Universal Monsters in review: Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein (1948)
I had the absolute pleasure of watching this film for the very first time last night. As chance would have it, a storm was passing through the area. Lightening flashed and thunder boomed, rattling the glass, as I watched, popcorn in hand, one of the last of the Universal Monster Classics to ever don the silver screen. 1948 in film must have been a very strange era, or at least for self-acclaimed film historians such as myself. Certainly there were plenty of post-war film noir going on, but even those would be fizzing out. The real change would be the approaching dawn of Atomic Age Cinema of the 1950s. Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein is truly the last Universal Monster picture before the monsters turned to the atom bomb. While enjoying the rambunctious comedy of 40s famed duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the return of both Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman and Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Chaney had played the role of every single classic monster, aside of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but when the role for the Wolfman came up in A&C meet Frank, and I’m paraphrasing here, the role could go to no one else, he owned the Wolfman as much as the Wolfman owned him, or so he said. And if I’m not mistaken, this would be his last entry as the mythical full moon howler. The role of Dracula however was more ambiguous. Believe it or not, Bela was not the original casting for the famed night stalker. Bela was 66 years old when we dawned the cape and cowl for the last time, and technically first since the original 1931 Dracula. He’d played Dracula-esk roles since 1931, but never technically Dracula himself. You can see from first glance how aged the actor was, but nevertheless, was still mesmerizing and a powerful presence on stage. Film historians have commented that while Chaney as Lawrence Talbot was wonderful, Bela returning as Dracula is what really stole the show. Regardless, A&C meet Frankenstein is a wonderful footnote in the history of film, an important tale at the precipice of another era to come. Today, we’re joined with a equally fantastic author who has a special love for the movie. So, without further delay, let us see what our guest has in store for us.
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
Universal’s greatest horror comedy
In 1948 the classic Universal monsters Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man, had long since reached the high tide mark of their popularity. In order to maximize continual profits the three had been featured alongside each other in two films, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula (1941 and 1945); both of which had been commercial successes. But their final swansong was yet to come. Teaming up with America’s hottest comedy duo of the time, the originators of many a nightmare were to have one final goodbye. And what could have been a terrible pastiche, a jumping of the shark long before The Fonz donned a set of water skis, turned out to be arguably one of the finest comedy-horrors ever produced.
Jump forward forty years and I was a wee child of no more than four or five. At the time my Gran had some films recorded from the TV, designed to shut me and my brothers up when we came over to visit. Of the features that had been taped there were two in particular I would watch over and over. Both were black and white which even then felt like an outdated concept; black and white usually meant ‘boring’ to me, however these two enthralled me as equally as any modern movie could. Those two films were ‘Them’ a feature about giant radioactive ants, and ‘Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.’
Back then I found the comedy funny and the monsters… well, not scary, but enthralling, fascinating, exciting. Horrific would be too strong a word to describe the characters I’d seen watered down and aped on re-runs of shows like the Munsters. But the action and danger was still there. The pull to the nightmare inhabitants of the shadows had begun its influence.
Looking back I am pleasantly surprised at just how well this stands up. It is an out and out good movie. Not a good movie for its time, or a good movie because it inspired something greater, but a straight up, honest-to-God good movie.
The cast is as authentic as you are ever going to get: Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster and Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolf Man, and the opening credits that announces them is a cartoon sequence listing the monsters and setting things up nicely. This is something that would have definitely provided a hook for my younger self, and a scene that still looks pretty cool now. Once the role call is complete it dissolves into real footage, and within less than five minutes of the run time we are treated to a Lon Chaney Jr werewolf transformation, followed by the lycanthropic creature snarling with rage.
Make no mistake, this is going to be a monster movie.
The plot of the feature revolves around Abbott & Costello working as baggage handlers. One day two crates arrive and they are asked to deliver them to a horror museum by the unpleasant and bossy owner, leading to a few amusing exchanges. Below is just one in a list of highlights.
‘Well that’s gonna cost you over time because I’m a union man and I only work sixteen hours a day.’
‘A union man works only eight hours a day.’
‘I belong to two unions.’
