When I was a boy, I got a couple of books about the Universal Monsters out from my local library, and they were both scathing about Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. At the time, I sort of bought the argument. Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolf Man reduced to foils for a pair of bumbling idiots? Hah!
I mean I like an Abbot and Costello movie now and then. They're no good for binge watching, because they reuse too much of their own material. But the pair were fine entertainers of their day. Perhaps they lack the genius of the great comics of the 1920s and 30s – Chaplin, Keaton, Fields, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers. But at their best, Bud and Lou are very talented and at their worst they're still perfectly competent. They're rapid back-and-forth routines are legendary – so much so that Lou Costello's skill as a physical comedian is often quite underrated. Still, bottom line, they're comedians and the great monsters deserve to come off better than second best to them.
But (and yes, you can ignore everything I said before 'but') watching the Universal Monster series in order changes this superficial assessment. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein may be a parody, but it's way better than most of the later Universal Monster films. It's the best Wolf Man movie since Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. It's the best Frankenstein's Monster movie since Son of Frankenstein, if not Bride of Frankenstein. And it's the best Dracula movie since, well, Dracula.
More than that, it's the first film that combines these characters in anything approaching a cohesive may. This is the film that House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula aspired to be but failed. What's more, unlike the House of… movies, in this film the laughs are intentional.
Plot synopsis should be pretty simple this time around: Bud Abbot and Lou Costello play a pair of baggage handlers at a Florida railway station. After we're introduced to Costello's surprisingly classy girlfriend, Sandra (Lenore Aubert), the boys get a phone call from Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) warning them about two crates bound for a local house of horrors. At the behest of the house of horror's owner, they deliver the boxes--said to contain the remains of Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster.
Bud leaves Lou to unpack the boxes. Dracula comes to life and scare him out of his wits, then uses his magic ring (last seen in House of Frankenstein) to partially revive the Monster. The pair leaves, and Bud and Lou get blamed for the loss of property and thrown in jail.
Dracula flies off to meet with Sandra. It is revealed that she is a scientist who the Count is blackmailing into restoring the Monster to full power. In addition, he wants to replace the Monster's 'evil' brain with a more tractable one. Guess whose?
Bud and Lou are bailed out by undercover insurance investigator Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph) who attempts to get information out of Lou by pretending to be in love with him.
Bud and Lou are warned of Dracula's plot by Talbot, though Talbot's credibility takes a hit when he admits to being a werewolf. The boys and Joan go to Sandra's castle, where they are met by Sandra's assistant, the hunky Professor Stevens (Charles Bradstreet). Warned by a phone call from Talbot, Bud and Lou investigate the castle – though, predictably only Lou sees anything out of the ordinary.
Joan finds Dr Frankenstein's note, while Sandra find's Joan's PI license. Dracula, in his disguise as Dr Lejon, complements Lou on his "young blood… and brains." Sandra later attempts to talk Dracula out of his plan, but Dracula hypnotises her and turns her into a vampire.
Later, at a big masquerade party, the boys run into Talbot, where Talbot confronts the Count. Lou realises that something is up with Sandra, but is rescued before she can bite him.
Lou mistakes the Wolf Man for Bud in a wolf mask. Elsewhere, Bud, carrying a wolf mask, is accused of attacking Talbot's most recent victim. After an angry mob chase scene, Dracula kidnaps Lou.
The following morning, Bud and Talbot go to rescue Lou and Joan. There's a funny bit of runaround, that ends with Lou in Dracula's power, ready for the operation.
The rescuers arrive again. The moon rises, Talbot transforms and Dracula fights the Wolf Man! Squeeee! The Monster rises and throws Sandra out of a window. Bud and Lou have a very funny running battle with the Monster. Dracula, getting the worst of the battle with Talbot, turns into a bat to flee. The Wolf man grabs him and both of them fall into the ocean.
