Saturday, January 28, 2012

More Howls Than You Can Shake A Shiver At!

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein(1948)
Director: Charles Barton
Cast: Abbott and Costello, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Glenn Strange
If most monster kids were asked to name the film that got them into classic horror, the likely answer would be Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the last of the original Universal horror films and the final entry in the Frankenstein series that began in 1931. There's no doubt in my mind, that Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein is the best horror comedy ever made. Unlike other horror-comedies, the melding of scares and laughs is near perfect and the monsters are treated with more respect than expected. Bela Lugosi, who had not played Dracula since the 1931 original, is recruited for the role once more and that's alone worth the price of admission, though of course, there's also Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster, who are both more terrifying than they were in either of the previous two entries in the Frankenstein series.
The film was originally devised as a straight entry into the series, under the title, "Frankenstein's Brain", but it was later turned into an Abbott and Costello film. Lou Costello didn't like the script, but the film would become the team's best remembered picture of their career. The plot follows Bud and Lou who are Florida baggage clerks that are ordered to deliver cases to a wax museum that contain the real Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster! Lou sees the monsters, but no one believes him, and when they go missing the pair end up in jail, only to be bailed out by an insurance agent(Jane Randolph) who is trying to discover the whereabouts of the exhibits. Meanwhile, Larry Talbot(The Wolf Man) tries to contact Bud and Lou, thinking they will aid him in stopping Dracula. It turns out that Dracula wishes to revive the Monster to full power and give him a compliant brain in the form of Lou's! A sexy doctor(Lenore Aubert) seduces Lou and invites him to a seaside castle(one of the greatest in a horror movie) and plans to extract his brain. After attending a masquerade party, with various scary(and funny) encounters, Lou is taken back to the island for the operation. Luckily, Bud and Larry arrive to rescue him and engage in one of the most spectacular conclusions in horror film history, as the Wolf Man battles Dracula and the Monster goes on a rampage. In the end, all the monsters are defeated and Bud and Lou quietly row away in boat, where Vincent Price cameos as the invisible man, sorry he didn't get in on the excitement!

An absolutely hilarious film that still manages to entertain all these decades over. Abbott and Costello have made several notable comedies, including Hold That Ghost(1942) and The Time of Their Lives(1946), but this is the most enduring. The magic melding of scares and laughs has never been bettered, aided by top direction, including some of the most atmospheric(and violent) set-pieces ever seen in a classic horror film. Bela Lugosi is terrific as Dracula, portraying his most famous character for the last time and in his final major studio picture. He's actually better in this than he was in the earlier film, more relaxed and assured, complete with a wonderful comedic timing("what we need today is young blood...and brains!") as well as wonderful use of his hypnosis bit, which adds to the mythology of the character.
Likewise, Chaney Jr. has more room to roam than he did in the House pictures, and makes for an off-beat hero. His stalking of Lou in the apartment, as well as his transformation in his London flat are among the best werewolf scenes on film.
Glenn Strange finally gets to do something with his character of the Monster, proving to be a totally imposing and frightening juggernaut, especially in those last two reels. Strange was coached by the master himself, Boris Karloff, on the set of House of Frankenstein(1944), and maybe it's just me, but there is a certain poignancy when the Monster walks into the flames towards film's conclusion. It's also of note that while this was a fine send-off for our beloved monsters, all the creatures were "killed" off in ways that inevitably meant they would survive, which is sort of comforting for our ghoulish imaginations.

The monsters don't look as impressive as they did under the hands of Jack Pierce, but the Bud Westmore designs are serviceable and iconic. One of my most treasured items as a kid was my set of Imperial Classic Movie Monsters toys, which were all based off of the designs of the monsters seen in the Abbott and Costello films, including Klaris from Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy(1955)!
The cast are uniformly good, particularly Lenore Aubert as the scheming Dr. Mornay, who really meets a nasty end by getting thrown out of a window by the Frankenstein Monster! She later turned up in a similar role in Abbott and Costello meet the killer, Boris Karloff(1949).
Bud and Lou were always talented comedians, but really proved their mettle when working outside of their comfort zomes on this picture. Only a few gags, such as the brilliant "moving candle" bit, were retained, but most of the rest was new and the team's timing is unequal.

This film was a smash hit and saved Universal International from folding and led to several follow-ups over the years. Boris Karloff reportedly disliked the film, feeling that his friend, the Monster, should not be treated with such indignity, but did agree to pose for publicity photographs. Dear Boris was right about alot of things, but wrong here. Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein is an affectionate, loving send-off for the monsters and holds the distinction of being both one of the greatest comedies, as well as one of the finest horror films ever made. If you have any kids that are interested in monsters, there's probably no better film to get them started on the path to Monsterdom. I know I love and 20,000,000 other guys.


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