“Young people making the most of life - while it lasts.” – Count Dracula
NOTE: - Back when the idea struck me to cover the Universal Monsters for Shocktober this year, (actually, it was as we were coming up to Halloween LAST year that I thought of it) I didn’t know that I’d be doing 31 reviews, I didn’t even know if I could even find 31 Universal films - all that came later – but I did know one thing. I knew how the season would end.
I have pondered long and hard over where to start. My original plan was to start with some silent films like Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame, but in the case of Phantom, it’d mean covering the original and remake. So, I decided to start with their first horror movie with sound, which by happy accident brought one of my all-time favourite actors Bela Lugosi in to the mix early. The final film though was always going to be this one – Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Not that I’m a particular fan of Abbott and Costello – I’m not. Generally, I find their slapstick gets tiresome fast, but against the odds, I love this film and it might even be my favourite horror comedy. (If you want my top three, add Comedy of Terrors (1963) and Love at First Bite (1979) at two and three, respectively).
As I’m now winding this season up, I realise how perfect a choice this movie is, because Bela Lugosi started this season off as Dracula, and Bela Lugosi finishes it – as Dracula. His most famous role and one that he only played on the silver screen twice. So, an appropriate happy accident.
But really, having spent all this time going through the canon of Universal’s Monsters who could resist bringing them all back one last time for a Halloween curtain call?
Abbott and Costello need no introduction, the comedy duo came from vaudeville and brought much of their act to a successful TV show and a series of cinematic encounters with the Monsters of Universal Studios. They’d meet The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as played by Boris Karloff and Karloff himself in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. To be honest, the formula wore thin very quickly and the films they made with Karloff are on the whole, pretty dire. But Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the first and by far the best.
It’s a standalone, released three years after House of Dracula, it’s played for laughs so I’m not going to waste time pointing out inconsistencies with the continuity. The film is meant as a good time and that’s the best way to approach it.
It follows the patten set in the last several Frankenstein films in that a scientist wants to improve upon the work of Frankenstein and fix the brain of the Monster. What’s refreshing about the film is that despite the wisecracking, pratfalling slapstick that was the trademark of the duo, there’s both room for their antics and for the Monsters to retain their dignity. The Monsters themselves aren’t played as the butt of the jokes. They are true to their established characters.
We open in London, where a fraught Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney) is impatiently waiting for a long-distance connection on a Trans-Atlantic phone call. He’s trying to desperately locate two large packages at a parcel depot in Florida, where Chick Young (Bud Abbott and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello) and ineptly working. The packages, to be delivered to a Chamber of Horrors wax museum contain the bodies of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). Talbot is trying to prevent the delivery, but as it’s a full moon, turns into the Wolf Man during the call, leading Wilbur to believe he’s talking to a dog, and hangs up.
The packages are just a means of Dracula and the Monster slipping into the country. Dracula plans to harvest a simple brain to replace the one in the Monster’s head, so the Monster won’t have the capacity to plan to conquer his master. (I like that, the last brain to be put in the Monster was Lugosi’s in Ghost of Frankenstein).
The brain Dracula wants is Wilbur’s, and the scientist/mad doctor he’s coerced to perform the operation is none other than Sandra (Lenore Aubert) who is Wilbur’s girlfriend.
From there, the film is a compendium of comedy set pieces, as the quest for Wilbur’s simple brain continues, and time after time, whenever Talbot changes into the Wolf Man, he lunges for Wilbur and misses. Wilbur is the only one who keeps seeing Dracula and the Monster pop up in hidden rooms behind secret doors but nobody believes him – and of course, the chases.
From the point of view of Abbott and Costello, it’s a showcase of their expert timing and physical gags, from the point of view of the Monsters – it’s the first time we get to see an onscreen battle between Dracula and the Wolf Man, ending in a crash through a high castle window, to the sea far below. The Monster has more to do in this film than the last two movies he appeared in, combined. Two things to look out for, in the inevitable burning lab scene, Glenn Strange has suffered a twisted ankle and wasn’t able to perform the scene – so Lon Chaney donned the make-up once more, briefly in an uncredited shot.
In the final scene, as Chick and Wilbur row away from Dracula’s island, they find they’re not alone on the boat, as a cigarette is floating in mid-air and the Invisible Man introduces himself – voiced by Vincent Price.
There’s plenty to enjoy in this film – especially gems of dialogue like:
Larry Talbot: I know you'll think I'm crazy, but in a half an hour the moon will rise and I'll turn into a wolf.
Wilbur: You and twenty million other guys.
A perfect Halloween party film.
Happy Halloween, everyone.
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