A to Z Horror: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), directed by Charles Barton

For the most part, video stores are dead, save for a handful around the world (read Kate Hagen’s excellent and extensive piece for an idea). Luckily, I work at Best Video, one of the last remaining vestiges to the golden days of renting, where streaming meant perusing shelves in hope of finding the last copy of whatever your parents wouldn’t let you catch in theaters. Each and every day I stock the same old shelves so those out there looking to romanticize renting can do so, often finding myself absently surfing the horror section; a 1,000 film wall that hides some of the genres greatest (and worst) contributions.

So I decided to take on the task, a journey if you will, of combing through every single title within the horror genre at work, A to Z. This is that journey, and as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand films begins with a single scream…

Oh, and follow #AtoZhorror on Instagram and Twitter @reelbrew for every terrifying pit-stop! Enjoy!

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A: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Charles Barton

It’s a grand new idea for fun!

By the early 1940’s, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had made a significant name for themselves, starring in numerous comedies and musicals such as In the Navy [‘41] and Rio Rita [‘42], as well as regular radio spots on The Kate Smith Hour; a variety show that brought together comedy, music and drama under one mic. However, their eclectic tomfoolery hit a lull in November of 1943 after the death of Costello’s infant – a tragic drowning that diminished the comedian’s affable nature – and by 1948, the duo were seeking a comeback. Coincidentally, Universal was looking to shake things up with their once profitable monster squad (Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man), all who remained dormant after their three most recent crossovers failed to kick up scares with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man [‘43], House of Frankenstein [‘44] and its successor, House of Dracula [‘45]. Naturally, the next venture for the studio was to bring them all under one roof, kicking off the comedy teams first foray into horror, causing a ripple effect that would create some of the horror hybrids most enduring films.

Bela Lugosi, donning the cape one last time, reprises his role as Dracula, who is shipped to the states along with Frankenstein’s monster (a less intimidating Glenn Strange) as a potential sideshow attraction for Mr. McDougal’s (Frank Ferguson) House of Horrors. At the railway station where the two monsters are shipped, baggage clerks Chick (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur (Lou Costello) receive a phone call from Henry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who warns them of the dangers that await them should the crates be opened. In comedic fashion, Chick and Wilbur haphazardly ship the contents to MacDougal’s wax museum, where Dracula and the monster escape. Hiding under the guise of Dr. Lejos and working with Wilbur’s seemingly too-good-to-be-true girlfriend Sandra (Lenore Aubert) – hint, she is – Dracula concocts a plan to abduct Wilbur in order to transplant his brain into the body of the monster.

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A running joke that tumbles around amidst the type of buffoonery slapped together by the likes of Laurel and Hardy is how seemingly desirable Costello is to the women of Florida. As an insurance investigator (played by Jane Randolph) puts it after Abbott baffling demands to know what Costello has that he doesn’t, “Brains!”; a joke that runs parallel with Drac err Dr. Lejos’ scheme to steal Costello’s brain. Though to label Abbott as the intellectual superior would be a misnomer. He’s less hapless than his counterpart but oblivious to the dangers that lurk in the shadows, and in the land of women, completely shallow.

Except Costello’s glib, high pitched posturing – developed to distinguish himself on the radio – can’t exist without his counterpart. Their comedic posturing and timing work congruently with each other, and, despite my complete fandom for the Universal Monsters, hilariously drives what is essentially a cinematic event decades before we as fans created such an occasion.

Which isn’t to say that the conniving and sleuthing of Dracula coupled with the grunting reminders of why Frankenstein’s monster is so formidable aren’t prescient, but given the wide gap – 16 years since either first crept into our consciousness – much of their appeal has withered. Lugosi, now hooked on opiates after a bout of chronic sciatica, no longer exudes the sexual vibrancy that made his take on the Stoker legend so alluring. Even climbing out of a coffin lacks seductive fluidity, and like an aged action star feebly dodging a hail of bullets, there’s a doleful adoration that can’t be shaken.

For most of its lean 83 minute run-time, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein wears its amusement on its sleeve while its belly laughs gush over like intoxicating mead. Yet by the end, its comedic spell feels less amusing and more drunkenly cruel. Frankenstein’s monster lobs one of the central characters out of a window to her death, and for it, he is executed by fire. It’s a jarring transition that attempts to sign off with horror as its swan song, yet there isn’t any lesson to be had, no philosophical insight the way James Whale’s original film captured the innocence and playfulness of its infamous lake scene. And as the two comedians get away on a rowboat docked outside Dracula’s castle unaffectedly watching as the monster is burned alive, I couldn’t help but wonder why such a playful bite of absurdity, one that helped give birth to the horror comedy, decided to spit in the dessert of monster fans alike, ultimately diminishing the films affable nature.

☕☕☕

Add Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to your collection!

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