The film immediately follows the events of the first film and is rooted in the original novel. A subplot from the latter half of the book involves the Monster promising to leave Frankenstein, and the human race, alone if Frankenstein will create a mate for him. Frankenstein creates the female monster, but never brings it to life, deciding instead to destroy it.
Bride of Frankenstein was released to great critical and popular success. In the decades since its release, the film's reputation has grown and it is hailed as director James Whale's masterpiece. Some modern film scholars, noting the homosexuality of James Whale and others in the production, have found a gay sensibility in the film.
Villagers gathered around the burning windmill cheer the apparent death of the Monster (Karloff). Their joy is tempered by the realization that Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is also apparently dead. Hans (Reginald Barlow), father of the young girl the creature drowned, wants to see the Monster's blackened bones. He falls into a pit underneath the mill, where the Monster, having survived the fire, strangles him. Hauling himself from the pit, the Monster grabs Hans' wife (Mary Gordon) and casts her into the pit to her death. He next encounters Minnie (Una O'Connor), who flees in terror.
Henry is returned to his ancestral castle home. His fiancée Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) has his body brought inside. Minnie arrives at the castle and tries to sound the alarm about the Monster but she is not believed. Elizabeth mourns Henry's death on the night before their scheduled wedding, but he moves and she realizes that he still lives.
Elizabeth nurses Henry back to health. He has repented his creation but still believes he may be destined to unlock the secret of life and immortality. A hysterical Elizabeth cries that she sees death coming for Henry, foreshadowing the appearance at the castle door of Doctor Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), Henry's former mentor. Pretorius entreats Henry to accompany him to see the results of his own experiments in "playing God." At Pretorius' rooms, he shows Henry several homunculi he had created, including a miniature queen, king, archbishop, devil, ballerina and mermaid. Pretorius wishes to combine his skills with Henry's to create a mate for Frankenstein's monster. Doctor Pretorius offers a toast to their joint venture; "To a new world of gods and monsters!"
The Monster lurches through the woods and saves a young shepherdess from drowning; however, her screams upon seeing him alert two passing hunters, who shoot and injure the creature. The hunters raise an angry mob that sets out in pursuit of the Monster. They capture him and truss him to a pole. The mob hauls the Monster to a dungeon and chains him. Left alone, the creature easily breaks his chains and escapes.
That night the Monster encounters a gypsy family. In trying to steal the meat they are roasting, he burns his hand in their campfire. Following the sound of a violin playing "Ave Maria", the Monster encounters an old blind hermit (O. P. Heggie), who thanks God for sending him a friend. He teaches the monster how to speak such words as "friend" and "good," and shares a meal with him. Sadly, two lost hunters stumble onto the cottage and recognize the Monster. He attacks them and accidentally burns down the cottage as the hunters lead the hermit away.
As another angry mob searches the countryside, the creature takes refuge in an underground crypt. There he spies on Pretorius and his cronies Karl (Dwight Frye) and Ludwig (Ted Billings) breaking open a grave. The henchmen depart; Pretorius stays behind to enjoy a light supper. The Monster approaches him ("Oh hello, I thought I was alone!") and Pretorius reveals his plan to make the Monster a mate.
Henry and Elizabeth are now married and Pretorius calls on Henry, ready for him to do his part of their "grand collaboration." Henry refuses and Pretorius calls in the Monster, who demands Henry's help. Henry again refuses. Pretorius orders the Monster out. As Pretorius closes the door he utters "Now" to the Monster. As part of a pre-conceived plan, the creature kidnaps Elizabeth. Pretorius assures her safe return once Henry agrees to participate.
Henry, beaten, returns to his tower laboratory to complete the creation of the Monster's mate. In spite of himself, Henry grows excited over his work. After being reassured of Elizabeth's safety (after talking to her on an anachronistic telephone), Henry completes with Pretorius the assembly of the female's body.
As a storm rages, the final preparations are made to bring the Monster's mate to life. Her bandage-wrapped body is raised through the roof. Lightning strikes a kite, sending electricity through the female's form. Henry and Pretorius lower her and realize their success. "She's alive! Alive!" Henry cries. They remove her bandages and help her to stand. "The bride of Frankenstein!" Doctor Pretorius declares.
The excited Monster sees his mate. He reaches out to her. "Friend?" he asks. The bride, screaming, rejects him. The creature tries again and the bride again rejects him in terror. "She hate me! Like others", the Monster says dejectedly. As Elizabeth races to Henry's side, the Monster rampages through the laboratory. "Go! You live!", he tells Henry and Elizabeth. To Pretorius and the bride he says "You stay. We belong dead." Henry and Elizabeth flee. The Monster, shedding a tear as his bride hisses at him, pulls a lever causing the laboratory and tower to be destroyed.
