her life-giving doctor for protection, love, and a distancing from the ever-forlorn and pitiable Creature (or Caliban, as I still call him on the series).
Additionally, given that she has been called “cousin” by Victor, any passing fan of Shelley could possibly predict how her life might end, especially once Caliban discovered that his own species has rejected him for his arch-nemesis. But like Shaw’s Miss Doolittle, Lily eventually revealed she is no doll to be toyed with in the clutches of Victor or the Creature. Rather, she might be the malicious character without fangs or a basement full of dead children on Penny Dreadful, a fact Caliban learned when she took advantage of him. But that righteous fury in Lily’s cold veins might also prove to be commendable in such an unrighteous world. After all, is not better to be her own cruel woman than the docile pet that Victor and Caliban both alternatively coveted?
How much richer is it that for once this Bride made it out of the lab to enjoy more than her marriage bed or tomb?
This article was irst published on June 1, 2015.