It’s a bit frightening to realize how long the horror genre has been looked down upon by so-called prestige films, but these days, the box office success of a low-budget creature feature is more likely than not. This wasn’t always the case for Hollywood, even in the heyday of the Universal Monster Movies of the 1920s through the 1950s (though we can arguably include Herbert Brenon’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1913).
Critics at the time often turned their noses down at these monster movies, noting the raw potential of audacious films like Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), but never quite recognizing them as the hallmarks they are today. But in 1931, this started to change with Tod Browning’s Dracula, which received high marks from critics and kickstarted Bela Lugosi’s long career as the titular vampire. Later that year, James Whale’s Frankenstein garnered a significant profit at the box office, setting the stage for Whale to return with The Invisible Man (1933), which was another hit right after Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932).
But the film that cemented the modern monster horror as a true north for the box office was arguably The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, which now celebrates 85 years this past week. Also directed by James Whale, the sequel to Frankenstein was the biggest moneymaker for Universal’s monster movies up until that point, and it proved these films could be tied together in a shared universe of sequels, remakes, and crossovers to huge success. In some ways, you could compare The Bride of Frankenstein to 2008’s Iron Man, which is far from the most profitable superhero movie of all time, but it’s certainly the precursor to a massive sandbox for multiple filmmakers to play in at the pleasure of a global audience. Another fair comparison is Spider-Man 2 (2004), because both films are considered to be among the best sequels of their time for a genre on the precipice of theatrical domination.
It’s also worth mentioning that The Bride of Frankenstein was one of the first horror movies to receive lavish praise from critics without any derisive write-offs of it being “just a horror movie.” Rather than qualifying their reviews with the “it’s good for its genre” undermine, many critics rightfully legitimized the film—and its contemporaries—as a uniquely good picture in its own right.
Crunching The Numbers
Like most films from the 1930s, it’s hard to quantify the box office legacy of a film like The Bride of Frankenstein, and there are many variables to consider when recklessly comparing it to any movies coming out today. These films were released in a far different manner, as this was a long time before tentpole films could simply come out in theaters all over the country, all on the same day.
These films were more like limited releases, rolling out in a few markets here and there, sometimes for years. That’s the case for The Bride of Frankenstein, which collected $2 million by 1943. Adjusting for inflation, that’s somewhere between $29 and $35 million depending on when the bulk of that money was earned, as this was during The Great Depression and into the Second World War, a time of great upheaval for movie studios and theater chains.
Even if the number is as low as $29 million by 2020 standards, that’s still a $900k profit for Universal based on the production budget. That may not sound like much, but for a movie playing in a fraction of markets compared to today, it’s easy to see why Universal continued to spin off new movies featuring Frankenstein and the other monsters for another generation.
Home video has certainly been kind to The Bride of Frankenstein, which was first put on LaserDisc in 1985, then twice released in the 1990s “Universal Monsters Classic Collection” on VHS and later DVD. The Frankenstein movies eventually got their own “Legacy Collection” on DVD in 2004, which included The Bride of Frankenstein along with the original, Son of Frankenstein, and The House of Frankenstein.
And yes, you can find the film on Blu-ray now as well, as of 2012, which saw the release of the “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection” box set. Walmart released an exclusive Blu-ray of just Bride of Frankenstein for the first time in 2016, and multiple other Blu-ray collections for the Universal Monsters have come out since. Because of all these various releases, it’s hard to pinpoint the film’s success on home video overall, but one thing is clear: much like the horror movies it helped put on the map, The Bride of Frankenstein will long be remembered as one of Hollywood’s most important genre movies.