Blog Directory CineVerse: A monster mash masterwork reaches diamond status

A monster mash masterwork reaches diamond status

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

In 1948, audiences were treated to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, directed by Charles Barton, the first of several pictures pairing the comedy duo with various Universal classic monsters and macabre characters. This venerable horror-comedy served as a swan song for the studio’s terror-ific triumvirate of Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein monster, but has also served as a crucial introduction, over the decades, to these timeless monsters among younger viewers and new generations of classic horror fans. Significantly, two of these iconic roles were reprised by their original actors, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr., imbuing the film with authenticity.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, conducted last week, click here.

This film remains one of the all-time great horror comedies and is certainly worthy of 75th birthday kudos. After all, it’s a brilliant pairing of two disparate yet adjacent elements: comedy and horror, laughs and gasps, and humorous heavyweights Abbott and Costello alongside the all-time greatest old-school monsters in Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman. For the same reason sweet and salty blends so well together—like chocolate-covered pretzels, for example—Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein proved that silly and scary complement each other quite well. This isn’t the first ever horror comedy—that distinction belongs to the Harold Lloyd short Haunted Spooks from 1920, or to D.W. Griffith’s feature One Exciting Night from 1922. But it’s the granddaddy that everyone remembers with the most fondness, long before Young Frankenstein, Shawn of the Dead, or What We Do in the Shadows.

The tone is set right from the start, as the picture opens in London and introduces Larry Talbot, who undergoes a lycanthropic transformation within the first five minutes after a few jokes from Costello. Over its 82-minute runtime, there’s a nice seesaw balance between funny and fearful. When you’re a child and more easily spooked, the jokes serve as a nice pressure release valve from the scary segments they alternate with.

Any 75-year-old film is going to have some creakiness, certainly. But many of the one-liners and amusing bits in this picture still land, like Costello’s “You and twenty million other guys” after Chaney says “in a half an hour the moon will rise and I'll turn into a wolf”; the moving candle gag (first seen in Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost seven years earlier); and many fans’ favorite funnybone moment when the monster recoils in revulsion after seeing Costello’s face. Likewise, shots when the Wolfman is ready to pounce on Costello, oblivious to the danger, take many of us back to our first watch as children when the hairs on the back of our necks stood up during these scenes.

The art direction and set decoration for this film are among its secret weapons. The look and atmosphere of McDougal’s House of Horrors—which could be the best sequence—as well as the design of the island castle, especially its unexpectedly bright laboratory and shadowy secret passages, are still impressive. No, the monster isn’t played by Boris Karloff and genius makeup man Jack Pierce is no longer applying the cotton and collodion or other facial prosthetics, but the Frankenstein monster and the Wolfman still look badass in their swan song cinematic outing for Universal.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is recognized as an early exemplar of crossover cinema, wherein characters from disparate film series or genres converge. This pioneering concept would later become a prevalent and influential motif in various forms of media.

It’s also deserving of respect from fans of the Universal classic monsters because, while it places them in a comedic context, the Wolfman, Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster are allowed to be frightening without being disrespected or humiliated. Their appearances here don’t denigrate their legacies, reputations, or impact as supernatural, fiendish antagonists.

Moreover, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein remains a crucial text because, for many kids, it has served and will continue to serve as a gateway to vintage horror, a first path that leads to eventual viewings of the Universal classic monster series as well as other black-and-white films of any genre. This work is a fantastic way to introduce youngsters to the merits of classic movies. Interestingly, TV horror host Svengoolie, who carries the mantle as a spokesperson of sorts for classic horror movies and continues to be watched by millions across the country, recently noted in his October newsletter that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein could be the movie his fans most request him to schedule.

This work represents the final screen appearance of Universal’s Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolfman in this era and the last of the studio’s monster mashups that began in 1943 in which two or more of this trio of characters got paired up. This marked the end of an era that launched in 1931 when its Dracula and Frankenstein pictures were first released. Universal abandoned its classic monsters and European-inspired gothic horrors for atomic-age creatures it rolled out in the 1950s, including the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mole People, and aliens like the Metaluna mutants in This Island Earth.

Also significant is that this is only the second, and final, casting of Lugosi as Count Dracula in any film—17 years since he initially played the character. It lends the film a sheen of gravitas and authenticity that the man we most associate with this role has returned, even if he gets fourth billing after Bud, Lou, and Lon Chaney Jr. Lugosi benefits from a career comeback and a fitting return to form.

Indeed, this movie has a seemingly bottomless purse of horror film riches, boasting Lugosi as well as Lon Chaney Jr., Glenn Strange (arguably the second-best performer to play Frankenstein’s monster for Universal), and even Vincent Price, whose voice makes a cameo as the Invisible Man at the conclusion.

While it was the denouement for the big three monsters, it kicked off a series of films pairing Bud and Lou with other household name horror entities; next came Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff, followed by Meet the Invisible Man, Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Meet the Mummy.

Undoubtedly Meet Frankenstein and its follow-ups would have appealed to a wider general audience, especially children and their accompanying parents. Universal horror films had become less frightening as the 1940s progressed and monster mash movies like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula were released. It became harder for critics and filmgoers to take these pictures seriously, and the studio’s sheen of scariness suffered. The next logical step commercially was to embrace and market to a younger audience; matching the monsters with a widely popular comedic attraction like Abbott and Costello proved a win-win-win for Universal, Bud and Lou, and the classic monsters who got to say goodbye on a high note.

Many maintain that Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein is not only the funniest horror comedy of them all but among the very best comedies period. But Meet Frankenstein holds a special place in the hearts of monster kids everywhere for being a timeless treasure from our childhoods, one that we can watch with our children and grandchildren without having to worry about any jokes or material that’s too adult.

Lastly, a few rhetorical/inconsequential questions that arise after a Meet Frankenstein rewatch:
  • Why and how does Dracula want to use the Frankenstein monster, and why is Larry Talbot determined to destroy both of them?
  • Why in blazes is this film set in Florida, a place you don’t exactly associate with gothic or classic horror? Isn’t the Sunshine State a bit silly of a setting for a monster mash?
  • In the scene where Dracula presumably bites Sandra’s neck, why does he cast a reflection in the mirror? Was the vampire continuity person asleep at the switch here?
  • Did men really go by the name or moniker “Chick” in 1948? What’s up with that?
  • For a film primarily aimed at kids and families, isn’t it a bit violent that the Frankenstein monster throws Sandra out the window?
  • And is a thrown flower pot the best that the king of the vampires can do to fend off the Wolfman?
Note: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein will be co-featured in the October episode of the Cineversary podcast, posting later this month.

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