By the mid-40’s, Universal Studios were still looking for any way they could to keep their legendary stable of marauding monsters profitable. Their bright idea? Why, fuse the
with the comedy stylings of slapstick comedy double act Abbott And Costello of course!!
Now, if we were to update this admittedly cynical business model to approximate what this could look like in this day and age, it would probably result in Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers turning up and chasing Seth Rogen and James Franco around a haunted mansion. As we take a moment to clear our minds of this bizarre, yet oddly feasable, scenario, it’s worth pointing out that despite it sounding like the worst possibly thing a studio could do to a horror franchise (what next, Chaplin Vs Kong?) Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein is actually a solid piece of entertainment that gets away with it’s dodgy premise by the skin of it’s teeth.
Wilbur Grey and Chic Young are two squabbling cut-ups who work in the baggage department of a railway station who intercept two, large, Universal Monster-sized crates meant for delivery for McDougal’s House Of Horrors exhibit at a local wax museum. While one crate is said to contain Dracula’s actual coffin, the other is stuffed full of the deactivated body of Frankenstein’s Monster and the boys are hired to deliver said items in person (The Creature From The Black Lagoon would presumably turn up via Amazon… get it? Creature? Amazon? Oh, never mind), but it seems that customs has been slacking because it turns out that if they’d actually bothered to check Dracula’s casket, they would have found out that he is still bloody in it! You really can’t get the staff these days…
Emerging from his rest, we find out that Drac is in the middle of carrying out a plot to revive the Monster by creating him a brand new, undamaged brain and Wilbur’s has been selected as a perfect candidate by a scientist masquerading as his girlfriend and who is in cahoots with the vampire. Meanwhile, anxious sad-sack Lawrence Talbot has learned of Dracula’s plan (although fuck knows WHY he wants to give Frankie a new brain) and has raced over to aid Wilbur and Chick in stopping the supernatural villains but proves to be more hindrance than help thanks to his frequent and unfortunate bouts of lycanthopy. Through a series of convoluted events, all the players end up in Dracula’s mansion where our luckless duo frantically try to avoid such dire fates as being savaged by a werewolf or having their brain implanted into Frankenstein’s Monster and hilarity ensues as the two terrified baggage handlers flee for their very lives…
At this point in their careers, the main three members of the Universal Monsters pantheon had pretty much run out of gas – or virgin’s blood, or lighting, or whatever makes them tick. The last movie made prior to this was House Of Dracula three years earlier (an eternity for 1940’s studios) and the trio of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man were starting to get a little long in the tooth, so Universal whored them out to appear in a flat out comedy.
The results actually gel suprisingly well with Costello’s usual too-scared-to-speak schtick being especially effective in the earlier scenes. An early moment where Bud keeps heading off only for Lou to keep witnessing Dracula’s attempts to sneak out of his coffin are a textbook example of the vaudeville gags that littered their films and those not enamored of that kind of humor may find things a bit frustrating (just OPEN the fucking casket, Bud!). However, if the price that must be paid to witness Bela Lugosi officially play Dracula one more time is to watch Lou Costello scream “CHICK! CHIIIIIICK!” everytime something scary happens, then it’s one I’m willing to pay. Lon Chaney also returns as cinema’s most depressed looking Werewolf but we’re denied the clean sweep of a Boris Karloff appearance thanks to the appropriately named Glen Strange taking the mantle of the Monster back up after House Of Dracula.
While there is a certain amount of neutering going on when it comes to the effectiveness of the monsters (you mean to tell me that the Monster, Dracula OR the Wolf Man can’t chase down a single, portly baggage handler?), the film does kind of treat them with a modicum of respect and keeps them somewhat in character while leaving all the slapstick to it’s comedic leads. That being said, the film manages to pull a suprising amount of casual brutality when Frankenstein’s Monster finally get off his lumbering arse and starts bringing the bolt-necked pain – watch as he gorilla presses a screaming woman above his head like an undead version of the Ultimate Warrior and then launches her through a plate glass window and later he succumbs to a legitimately dangerous looking fire as he hurls lethal detritus from a pier. The Wolf Man gets some memorable stuff too as he stalks the main cast repeatedly in some cool, streamlined prosthetics and has an awesome action hero moment at the end of the film as he rugby tackles Dracula in his bat form clean off a cliff-side balcony as the squeaking rodent tries to make his escape.
An argument could be made that this de-mystifcation of such legendary characters wasxa step too far but then you have to remember that countless sequels and team-ups had already started the job the Abbott And Costello finished, but it actually gave the franchise a little more longevity with the duo’s encounters with the Invisible Man and The Mummy keeping the lights on alongside the debut of The Creature From The Black Lagoon series.
As scary as an episode of Scooby Doo (and half as subtle) Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein nevertheless still manages to do what a good comedy should and that’s to produce laughs along with it’s various thrills and spills and it even features a cheeky last second cameo by the Invisible Man (Here voiced by Vincent Price) just to bring the monster tally up to a healthy four.
Some might find this fond farewell to some cinematic legends a little TOO fond, but as a comedy Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein has a healthy amount of bite, not to mention and snarl and moan.