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Monday, September 7, 2009

ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN -- movie review by porfle

Old monsters never die, they just fade away...

Unless, that is, they're given one last chance to shine, as Universal pictures did for their classic monsters Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein (really Frankenstein's Monster, since it was the doctor who created him who was named Frankenstein -- but, let's face it, people were calling the Monster "Frankenstein" way back in the early thirties, including Universal's promotional department).

By 1948, the various series starring these definitive movie monsters had wound down -- the scriptwriters were unable to think of new ways to rehash the same old formulas, the Gothic horror style that made these movies what they were had begun to diminish in the shadow of the Cold War and the Atomic Age, and new chapters in these sagas were beginning to end up at the bottom of double bills that drew increasingly smaller audiences. And so, as Universal became Universal-International and began to cut budgetary corners wherever possible, many of the men who played these monsters and the technicians responsible for bringing them to the screen were, one by one, given their pink slips and sent packing.

However, two stars who were having no trouble getting people to buy movie tickets were the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. And since U-I had all these classic monster characters just sitting around collecting cobwebs, it was decided to team them with the two comics in an attempt to combine the last vestiges of the monsters' popularity with the ongoing success of Bud and Lou, and create what would become a unique and thoroughly entertaining comedy/horror experience. The result was ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.

Thankfully, the monsters were pretty much allowed to play it straight, without forcing them to perform a lot of pratfalls and silliness. In fact, the opening scene, which finds hapless lycanthrope Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) in a London hotel room fretfully awaiting the rising of the full moon, would have fit perfectly into any of the serious horror films of earlier years. Talbot, it seems, has been on the trail of Dracula, because he knows the infamous King of the Vampires is now in possession of the Frankenstein Monster and is trying to find a suitably compliant brain to surgically pop into his skull and transform the lumbering beast into a willing servant who will do his bidding.


Having discovered that Dracula and the Monster have been transported to a "house of horrors" exhibit in Florida, Talbot is desperately trying to contact the shipping company by phone in order to intercept the crates before they're delivered. And who should answer the phone but Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello), who works there with his buddy Chick (Bud Abbott)? As Talbot tries to explain the situation to Wilbur, the full moon rises and he begins to sprout hair and fangs (in the first of two excellent transformation scenes). Wilbur hears growling on the other end of the line and thinks that, for some reason, the man has put his dog on the phone. But what he hears is the Wolf Man rampaging through the hotel room, savagely ripping the furniture to shreds in a scene that is every bit as chilling as any of the "official" Wolf Man movies.

After night descends on Florida, Wilbur and Chick deliver the crates containing Dracula and the Monster to McDougal's House Of Horrors. Wilbur, of course, discovers them and is suitably terrified, but a skeptical Chick will have none of it. Finally Dracula arises from his coffin and takes the Monster to a castle on a nearby island (I know, there aren't very many castles in Florida, but that's not important) where his accomplice, Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert), who possesses the actual diary of Dr. Frankenstein, will perform the brain transplant. Unfortunately, the brain she has chosen for its simplicity and compliance is none other than that of her "boyfriend", Wilbur!

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is a dream-come-true for fans of both Bud and Lou and the classic Universal monsters. Although the humor is more situational, with less of the usual comedy "routines" that are found in most Abbott and Costello movies, it is one of their funniest efforts. And it's a real joy to see Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Glenn Strange performing their unforgettable characters one last time. Lugosi, denied by Universal the chance to portray his most famous character since 1931 (John Carradine assumed the role in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA; Lon Chaney, Jr. appeared as SON OF DRACULA around the same time), relishes the chance to don the famous cape again and gives a wonderfully sinister performance.

Chaney, of course, is great as Larry Talbot/the Wolf Man, and even though he wears a masklike appliance here (master make-up man Jack Pierce, who created the famous make-ups for the Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, et al, had since been let go by the studio, and faster, more cost-efficient methods were now employed), thus making his face less mobile and expressive, still manages to convey the frightening viciousness of the Wolf Man, even in certain scenes in which he must clumsily fail in his attempts to sink his claws into an unsuspecting Lou Costello. And Glenn Strange, the former stunt man and bit actor who played the Monster in the last two serious entries in the Frankenstein series (HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA) has more to do here than in either of the previous films in which he spent most of his screen time strapped to a laboratory table.

The climax of the film takes place in the castle as Dracula and Dr. Mornay prepare to transfer Wilbur's brain into the skull of the Monster while Chick and Talbot come to his rescue. As fate would have it, the full moon rises yet again and Talbot undergoes his transformation, which leads to a rare battle between Dracula and the Wolf Man (just as Lugosi and Chaney, and their respective stunt doubles, fought in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN five years earlier), while the newly-recharged Monster breaks free of his restraints and goes after Bud and Lou. This results in an extended free-for-all that will delight fans of both genres.

Unfairly maligned by many critics as the final degradation of the classic Universal monsters, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is actually a wonderful tribute to them, and a fond way of bidding farewell to these familiar characters that provided so much entertainment to their many fans over the years. If you're one of those fans, and you also appreciate the comedy of Abbott and Costello, this is a film that you'll want to watch over and over again.

Buy it at Amazon.com
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