There are things that just go together in the Halloween season, caramel and apples, tricking and treating, or ghosts and goblins just to name a few. There’s another pairing that I always enjoy as All Hallows Eve grows closer, comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello with the Universal Monsters. By 1948, with the heyday of the 1930’s far behind, the classic monster movies had begun to grow stale. Universal attempted to capitalize all they could with an endless string of sequels, most notably House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. As a last hurrah for the original big three (Dracula, Wolf Man, and Frankenstein), Universal paired the trio with popular comedians Abbott and Costello, radio stars who had been on a successful string of films throughout the forties.
The premise for the film was a tad threadbare, but the construction of the script brought the three monsters together better than either of the two ‘House’ movies. Abbott and Costello play baggage handlers Chick Young and Wilber Grey. The duo are to deliver two massive crates to a local House of Horrors, and as they unpack the crates, they discover one contains the coffin of Dracula while in the other lies the Frankenstein monster. When Chick walks away for a moment, Dracula rises from his coffin and hypnotizes the weak willed Wilbur. The Count gets away with his coffin and the monster in tow, and Chick and Wilbur are arrested for stealing the two displays. After being sprung from jail, the duo meet Larry Talbot who is on the trail of Dracula and the monster, and soon they are all caught up in Dracula’s plot to get a new brain for the monster, Wilbur’s brain.
Originally, this film was titled The Brain of Frankenstein, but it was re-titled a few weeks prior to shooting. Over the years Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has been a great source of debate as to if it was or was not an official sequel to the Universal franchise. While it was a very amusing send off for the trio of monsters (they would not appear together again officially for Universal until the debacle that was Van Helsing), this film is much less a sequel than a spoof. It plays out like a better constructed version of the ‘House’ films, but the whole film is played for laughs with little in the way of horror. I do have to say that the Dracula to bat animations and Wolf Man transformations are some of the best of the Universal films.
What does give the sequel talk some credence is the casting. When Karloff refused to return to play Frankenstein’s monster after saying it would demean the character, the role was given to Glen Strange who had played the monster twice before in House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein. Actually two famous horror actors in this film played the monster. When Strange broke his foot on set of the film, Lon Chaney Jr. filled in and played the part of the monster in the climatic final showdown in the laboratory. This film also marks the first time the Frankenstein monster had spoken since 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein. This film also marked the first time the monster was not outfitted with Jack Pierce’s makeup techniques. The studio opted for the cheaper rubber appliances that had just been made, and Strange once said that the head piece fit so tightly that by the end of the day under the hot lights, he could shake his head and hear sweat rattle around inside of it.
Now, to me, the most important feature of this film is the return of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula. Lugosi only played his most famous role two times, in 1931’s Dracula and this film. At first, the part was not going to go to Bela as the studio intended to go with one of the original choices for the Count back in 1931, Ian Keith. This was strangely enough not because they didn’t want Lugosi, but rather that they thought he was dead. When Lugosi’s agent found out about the film, he shamed the studio head telling him, “He is Dracula! You owe this role to Lugosi!” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Bela plays the role with the spirit of the original character, but with a twinkle in his eye that implies that he knew exactly what kind of film this was. After seeing International House, I commented on Lugosi’s comedic timing, and once again, though Dracula is played straight, he has many scenes where the veteran horror icon elicits quite a few laughs.
The Wolf Man was also granted to the actor who made the role famous. Lon Chaney Jr. had played the Wolf every time since his debut in the 1941 film The Wolf Man, and here he brings the same growling persona to the screen as well as the ever nervous moon phobic Laurence Talbot. Chaney perhaps shares the funniest scene in the picture when he attends a costume party along with Chick and Wilbur. Chick is dressed in a brown shirt and slacks with a Wolf Man mask, but when the moon goes full and Talbot attacks a man at the party, Chick is mistaken as the feral attacker. The mistaken identity leads the two men on the run, and the whole sequence is very funny with enough of the Universal horror feel thrown in for good measure.
The stars of the film though are Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and unlike many of their other films, Meet Frankenstein relies less on verbal sparring than on slapstick comedy. This gives the film a more energetic feel than some of their more wordy affairs. They do recycle a routine with a candle from their 1941 film Hold that Ghost. Lou Costello didn’t even want to do Meet Frankenstein saying that “My little girl could write something better than this.”, but what his little girl couldn’t do was pay him $50,000, hire the duo’s favorite director Charles Barton, or provide the comedy team with a massively popular film. After Meet Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello just couldn’t get enough of meeting Universal characters, and they would go on to Meet the Invisible Man (who shows up in the end of Meet Frankenstein as the disembodied voice of Vincent Price), Meet the Killer, Karloff (with Boris as purposively murderous Swami), and Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (again played by Karloff). I’ve seen each of those films (in fact you’ll probably hear about the two Karloff features next month), but none of them stack up to the hilarity of Meet Frankenstein.
As I sign off here, I want to clear one more thing up. I’ve seen lots of horror nerds complaining that Abbott and Costello meet the Frankenstein monster, not Frankenstein as in the doctor. This is when you’re taking horror nerdery too far. To the average non-geeky filmgoer, Frankenstein means the monster as well as the doctor. I mean come on folks. The other day in the disclaimer about Karloff at the beginning of The Old Dark House, the monster was referred to as “mechanical”. Now I’m sure we can all agree that was wrong, but I bet not a soul complained about it. I feel safe saying that no one felt cheated going into Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein when Colin Clive didn’t show up. So chill on the whole Frankenstein/ Frankenstein’s monster thing. It’s like the Star Wars nerds who can name every creature in the cantina. No one cares except people who also want to know or already do.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me say that Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein may well have been the first movie to come out with the sole intention of being a horror comedy. For this reason, if for nothing else, it definitely deserves to get a watch. Plus, seeing Bela in the Cape one more time makes the film something kind of special. This is the kind of film put me in that childlike mindset for Halloween, and I definitely think that more people should check it out.