The Monster chases Bud and Lou to a jetty, where the boys hop on a boat and try to escape. Joan and fellow bland secondary character, Stevens, set fire to the jetty, supposedly destroying the Monster. Bud claims that they're now safe from monsters. He is immediately contradicted by the voice of the Invisible Man (Vincent Price!) speaking from the boat's bow. Bud and Lou dive off the boat and swim for their lives.
It's a fun movie. As a horror film, it's light on scares, with much of the fun coming from watching Lou Costello's reaction to the monsters. And this I think also serves to counter a common argument against the film, which is that much of Dracula's behaviour doesn't make sense. Granted, scaring Lou and then hiding when Bud turns up doesn't advance Dracula's plot much, but it is bloody hilarious. If I were Dracula, I'd certainly have spent the 1940s scaring Lou Costello, using the skills I'd developed frightening Curly Howard all through the 1930s.
Aside from issues of motivation, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the first film to make the so-called 'monster mash' formula actually work. The Monster, the Count and the Wolf Man are all clearly parts of the same story. In the House of… movies, each of the three gets his own plot, with the Monster short-changed for screen time in both of them. In Abbot and Costello, all three characters are part of the same story. Dracula has a scheme, the Monster is central to that scheme and Talbot has an important role opposing Dracula. Yes it's a comedy, but the plot could work almost as well if the two baggage handlers were serious characters, or if Stevens and Joan actually had some sort of point as characters.
And in spite of the comedy, the monsters are treated with respect. Lou is terrified of them, and he is shown at every turn that he is right to be terrified of them. They're powerful, frightening and dangerous. The Monster, in particular, is afforded more respect than he has been in years. He's not given a whole lot more to do than usual – just the 'wake up and smash things' of the last three Universal Frankensteins. But his rampage is more dramatic and goes on for far longer. The film doesn't add much to the existing Frankenstein lore, but it uses what it has effectively in the climactic fight/chase sequence.
And then there's the other element of that particular sequence. Now, that is history in the making. I'm pretty sure it's the first ever vampire vs werewolf fight in cinema history. Enjoy, fans of Underworld, Twilight and White Wolf Games! That entire trope starts here--with an alcoholic throwing chairs at a morphine addict.
But I'm being unkind. Lon Chaney Jr does nicely, bringing his tortured Wolf Man to the screen one last time. He understands that the movie doesn't revolve around him, and gives us just enough of his Talbot to set the scene without trying to upstage Bud and Lou.
Lugosi, on the other hand--playing Dracula for the second and final time in his career (!)--doesn't hold back at all. He charms and smarms, gives his best hypnotic passes with clawlike hands and intense stares. I love Lugosi, but I have to admit that a lot of his roles weren't that great. Here, he reminds you why his Dracula has been so beloved for nearly a century.
Glen Strange… Well, he never brought much emotional range to the Frankenstein Monster. But in the final fight scene, he pulls off the tricky part of playing the Universal Frankenstein. That is, he has to be slow and stagger-y, but still convincingly threatening. And he pulls it off. I won't say he does it brilliantly, but he pulls it off.
Sandra and Joan are both potentially interesting characters. Even though both Bud and Lou treat them as semi-interchangeable objects, they are both portrayed as intelligent women who are good at their job. Sandra – the only female mad scientist I've seen in a Universal Frankenstein picture – is so good that she's able to throw her competence in Dracula's face when he disagrees with her. Unfortunately, Dracula takes control of both her and Joan, sidelining both of these women. Sandra's death at the hands of the Monster is, strangely, a positive development, cementing her role in the film as Dr Frankenstein's equal. Joan, on the other hand, ends up just following the lead of Prof. Stevens, probably the most pointless character in the movie.
In conclusion, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the monster mash done right. The trick here is pulled off again in Mad Monster Party, Monster Squad, and elsewhere. Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man, not just in the same movie, but in the same story. It's the swan song of the classic Universal Monsters, who were just a couple of years away from being supplanted at Universal by the Gill-Man, the Mole People and the Mutant. An ocean away, in Britain, they were only a few years away from beginning a new life at Hammer Studios.