Taking the crates to the museum and opening them up, the hapless Costello discovers their contents are nothing less than the two twins of terror, Count Dracula and the Frankenstein’s Monster! To add more to his woes we discover that his stunning girlfriend is in fact working with the evil Count and plans to put Costello’s feeble brain into the Monster to make it more obedient. Help is at hand as Lawrence Talbot arrives having chased the abominations from Europe, and tries to enlist the help of Abbott and Costello to thwart their dastardly plans. If only he could stop turning into a wolf…
The madness that ensues certainly makes for a tick list of old scary movie components: creepy castles, scary noises, chases, burning bodies, mad science labs, bat transformations, biting necks and possessed people.
But with all this horror where’s the comedy going to go? The answer… all over it.
Abbott and Costello are absolutely superb in this film. Their fast delivery of quick-fire patter is a joy to listen to. Snappy one-liners go hand in hand with great physical comedy, stupid voices and hilarious impressions. Costello’s impression of Dracula when he is so scared he struggles to talk makes me laugh even as I think about it, typing these words. This is rare as there is always a danger that comedy only works in context; taking it out of its social and historic birthplace can render it flat and useless. But not so with the gags and routines that literally fill this film from beginning to end.
However the success of a horror-comedy is dependent on striking that tricky balance between the two opposing genres. The trick here, and is the case in two other fine examples of this genre mash An American Werewolf In London and Shaun Of The Dead, is that the teeth of the monsters are kept as sharp as the wit of the script. All three monsters are in no way dumbed down. Dracula is cunning, he transforms into a bat, he hypnotizes people with his powerful stare and seduces beautiful women before biting them on the neck. Frankenstein’s Monster is lumbering and childlike, but still gruesome in appearance, brutish in strength and perfectly capable of throwing a screaming woman through a glass window, three stores up. The Wolf Man, just like in his 1941 debut, is a tragic figure in human form, constantly in internal agony over the monster inside; and a snarling, uncontrollably ferocious creature when under the influence of the full moon.
The threat is always there. The horror taken seriously. And that’s why this works so well.
The only scene to trivialize the monsters is a moment where Abbott believes the Wolf Man to be Costello dressed in his masquerade costume. The Wolf Man gets stuck in a bush and tumbles over branches as he tries to reach for his victim, whilst unaware of the monster’s true identity Abbott is berating it as he would his friend. This provides a good laugh, but is quickly extinguished when the creature finds its footing and chases the poor man. Suddenly we are back in the realms of horror movies as the slavering beast runs after its prey.
The mix is done right. Each component is allowed to be fully realized and interacts well whilst deftly not tripping over each other. Instead of piling up in a confused mess, the two elements run side by side, making for excellent companions.
The film is a fast moving feature, and all the better for it, with a building climax that doesn’t disappoint. In the melee of the closing moments we have the bumbling duo escape from the scientist’s lab whilst being pursued by Frankenstein’s Monster, all the while trying to avoid the brawling pair of Dracula and the Wolf Man who tear up the castle in a fight to the death. (I won’t tell you who wins).
There’s even room for a joke at the end delivered by master of horror, Vincent Price.
Some films are considered classics, but they aren’t really that enjoyable to watch, and I could name a lot of Universal monster movies within that. For every one that is genuine fun to sit through (eg The Wolf Man, Bride of Frankenstein), there are countless more that are not (eg Werewolf of London, Dracula, The Mummy). Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein might not have the status of some of the others in cinema history, but I would wholly recommend it, not just as an introduction to the classic Universal monsters, but also as fine example of horror-comedy and most importantly because it’s a bloody good film.
‘That’s the wind.’
‘It should get oiled.’
JR Park draws from the crazy worlds of exploitation cinema and pulp literature for his literary inspiration. His family are both equally proud and disturbed by his literary output, dragged from a mind they helped to cultivate. He resides on the outskirts of Bristol in the UK and hopes one day they’ll let him in. Mr. Park is the author of several twisted tales of morbid doom, including Upon Waking and Terror Byte and Punch. He was also featured with a horrifyingly wonderful short in the horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. Besides giving his readers terrifying nightmares, Mr. Park is also one of the founding members of the up and coming UK Publishing team, The Sinister Horror Company, active in promoting other writers and attending numerous conventions.