October’s just around the corner, and with October comes the leadup to Halloween; and with the leadup to Halloween comes the beloved genre of the Halloween movie. And while there’s always plenty of gorehounds who can use the holiday as an excuse to marathon horror movies, there’s a more popular genre of Halloween movie that exists next to, but not quite within, the bounds of horror. These are the movies that use Gothic imagery, usually taken from the old Universal classics, less for scares than for laughs, usually of the kid-friendly variety; and if they’re light in scares, they’ll make up for it by giving you your money’s worth with not just one monster, but a whole menagerie of vampires, werewolves, and the undead. In other words, they’re the legacy of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
The name’s not entirely accurate, and I don’t just mean in the pedantic “Frankenstein was the doctor” way — the bolt-necked one shares the screen with the rest of Universal’s monster trifecta, Dracula and the Wolfman. It’s a little weird the other two got left off the marquee — not only is Frankenstein the only one not played the role’s originator (Glenn Strange stands in for Boris Karloff), he gets by far the least screentime out of any of them. And for what we do see of him, he’s mostly inert – the plot, in fact, is all about Dracula trying to revive him. We can only guess that Frankenstein just had that much more selling power than the other two — or, maybe the official title, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein was enough of a mouthful as it was.
Whatever its title is or should be, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’s strength is the same as all great crossovers: it plays fair by the rules of all its source material, as wildly different as they may be in this case. Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi don’t phone it in or ham it up. They give it their all, and their genuinely haunted Wolfman and genuinely terrifying Dracula give some gravitas to all the silliness. The film tips its hand too far in one direction a few times, as when Costello slaps around the Wolfman and then manages to avoid getting mauled to death because it’s tripping over itself like a clown. Dracula and the Wolfman don’t get a very dignified exit either, with the Wolfman pouncing on Dracula in bat form and sending them both falling into the sea, Wile E.Coyote-style. But then, dignity wasn’t a major concern in the straightfaced latter-day sequels either.
There’s a much more representative scene to set the tone at the beginning of the film. The Wolfman’s alter ego Larry Talbot is feverishly calling Costello from London to warn him not to let the crates containing the bodies of Dracula and the Monster reach their destination. Suddenly, the moon rises and he begins to change in a sincerely horrific scene that could have dropped in from any of the “straight” Wolfman movies. While all this is going on, we occasionally cut back to Costello on the other line, who, unaware of the horrific events since they’re out of his frame of reference, just wants Talbot to get his dog off the phone. “You’re awful silly to call all the way from London just to have your dog talk to me!” Decades before Mystery Science Theater, Lou Costello was riffing on his own movie! The cinematography emphasizes that these two characters come from different worlds — Costello’s post office is brightly lit, while Chaney’s London flat is dark and full of the high contrast shadows you’d expect from a Universal horror joint.
Frank Skinner’s score is equally important to the movie’s tonal balance. A standard “biddle-dee-bink-dee-boink” slapstick score would have ruined the mood, so instead he composes as if he were working for a straight horror movie. The horror here is real, and that only makes Abbott and Costello’s comic overreactions funnier. The supporting cast are even more essential to maintaining the mood. This may be a Dracula comedy, but Dracula doesn’t crack jokes, though Lugosi does exaggerate the earlier films’ use of sinister “I never drink…wine”-style double meanings. He’s a perfect straight man, the subject of jokes, but never the butt of them. (Fortunately, Frank Ferguson as Mr. McDougal, the nominal owner of Dracula’s corpse, is around for that role.)
Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein succeeds most of all because, like all the best horror comedies, it understands just how little difference there is between a scare and a laugh. The scene of Costello running in and out of Talbot’s room, debating whether to steal or return the orange he stole out of Talbot’s fruit basket (“I wonder if he counted them?”) plays on the same principle as a lot of the classic scare scenes: we know there’s a monster lurking in the shadows, and our hero doesn’t, or doesn’t know where. There’s the same suspense of when and where the monster will attack, but the release is a laugh instead of a scream, and the repetition pushes it past the point of terror and into ridiculousness. The Simpsons’ “rake gag” showed how one scene could go from funny to unfunny and back again the more times you saw it — this one starts all the way from seriousness and turns it into something funny.
As much as the filmmakers, Lou Costello is a master of making terror hilarious. It’s easy to imagine the writers chose the name of Abbott’s character, Chick Young, by workshopping what would sound best as a replacement for Costello’s trademark scream of “Heeeeeeeyyyy, Abbott!” More often, he’s scared past the point of screaming into total silence, and can barely sputter out what’s going on, instead having to pantomime the monsters. (When Abbott imitates him, he has to clarify that Dracula wears his cape “like this, ooh-ooh-ooh, not like this, ooh-ooh-ooh.”) Some viewers might recognize this schtick from the classic Porky Pig/Sylvester cartoons (or Cartoon Network’s more recent tribute, Courage the Cowardly Dog), where Sylvester, portrayed here as an ordinary cat who can’t talk or lisp, has to explain to Porky they’re being stalked by killer mice or Martians by dumb show. Coincidentally (or not?), the first of those cartoons, Scaredy Cat, came out the very same year as Meet Frankenstein. Who was imitating who? Maybe there’s a common ancestor for some enterprising comedy archaeologist to dig up.
That’s not Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’s only animation connection — the opening credits and effects sequences feature the work of Universal’s Walter Lantz Studios, the creators of Woody Woodpecker and Chilly Willy. They were rightly never as beloved as Disney, MGM, or Warner Brothers, but they do great work here. Certainly, the graceful, almost liquid animated bat they animate transforming into Dracula makes the string-suspended model used in the other scenes look even shabbier.
The shabbiness can be part of the charm, though. Dracula and the Monster invade Abbott and Costello’s world because McDougal has bought them for the local house of horrors. Once you get past the logical question of how such a prestigious one-of-a-kind exhibit got to such a tacky little exhibit, it makes perfect sense, because the kitschy, spooky fun of the movie is right out of a contemporary house of horrors itself. The Gothic castle where Dracula performs his experiments in reviving the Monster (which, in another wonderful bit of dream logic, is just a short boat ride away from the apparently small-town-America setting of the rest of the film) is full of that cheeseball atmosphere, all dripping moss and secret doors. One scene of Abbott running away from the Monster and Dracula jumping out at him as he goes by is right out of a carnival Ghost Train.
Before we go, it’s worth paying tribute to Abbott and Costello’s rapid-fire wordplay, which is at its best here. (A personal favorite: “Well that’s gonna cost you overtime because I’m a union man and I work only sixteen hours a day.” “A union man only works eight hours a day!” “I belong to two unions.”) And before the movie goes, it has one final treat in store, in the form of a cameo by a young Vincent Price as the Invisible Man. At the time, he was just one of many character actors who could have filled in for that one line. With the benefit of hindsight, it couldn’t have been anyone else. The very existence of Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein shows that Lugosi and Chaney’s generation of horror was on its way out: they had to cram three monsters and two comedians into one movie to draw the audiences they used to on their own. The Gothic school of the thirties and forties was coming to an end at the turn of the decade; the genre would take a turn into more self-aware camp through the fifties and sixties. So it’s only fitting that, in this very self-aware and campy movie, the elder statesmen of Old Hollywood horror should pass the torch to the face of the new style: Vincent Price.