Colin Clive and Boris Karloff reprised their roles from Frankenstein as creator and creation, respectively. Dwight Frye also returned for the sequel to play the doctor's assistant Karl, having played the hunchback Fritz in the original. Sources report that Bela Lugosi and Claude Rains were considered, with varying degrees of seriousness, for the role of Frankenstein's mentor Pretorius; others report that the role was created specifically for Ernest Thesiger. Replacing Mae Clarke as Henry Frankenstein's love interest Elizabeth was Valerie Hobson. Early in production, director Whale decided that the same actress cast to play the Bride should also play Mary Shelley in the film's prologue. Elsa Lanchester, who had accompanied husband Charles Laughton to Hollywood, had met with only moderate success while Laughton achieved fame in several films (including Whale's own The Old Dark House) and won an Academy Award for his role in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Lanchester had returned alone to London when Whale contacted her to offer her the dual role.
Universal makeup artist Jack Pierce paid special attention to the Monster's appearance in this film. He altered his 1931 design to display the after-effects of the mill fire, adding scars and shortening the Monster's hair. Pierce also co-created the Bride's makeup, with strong input from Whale, especially regarding the Bride's iconic hair style.
Kenneth Strickfaden created and maintained the laboratory equipment. The man behind the special photographic effects in Bride of Frankenstein was John P. Fulton, head of the special effects department at Universal Studios at the time.
The film went into production with a projected budget of US$293,750 which was almost exactly the budget of the original, and an estimated 36 day shooting schedule. Shooting was completed on March 7, 1935, ten days over schedule and approximately $100,000 over budget.
Boris Karloff is credited simply as KARLOFF, which was Universal's custom during the height of his career. Elsa Lanchester is credited for the role of Mary Shelley, but in a nod to the earlier film, the monster's bride is credited only as "?" just as Boris Karloff had been in the opening credits of the first film.
Following its release with the Code seal of approval, the film was challenged by the censorship board in the state of Ohio, was voluntarily withdrawn by Universal from Sweden because of the extensive cuts demanded and was rejected outright by Trinidad, Palestine and Hungary. One unusual objection, from Japanese censors, was that the scene in which Pretorius chases his miniature Henry VIII with tweezers constituted "making a fool out of a king.
In another unqualified review, Time wrote that the film had "a vitality that makes their efforts fully the equal of the original picture....Screenwriters Hurlbut & Balderston and Director James Whale have given it the macabre intensity proper to all good horror pieces, but have substituted a queer kind of mechanistic pathos for the sheer evil that was Frankenstein. The Oakland Tribune concurred it was "a fantasy produced on a rather magnificent scale, with excellent stagecraft and fine photographic effects". While the Winnipeg Free Press thought that the electrical equipment might have been better suited to Buck Rogers, nonetheless the reviewer praised the film as "exciting and sometimes morbidly gruesome," declaring that "All who enjoyed Frankenstein will welcome his Bride as a worthy successor.
The film's reputation has persisted and grown in the decades since its release. In 1998, the film was added to the United States National Film Registry, having been determined to be "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. Frequently identified as James Whale's masterpiece, the film is lauded as "the finest of all gothic horror movies. Time rated Bride of Frankenstein in its "ALL-TIME 100 Movies," with critics Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel overruling the magazine's original review to declare the film "one of those rare sequels that is infinitely superior to its source. 100% of the thirty-eight reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are positive, with an average rating of 8.9/10.
Gay film historian Vito Russo, in considering Pretorius, stops short of identifying the character as gay, instead referring to him as "sissified ("sissy" itself being Hollywood code for "homosexual"). Pretorius serves as a "gay Mephistopheles, a figure of seduction and temptation, going so far as to pull Frankenstein away from his bride on their wedding night to engage in the unnatural act of non-procreative life. A novelisation of the film published in England made the implication clear, having Pretorius say to Frankenstein "'Be fruitful and multiply.' Let us obey the Biblical injunction: you of course, have the choice of natural means; but as for me, I am afraid that there is no course open to me but the scientific way.
The Monster, whose affections for the male hermit and the female Bride he discusses with identical language ("friend") has been read as sexually "unsettled" and bisexual. "He has no innate understanding that the male-female bond he is to forge with the bride is assumed to be the primary one or that it carries a different sexual valence from his relationships with [Pretorius and the hermit]: all affective relationships are as easily 'friendships' as 'marriages'. Indeed, his relationship with the hermit has been interpreted as a same-sex marriage that heterosexual society will not tolerate: "No mistake — this is a marriage, and a viable one....But Whale reminds us quickly that society does not approve. The monster — the outsider — is driven from his scene of domestic pleasure by two gun-toting rubes who happen upon this startling alliance and quickly, instinctively, proceed to destroy it."