Saturday, October 18, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein

Lou Costello is transfixed by Bela Lugosi as Dracula in Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 18: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Here is the controversy about this movie: Is it canonical? You see, despite being the “new” template for superhero universes, Marvel’s Avengers is not the first team-up movie to feature massively popular characters across multiple films. Characters have been crossing over and running into each other since the beginning of cinema, but the first to find real success with this strategy was Universal Pictures.

The Universal horror movie universe, known as the Universal Monsters, featured all the greats – the Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, etc. Fittingly, the biggest monsters were played by the biggest stars such as Lon Cheney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Cheney Jr. The critical and commercial success was so great that – stop me if you have heard this one before – Universal just could not help itself and is attempting to reboot the series.

The recent Dracula Untold film is planned to be the first in a new line of Universal Monsters. It is in theaters now, and you may have seen the advertisements for it. If you have, or perhaps if you have seen the movie, you know that it is in the dark, gritty style of the new Batman and Superman movies, as well as countless reimagined fairy tales. What it lacks, and what all of these movies will continue to lack, is a sense of fun. This, by the way, is the reason the Marvel movies will remain the gold standard of such expanded universes. The movies are just plain fun, full of old-fashioned thrills using new-school tools.

But as much fun as they have, even the Marvel heroes would be unlikely within their universe to run into an elite comedy duo. Try to imagine Iron Man enlisting the help of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele or Black Widow teaming up with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. The commitment to dour intensity is too great to allow for any kind of whimsy or flight of fancy, and we have all tried to learn from the inclusion of Richard Pryor in Superman III.

Well, in 1948, Universal allowed it to happen in the Universal Monsters universe, and it was glorious. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are the quintessential mid-20th century comedy duo. The greatest thing about them was that despite the age-old setup of straight man and funny man, each of them could draw a laugh out of any material. They were brilliant, and when they walked into the Universal Monsters world in Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein, it was as though they had been meant to be there all along.

Abott and Costello would go on to meet many more monsters in some great laugh-riot films. They met the Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Invisible Man, among others. But they met Frankenstein first, and to my mind, it is the funniest and best of their films. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as Dracula and the Wolf Man also appear, which is where the canonical trouble begins.

A few things in this movie, most notably the continued lycanthropy of the Wolf Man, violate the continuity of the Universal Monsters films. As a result, some strict gatekeepers of the universe consider this a standalone movie, outside the timeline of the original set of pictures. It does not ultimately matter. Such distinctions are for the fans, and if it helps, one can think of this as the time some Universal Monsters showed up in an Abbott and Costello movie rather than the other way around.

All that matters is how funny this film is while maintaining respect for the fear these monsters are capable of inspiring. Abbott and Costello are freight workers tasked with handling the remains of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. When the remains come back to life, Abbott and Costello get mixed up in trying to put things right.

The plot is a bit convoluted and at the same time pretty thin. The point is to create situations and set pieces for the maximum amount of comedy and terror. It succeeds marvelously at both, and there is a sequence featuring Costello attempting to sit on the lap of Frankenstein’s monster that will never fail to elicit a laugh from me.

Costello famously did not want to do this movie, thinking the script was terrible. Longtime Abbott and Costello collaborator and friend Charles Barton was brought in to direct, and he was convinced to do the movie. It turned out to be one of their greatest successes. It is also a triumphant example of what can happen when you throw open the shutters on a grim situation and let a little light in. We could use more of that in today’s cinema.

Tomorrow, another wolf man is confronted with humor and horror, this time while on vacation.

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