Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) review


Bud Abbott (Chick Young), Lou Costello (Wilbur Grey), Lon Chaney, Jr. (Larry Talbot/Wolf Man), Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Glenn Strange (Frankenstein's Monster), Lenore Aubert (Dr. Sandra Mornay), Jane Randolph (Joan Raymond), Frank Ferguson (Mr. McDougal), Charles Bradstreet (Professor Stevens), Vincent Price (voice of the Invisible Man)

Directed by Charles T. Barton

The Short Version: It's Mirth vs. Menace in what is easily the best example of the horror comedy yet made. Bud and Lou's comic genius was paired with three of Uni-horror's icons of fright--Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster--the results are nothing short of hair-raising hilarity. Consistently entertaining from start to finish, the combination of vintage comedy and monsters is one the whole family can enjoy. The first and best of A&C's four Uni-Monster comedy combos. Beat for beat and goosebump for goosebump, you won't find a funnier horror film to give you chills in the most rib-tickling way possible.

Two bumbling baggage clerks, Chick and Wilbur, are instructed to deliver two large crates to McDougal's House of Horrors, a Florida wax museum. Carrying the bodies of Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster, the two living corpses escape upon their placement in the museum. Soon thereafter, Lawrence Talbot arrives from London and explains he's been tracking the two monsters to find and destroy them. Unknown to Chick and his rotund sidekick, Wilbur's pretty girlfriend, Sandra Mornay, has been secretly studying Dr. Frankenstein's journals, conducting experiments at her island castle (in Florida?!). Joining forces with Dracula, Mornay plots to transfer Wilbur's brain into the body of the Frankenstein Monster to make him a more easily controlled creature. Between Chick and Wilbur's ineptness, a snooping insurance investigator, Mornay's suspicious assistant and Talbot sniffing around during the full moon, Dracula has more trouble than he can sink his teeth into.

Mixing the storylines of Universal's popular monster franchises began with Roy William Neill's seminal FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943). The result wasn't an action-packed spectacle, but it made for gripping entertainment as to how it brought the two popular series' together. The following year brought the first big monster mash with the faster-paced sequel, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944). Not to be shown up, Transylvania's most famous resident proved he could host a mad monster party as good as the next ghoul in HOUSE OF DRACULA in 1945. Three years later, Universal's titans of terror were resurrected one more time for another meet and greet; only for this occasion, they'd be joined by the colossal chuckle combo of Abbott and Costello.

Horror was on the decline in the late 1940s, particularly the Universal style of moldy Gothics. It was about to be replaced by the encroaching Atom Age, whose theatrical propositions grew exponentially in the 1950s--begetting dozens of giant creatures from this world and others. Gelling the studio's most famous monsters into a comedy shtick was generally the fate of many popular genres in later years--after a cinema style enjoys several years of box office vibrancy, and the ticket sales taper off, it's time to change things up to get theater patrons to loosen their wallets again.

Thankfully, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) was the sort of jolt this genre needed to keep it shambling, arms outstretched, for a few more years. Likewise, this 83 minutes of horror hilarity rejuvenated the A&C duo, who had a dip in their own popularity by the mid 1940s.

The comedy comes frequently, balanced to near perfection with the horror sequences. Both Bud and Lou are pitch perfect during the first 30 minutes. The laughs are thinned out slightly during the middle portion, but not to the film's detriment. Towards the end, the tempo hits a rapid pace with the slapstick and spookery joined at the hip. Dracula and the Wolf Man battle it out all over the castle while Frankenstein's creation chases the clumsy comics. The monsters all meet spectacular ends and during the final shot, A&C are visited by an unexpected guest aboard their dinghy, the Invisible Man! Voiced by Vincent Price, this last gag foreshadows coming attractions.

The success of A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN was a timely gamble that has repeated itself year after year. Horror has always been something of a black sheep in the industry, yet it can always be counted on to return big bucks on a low investment. It was a sizable success for Universal while other, bigger budgeted, and more prestigious works fared less well. The famed comic combo benefited the most, yet monster faves Chaney and Lugosi were kept in the public eye for a bit longer before personal demons consumed their careers. Ironically, with all the fun and frivolity that went on backstage and up on screen, there was seemingly a lot of reluctance and disdain from the actors about participating on this production.

At least one half of the comic team, Lou Costello, wasn't exactly thrilled with starring in the picture. Cited as referring to the script as "crap", lovable Lou finally acquiesced after receiving additional monies and the comfortability of working with a familiar director in Charles Barton.

