Halloween Havoc!: ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (Universal-International 1948)

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It’s Halloween, and we’ve finally made it to the Universal Classic Monsters! Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and The Wolf Man had last appeared onscreen in 1945’s HOUSE OF DRACULA. Shortly thereafter, Universal merged with International Pictures and decided to produce only “prestige” pictures from then on, deeming their Gothic creature features no longer relevant in the post-war, post-nuclear world. The comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were also in danger of becoming irrelevant, victims of their own success, as audiences were beginning to grow tired of them after twenty movies in a scant eight years.

That “prestige” thing didn’t work out so well, and Universal went back to what they did best…. producing mid-budget movies for the masses. Producer Robert Arthur developed a script called “The Brain of Frankenstein”, giving it over to Frederic Rinaldo and Robert Lees. Lou Costello hated it, and the team’s gag writer John Grant was brought it to punch things up. Horror icons Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, and Glenn Strange were recruited to reprise their most famous roles, and the title was changed to ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, the template for all horror comedies to come.

Lou Costello (Wilbur Grey) and Bud Abbott (Chick Young) deliver two crates to a house of horrors. The crates contain Count Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. The vampire wants to transplant Wilbur's simple brain into the monster so he will be completely under Dracula's control.

For the uninitiated, Bud and Lou play a pair of inept delivery men charged with transporting two very large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors, said to contain the remains of Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster. Lou gets creeped out when Dracula’s coffin keeps opening (mainly so they could use the old “moving candle” gag), which of course Bud doesn’t see. The two fiends escape and McDougal has the boys arrested for stealing his property. They’re bailed out by a beautiful woman, but it’s not Lou’s girlfriend Sandra, it’s Joan Raymond, an undercover insurance investigator hired by McDougal.

Bud doesn’t understand how two gorgeous women can go ga-ga over short, fat Lou. What he doesn’t know is Sandra is Dracula’s assistant, a female mad scientist out to help revive the Monster by transplanting Lou’s pliable brain into it. Add Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man himself, into this mix trying to put an end to Dracula’s grandiose scheme, and you’ve got a recipe for horror and humor that ends in a climactic Monster Battle Royal and a guest “appearance” by The Invisible Man (voiced by the one-and-only Vincent Price !).

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The monsters play it straight, leaving the comedy to A&C, except for a funny bit when Lou scares the bejesus out of the Monster! Lugosi dons Dracula’s cape onscreen for the first time in 17 years, though he still toured with the stage play on occasion. With those hypnotic eyes and double-jointed hand gestures, the 67-year-old Lugosi still conveyed the power of the evil Count. He’s charming under the guise of Dr. Lejos, but as Dracula he’s still the deadliest vampire of them all. This was Bela’s last good role in a major motion picture, and takes advantage of it, showing his acting talents hadn’t diminished one bit. Unfortunately, he received no further scripts of this caliber, and found himself mired in dreck like BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA , Ed Wood’s no-budget efforts, and his own tragic opiate addiction.

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Lon Chaney Jr.  returned to the studio that made him a star after being dismissed with the rest of Universal’s contract players after the merger. He’s less whiny than usual as Talbot, playing the nominal hero dead-set on stopping Dracula’s quest for world domination. Chaney still makes an athletic werewolf, as his physical acting had always outshone his sometimes awkward way with dialog. When they find Talbot’s room a shambles after the moon rises, Bud quips, “Boy, what a bender he must’ve been on last night”, possibly a veiled reference to Chaney’s problems with the bottle. In a funny bit, Talbot explains, “In a half hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf”, to which Lou replies, “You and twenty million other guys!”.

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Glenn Strange once again portrays the Frankenstein Monster, as he did in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA. His shambling, psychotic version of Mary Shelley’s creature is an instrument of pure destruction, totally unlike the Karloff original. Strange’s Monster has no soul, and who can really blame him, having suffered through all those brain transplants over the course of the series. Lenore Aubert as Sandra is both beautiful and deadly, Jane Randolph is okay as the plucky heroine, Frank Ferguson blusters his way through the part of McDougal, and Charles Bradstreet has the thankless role of Sandra’s assistant who suspects foul play.

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Abbott and Costello are… well, they’re Abbott and Costello! The duo had spent years honing their schtick in burlesque, on Broadway, radio, and in films. Teaming them with the Universal Monsters helped put them back on top and opened the floodgates for a slew of ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET movies. They met THE KILLER BORIS KARLOFF, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (again with Boris), THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE MUMMY, and even THE KEYSTONE KOPS! The boys are in top form here, their timing and snappy patter routines sharp as ever, and are the comic glue that holds the horrors together.

Many horror fans ask, “Yeah, but where does this fit in the Universal horror canon?” My answer to that is, “WHO CARES!” ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN stands alone as a horror-comedy classic, and should be enjoyed as such. It’s your last chance to see Lugosi in his definitive role, Chaney as the cursed Larry Talbot, and Strange as the demented Monster. Plus Bud and Lou at the peak of their comic power. That’s more than enough for me, and will be for you too when you watch ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Happy Halloween all you monster lovers out there!

 

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