11/24/09

Abbott and Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff (1949): Who's On First? No, Boris Killed Him.

Last month I got to talk about one of my favorite horror comedies, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This great film united the comedy duo with a trio of Universal monsters, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolfman, and Frankenstein played by Glen Strange. While Boris Karloff had been offered the role, he declined rather than play the character in a comedy. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a box office success, and the studio immediately started feeling around for another horror themed film for the funnymen. The script they found, originally titled Easy Does It, was intended to be a vehicle for Bob Hope. With a little tinkering, it was refocused for the comedy team, but the femme fatale villain, Madame Switzer, was kept the same. Then five days before shooting began the Switzer character was changed to a swami and Boris Karloff was hired. That is how they finally arrived at Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, and we arrive at my second post as a contributor to Frankensteinia’s Boris Karloff Blogathon.

When famous criminal lawyer Mr. Strickland comes to stay at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel, he doesn’t take kindly to the bellhop skills of Freddie Phillips (Lou Costello), and the lawyer goes so far as to get Freddie fired. The indignant bellhop vows to get even with the big city lawyer, but he thinks it over and goes to apologize only to find the lawyer dead. Freddie quickly becomes the main suspect. With only hotel detective Casey Edwards (Bud Abbott) on his side, Freddie must find out which of the seven hotel guests, all former clients of Strickland, has done the deed. That is if he can resist the charms of the beautiful Angela Gordon (Lenore Aubert), the mystical hypnosis of Swami Talpur (Boris Karloff), or getting steamed to death.

If the story sounds a bit like a typical drawing room mystery from the 1940’s, that’s because it is. Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff takes on much more of properties of the noir thriller than their previous film, A&C Meet Frankenstein, did of horror films. In Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff the corpses pile up, often literally, and the scene where Bud and Lou play cards with a couple of stiffs was shocking enough to get cut out in some countries. Needless to say, there is little in the film the modern viewer might find “scary”, but this film does have a much different tone than other Abbott & Costello films. The title of the film was supposed to be Meet the Killers, but Universal didn’t want the film confused with their 1946 film The Killers. This probably led to the clunky title that features so prominently the name of Boris Karloff.

While the shocking scenes in the film might seem passé to modern audiences, the humor remains strong as ever. This was the seventh and final film that the comic duo made with director Charles Barton. With Barton, Abbott and Costello refined their vaudeville routines for the movie screens, and made a string of their great films that stand as the best in their catalog. Where some of the Marx Brothers films feel out of synch with the current taste in humor, it’s hard to watch Bud and Lou interact and not see the roots of what would become both situational comedy and the buddy flick. Lou Costello especially shines in this film, and his delivery and comic timing is right on point, and while he does have his typically Costello moments, he pulls it back to great effect in this film.

My first contact with this film came when I picked up the Goodtimes Video version of this at a Wal-Mart sometime in the late eighties. I was drawn to it both because of Abbott and Costello and, of course, Boris Karloff. Sadly, Boris, as the turbaned Swami Talpur, gets precious little screen time. He does make the most of what he gets. The routine he does with Lou Costello is priceless. The dimwitted Freddie proving too dumb to be hypnotized is the highlight of the film. Karloff gives his creepy best as the Swami, but there’s little to do but ham it up while Costello gets the laughs. Boris looks like he knows as much, and he looks like he’s having fun spoofing his own image.

In the end, as an Abbott and Costello film, it doesn’t add up to Buck Privates or A&C Meet Frankenstein, and as a Boris Karloff film, it will never top any lists. It is however an enjoyably, slightly odd little film that will entertain comedy or Karloff fans. If there’s any film that A&C Meets the Killer, Karloff really reminds me of, then it’s Clue. So if you enjoy that film, you might want to give this one a spin. That’s all for today’s Boris Karloff love. I’ll be back Thursday night with another selection. So after your post turkey nap, come on back and get all wrapped up in some more Boris.




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