Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Film Review: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

"Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" *** (out of ****)

As I review horror films in the month of October in celebration of Halloween, I want to pay attention to a sub-genre of comedy which combines these two elements together.

Comedy/horror is nothing new. One of the earliest cinematic examples which I can instantly think of is the Harold Lloyd two-reeler, "Haunted Spooks" (1920) but no comedian or comedy team enaged in this mash-up combo more than Bud Abbott & Lou Costello. They first ventured into this genre in their comedy "Hold That Ghost" (1941) but the film that is often cited as their best example of this genre is "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948).

It is difficult to say why this is such a popular genre. One theory I have is, if we can laugh at what scares us, it is no longer scary. Comedy/horror films demonstrate the formula of most horror films then turns those movies on their head by making fun of them. Showing us, the audience, how silly it is to find these predictable movies scary.

The cross genre has been so popular over the years that nearly all the great comedians and comedy teams have attempted to delve into this terriority at least once. I've already given you the Harold Lloyd example. Other examples include Bob Hope in "The Ghost Breakers" (1940), the comedy team Olsen & Johnson in "Ghost Catchers" (1944), the team Wheeler & Woolsey in "Mummy's Boys" (1936) and Laurel & Hardy in "The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case" (1930). For a more modern example look at what Wes Craven did with the "Scream" series of films.

By the time "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" was made both "the boys" and the Universal Studio Monsters had fallen on hard times. Viewers were no longer interested in Dracula or Frankenstein's Monster. And Abbott & Costello were starting to show signs of aging. The team had unofficially split-up at one point. In their comedy "The Time of Their Lives" (1946) the team wasn't even on speaking terms. In that movie they do not have any scenes together (!). So, this film was an attempt to rejuvenate both properties; Abbott & Costello comedies and Universal horror films.

One of the reasons I think this film works as well as it does is because the film does a good job keeping the horror part serious. Lon Chaney Jr., the original Wolf Man and Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula are in this movie. The background story involving these characters could have honestly worked on its own. But the movie does an amazing balancing act and incorporates an "Abbott & Costello" comedy into the mix. The film does a great job splitting the movie in half. Those that want to watch the movie to see their favorite Universal Horror characters may enjoy the scenes involving those characters. Those who want to watch an Abbott & Costello comedy will find many gags and the team's famous wordplay to enjoy. In almost effortless fashion the film can easily go from comedy to horror within the same scene.

In the movie Abbott & Costello play a couple of baggage handlers; Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello). They are ordered to deliver two crates to a wax museum. Inside those crates are Dracula's coffin and Frankenstein's Monster, played by Glenn Strange (while not the original Monster, of course Boris Karloff was, Strange did play the Monster in previous films; "House of Dracula" (1945) and "House of Frankenstein" (1944). Naturally Chick doesn't believe in such nonsense. Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster were made up characters. But Wilbur is not so sure. One gag involves the team reprising their moving candle gag, seen in "Hold That Ghost". I wonder if it inspired Mel Brooks for his "put the candle back" routine in "Young Frankenstein" (1974).

From there the boys learn, from Larry Talbot (Chaney) that in fact Dracula and the Monster are real. Talbot has traveled from London to destroy them, once and for all. But will he be able to stop them? You see, Talbot has his own problem. Many years ago he was biten by a werewolf and when the moon is full...well, you know the story.

"Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" has a lot of fun with this set-up. As I said, the film never makes fun of the monsters. Their storylines are pretty much intact. You can describe the movie really as a horror film with Abbott & Costello thrown in. Not the other way around. Abbott & Costello are almost comic relief. The film is comparable to previous attempts by Universal Studios to combine all of these famous characters into one film. The "House" movies are an example of this as well as "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" (1943).

Unfortunately the following Abbott & Costello films which followed, where the team would meet various monsters, changed the formula a bit. Now the films would be Abbott & Costello comedies first, altering the movies to adjust to their style of comedy. That's why this movie is the best of all the films the team did in this genre.

Some interesting facts concerning the film are Boris Karloff doesn't make an appearance. As I understand it, he was in fact approached to play the role but declined fearing the film would make fun of the characters. However, Karloff would appear in a comedy with Abbott & Costello in "Abbott & Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff" (1949). Bela Lugosi would never again play "Dracula" in a movie. Lugosi was actually in "The Wolf Man" (1941) with Chaney. Lugosi's character was the one which turned Chaney into the Wolf Man.

If your looking for a good laugh on Halloween night, honestly "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" should please most viewers with its unique blend of comedy and horror.