If Lon Chaney, Jr. truly disliked this movie, you couldn't tell from all the behind the scenes photos. At one point stating this movie ruined the famed horror icons, he nonetheless joined the off screen lunacy during the filming. Elsewhere, Lon proved just what a trooper he was; during a particularly shocking scene where the Monster tosses the female villain through a castle window (same stunt from HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN but with J. Carrol Naish being tossed), Glenn Strange broke his foot so Chaney stepped into the big boots to hurl the stuntwoman through the candy glass. It wasn't the first time Chaney played the role--he was the Monster in GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1942.

Lugosi was said to take his role with the utmost of seriousness. However, he seems a bit more relaxed in this, his second go-round as the Count. He may not partake in the shenanigans (onscreen, at least) but there are a couple moments where his presence greatly enhances the farce. The best sequence melding the comedy and the horror involves Lugosi; it's the scene early on in the wax museum where Wilbur (Lou), repeatedly choking up and at a loss for words other than, "Chiiiick, Chick! CHIIIIIIIICK!", tries to convince Chick (Bud) that Dracula is most certainly up and about.

Arguably, this is Lugosi's best bloodsucker interpretation of the four he completed; not counting PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959), which featured Bela in a few scenes from an unmade Ed Wood flick decked out in his familiar vampire regalia. Outside of DRACULA (1931), he'd played a faux vamp in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) and the real thing in the uniquely peculiar RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1944). For this comedy-horror venture, he was back in the coffin as the undead icon that both made and typecast his name. Unfortunately, the huge success of this movie didn't lead to bigger and better roles for Bela Lugosi. Not long after this genre match-up, Lugosi would express interest in doing lighter, more comedic pictures--which he did, both intentionally and unintentionally with the likes of BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952) and BRIDE OF THE MONSTER (1955). The actor's last horror hurrah came in the form of THE BLACK SLEEP (1956), an underrated gem that, sadly, had Bela in a smaller capacity, and with no dialog.

The film's comic content seemed to have had the greatest effect on Glenn Strange. He apparently had a great time making the movie, reportedly finding it difficult to keep a straight face when doing scenes with Lou Costello. Acting in countless westerns including a famous role as Sam the barkeep in GUNSMOKE (1955-1975), Strange essayed the lumbering, patchwork creature two times prior in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). Unlike those two pictures, Strange speaks twice (if briefly) and gets more to do; particularly during the chaotic finale when he chases Bud and Lou in and around the castle grounds before succumbing to a fiery finish. Glenn Strange is arguably most famous for playing Dr. Frankenstein's creation, but the actor most synonymous with the role did have a connection with the production....

Boris Karloff, who hadn't donned the dead man's makeup since 1939s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, had retired from the role. Reportedly, he didn't find spoofing his famous portrayal a favorable proposition. He did agree to help promote the picture via some publicity photos showing him in front of a marquee and purchasing a ticket, despite Karloff  refusing to actually see it. With the film's huge success (Universal's second biggest hit of that year), Karloff did appear in the next picture, the non-monster masher, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER, BORIS KARLOFF (1949). The revered British horror star returned to Bud and Lou Land as a famous monster of another kind, with ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953).

The special effects might be antiquated, but they're still effective in their execution 60+ years later; these include the death scene of Dracula and the Wolf Man, the bat effects and animated shots of the Count transforming into his human guise, and the cameo of the Invisible Man during the closing moments. The eye-catching animated credits really set the tone for what is essentially a live-action cartoon. Not everything is terror-ific, though; with so much variance in the effects department, you'd think somebody would have had some forethought during the scene where we blatantly see Dracula's reflection in a mirror. Additionally, if you want to nitpick, the title is a misnomer--Abbott and Costello never actually meet Frankenstein, but do meet Frankenstein's Monster.

Fans of Abbott and Costello and the Uni-horror's are getting the best of both worlds with this spirited creature feature, the benchmark of the horror-comedy and the best of their string of horror-tinged features. If you've seen it, the month of October is a great time to revisit; if you haven't, what are you waiting for?

This review is representative of the Universal ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET THE MONSTERS COLLECTION 2 disc set. Extras and Specs: Full frame 1.33:1; Abbott & Costello Meet the Monsters documentary; audio commentary with historian Gregory W. Mank; theatrical trailer.
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