The Bride of Frankenstein is NOT a neglected masterpiece, which should be considered alongside Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard.
That claim is made by one of the expert commentators in the special 40-minute documentary, 'Creating the Bride of Frankenstein', which accompanies the Universal release of this classic horror flick. Well, maybe it is on a par with the vastly over-rated Citizen Kane, but the clear suggestion, that the total brilliance of this movie has somehow been overlooked all these years, is just so much hogwash.
The Bride of Frankenstein is an outstanding piece of B-grade cinema horror schlock. Stylistically it cribs outrageously from visionary directors such as Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, and of course the great Fritz Lang M, Siegfried and Metropolis), but while much of the acting is hammy and the portentous style just plain silly, it has enough unregenerated high-camp humour and tongue-in-cheek mocking of its own genre to make it great viewing.
Director James Whale is credited with the key ideas behind the creation of this movie, and of its immortal predecessor, Frankenstein, and for that he'll always be honoured by the horror fraternity.
But his direction really is only average, with some apallingly bad acting which a truly great director would have eradicated - particularly from Una O'Connor as a frenetic, shrieking maid who is an Honours graduate from the School of Over-Acting, and the over-camp Ernest Thesiger as Dr Pretorius. Ernest Thesiger is said to have been James Whale's mentor. He obviously taught James that in all things, excess is best.
While the direction is mediocre, the art direction, by Charles Hall, and the cinematography, by John Mescall, are both superb. Even though they have borrowed so obviously from German cinema expressionism, they have in turn refined it to define the American horror genre.
The makeup of the Monster, by makeup artist James Pierce, is a brilliant achievement. But too much credit is paid to it in the over-long 'making-of' documentary. The makeup only accentuates the immense depth of its star, Boris Karloff. And both this film, and its predecessor, would be forgotten today if not for James Whale's critical casting of Boris in this part.
There can be no exaggeration of the impact of Karloff in this role. Brutish and vulnerable, powerful yet defenceless, monstrous yet innocent - he is able to convey all these aspects in an amazingly complex performance. This was the first movie in which Frankenstein's monster speaks... Boris had not by this stage developed the truly sepulchral voice of his later career, but he didn't need it - the voice is superfluous; his command of the language of the body is complete.
Elsa Lanchester moves nicely between her two roles, as author Mary, and then in her later appearance as the intended Bride. So frightening, yet nightmarishly alluring. What a great creation she is... she is an eternal high-point in over-the-top art-deco excess.
You should approach this movie as dated, but highly enjoyable, B-grade movie fare. Ignore the learned commentaries which try to build it up to be everything it so obviously isn't. This film doesn't need its latter-day apologists; it can stand quite nicely on its cheap, monstrously huge and forever entertaining B-grade feet.
There are a couple of other versions of this out-of-copyright movie circulating on DVD.
Avoid all substitutes. This is the restored version by Universal, and although the print quality is not great, it is certainly acceptable viewing for a classic flick from this period. And it will be the most complete version available.
There is a lot of grain, but it's a satisfying image which gives justice to the intended chiaroscuro.