Two bumbling freight handlers find themselves mixed up with Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein monster.
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It isn’t easy blending the horror and comedy genres together. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is considered a classic comedy/horror film. My favorite movies growing up were comedies and horror movies starring the Wolf Man, Dracula and the Frankenstein monster. By adding Abbott and Costello, who were my favorites to begin with, I got to enjoy both the humor and scary moments delivered by my favorite monsters. This film has many admirers. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Elvis Presley both sited the film as their favorite.
During the 1930’s and early forties, Universal Studios had been a company built by their famous monsters. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, The Mummy and other screen monsters made the studio rich. Years later Universal continued to make inferior B-movie sequels with their signature creatures which lessened their stature. Some horror film fans would think that the genre hit rock bottom to be featured in a comedy, but the monsters are never made fun of. Yes, the monsters are straight men to Abbott and Costello’s antics, but it wouldn’t have worked any other way. The monsters need to be believable and still terrifying.
Having Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. reprise roles they created adds gravitas to the film. The film marked Lugosi’s return to his original role of Dracula after 17 years. Lugosi’s performance is perfect and has nice comedic touches. Lon Chaney Jr. returned to play the tortured Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man. Chaney played the role seven years earlier in another great film The Wolf Man (1941). Both actors took these roles very seriously. The roles are iconic and powerful. Both screen characters have spawned countless films throughout the horror genre. Yet these two performers are still the greatest and most recognizable actors of the horror genre. Both Lugosi and Chaney Jr. were underrated as actors. Lesser actors could not have made these roles come to life. Chaney Jr. is wonderful as the intense yet earnest Talbot, who seems a little unhinged. Both Lugosi and Chaney Jr. don’t play their roles as jokes. That they leave for Abbott and Costello. This is why the horror half of the movie works. Costello’s strangulated speechless terror at the sight of the monsters is priceless.
Unlike Abbott and Costello’s previous films, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a big budget production, almost costing $800,000, a huge sum for a Universal B-movie. You can see where the money was spent in the atmospheric sets for Dracula’s castle, monster makeup, special effects, and a cartoon title sequence. The special effect sequence of a bat transforming into Dracula was created by Walter Lantz of “Woody Woodpecker” fame. The investment paid off for Universal. The film was the second highest grossing film of the year for Universal.
Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Gray (Lou Costello) are freight porters who transport a pair of mysterious crates to the McDougal House of Horrors Museum. McDougal (the hyper Frank Ferguson) demanded that they deliver the crates in person, so they can be inspected by insurance agents. As they are unpacking the crates, Dracula (Bela Lugosi) awakens and hypnotizes Wilbur, wakes the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange), takes his coffin and leaves before anyone can see them. McDougal arrives with the insurance agent, sees the crates empty and has the boys arrested for theft.
Dr Mornay (Lenore Aubert), Wilbur’s girlfriend, meets with Dracula and checks on the monster at Dracula’s castle. Mornay is part of Dracula’s plan to replace the monster’s violent brain with a pliable one, namely Wilbur’s. Meanwhile, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) arrives and adds to the mayhem. He tells how he’s chased Dracula and the monster across Europe and knows they are alive. He asks the boys to help him destroy them. Wilbur agrees, but Chick thinks they’re both crazy. Later on Talbot tells Wilbur and Chick that when the moon is full he turns into a wolf. Wilbur cracks, “You and 20 million other guys.”
The climax takes place on Dracula’s island as Chick and Talbot arrive to rescue Wilbur, before Dr. Mornay can operate on him. Of course things don’t go smoothly. Talbot turns into a wolf before he can rescue Wilbur. Talbot and Dracula square off to fight and Wilbur and Chick are chased by the Monster. The monsters are vanquished and the good guys are safe or are they? While Chick and Wilbur escape in a row boat, they hear a disembodied voice (Vincent Price) and a cigarette floating in the air. The boys jump off the boat and swim away as the invisible man laughs.
This movie always makes me happy. The film is only 83 minutes long and yet it has a complicated plot and many characters. The pace and editing of the movie is excellent. By the time Abbott and Costello did this film they had made 21 films together and it shows. Their chemistry is perfect, as is their comedic timing. All the performances are great. Frank Ferguson’s performance as McDougal is hilarious. He starts off angry and advances to ballistic in seconds. Glenn Strange, who played the Frankenstein monster, broke his foot during a scene and Lon Chaney Jr. replaced him in the laboratory battle scene. See if you can spot him in that scene. In 2001 the United States Library of Congress considered this film “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and selected it for perseveration in the National Film Registry. Not bad for a horror comedy starring a comedy duo and some famous monsters.