Tuesday, September 16, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

It's been observed that many of the prominent comedians of the Classic Hollywood period made horror-comedies. Not many of the resultant films are much more than serviceable, though-- which makes it all the more pleasing that Universal's final monster mash, combining the popular team Abbott and Costello with Universal's "Big Three" of Monsterdom, turns out to be the best of the horror-comedies, particularly since it appears so late in the Classic period (depending on how long you deem that to have lasted).

Now, it should be said that ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (henceforth A&CMF) is a classic in a very different way than any of the classic horror films from which the cinematic figures of Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster derive. Since A&C specialized in light farce, it's a given that the viewer isn't going to get Dracula musing on the boundaries between life and death, or the Wolf Man haunted by blood-guilt, or the Monster raging over the unjust treatment he has received from his maker. And yet, as many before me have remarked, the three monsters are given roughly the same sort of dignity they have in their earlier appearances. Dracula (Bela Lugosi) still has a domineering will, which he demonstrates when his criminal accomplice Doctor Mornay (Lenore Aubert) attempts to defy him. Larry "Wolf Man" Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is still tormented by the possibility of harming others, though to be sure, this film softens his threat by having him stumble over obstacles that would never have deterred him in the old days. Best of all, the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), ignominiously confined to an operating-table in the previous two "serious" monster mash-ups, is allowed to wreak havoc for a good ten minutes or so at the climax of A&CMF.

One advantage of this film is that the film's three screenwriters-- all much more associated with A&C comedies than with "serious horror"-- paid close attention to the template provided by the three previous "monster mashes." FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN loosely recapitulated the sibling rivalry-theme of 1941's THE WOLF MAN by having both the Wolf Man and the Monster seek the help of a scientist, who becomes an eleventh-hour "Frankenstein manqué" thanks to becoming fascinated with the Monster's bizarre biology. HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN presents a much madder scientist who's also more interested in the power of the Monster and who is undone by a Wolf Man rampage, while HOUSE OF DRACULA offers a scientist poisoned by the blood of Dracula, who tries to unleash the Monster's power before being killed by a de-lycanthropized Larry Talbot. In the latter two films, Dracula barely interacts with the other two monsters. The A&CMF scripters found a way to give Dracula a more central role: now, for reasons unexplained, it's the evil count who decides to bring the Monster's power under his sway, using the aforementioned Doctor Mornay as a catspaw to work his will.

Chick (Abbott) and Wilbur (Costello), playing two delivery-men accidentally involved in Dracula's plot, are the sort of characters who would normally provide a little bit of comic relief in a serious horror film. Here, their vaudeville routines-- principally, "straight man takes advantage of comic foil"-- are given new meaning.  Comic foil Wilbur, whose intellect tells him that monsters are "silly stuff," keeps seeing monsters while his blase pal Chick witnesses nothing. In this film their relationship metamorphoses into something more like scolding parent and naughty child, except that here, the audience knows that the "child" is right when he howls about seeing the living dead dogging his steps.  Small wonder that Wilbur's last words in the film are those of juvenile vindication: "And another thing Mr. Chick Young! The next time I tell you that I saw something when I saw it, you believe me that I saw it!"

I said that it was amazing that A&CMF works so well as a horror-comedy compared to its genre-kindred. But it's also the most tightly-written of all the Abbott and Costello films, with hardly a wasted word or plot-development to be found. In this it's also superior to the previous two films in the "monster mash" series, both of which suffer from unraveling plot-threads. A particular standout is the gag in which Wilbur momentarily tricks the Monster by pulling Dracula's cape over the lower half of his face, only to blow the illusion a moment later by rejoicing in his own cleverness. But this gag would not have worked so well, if there had not been a chilling scene in which Dracula is seen mesmerizing Chick and Wilbur by placing his cloak over his lower face, presumably to emphasize the effect of his vampiric gaze. In fact, when I screened the film for my nephew and three of my nieces, this scene prompted one of them to say, "Are you sure this is a comedy?"

This balance between the horrific and the humorous is the reason why A&CMF has remained a perennial of its kind. It's also a pleasant sign-off for the Big Three, who aren't diminished by the comic shenanigans. It may be that someone at Universal realized that the monsters who'd helped make the studio's fortunes had become too familiar to conjure terror the way they had for earlier audiences. Many "straight horrors" of the forties had begun to "play to the kids," and so in this atmosphere the best possible send-off for the Big Three was to allow them to hold their own against the proponents of light farce-- giving each of them a suitably horrible finish, rather than allowing them to simply fade into obscurity.

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