By the end of the 1940s, Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, and a stable of movie monsters had all made a lot of money for Universal—but none of them were making as much as they used to. Abbott and Costello had lost momentum—and even appeared in a couple of movies in which they didn’t work as a team, thanks to a behind-the-scenes spat—while the monster-movie cycle had started to repeat itself in team-up films like House Of Frankenstein. Neither entity’s future at Universal looked too bright when William Goetz took over and tried to class up the joint. But class didn’t always make money, so the Universal mainstays ended up sharing a film called Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which the boys do battle with Frankenstein’s monster (as played by Glenn Strange), as the title promised, but also Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.)
The incongruous pairing—the late-’40s equivalent of dropping the American Pie gang into a Saw movie—really shouldn’t have worked, but it resulted in a highly entertaining film that became a huge hit and breathed new life into the comedy team’s career, while providing a convenient tombstone for the monsters, who faded from screens. Abbott and Costello play baggage clerks who, in spite of a telephone warning from Chaney, deliver packages containing Dracula’s coffin and Frankenstein’s monster to a horror-themed tourist attraction. Hilarity and horror follow, and director Charles Barton understands he has to meet the needs of both genres, giving Abbott and Costello room for their routines while letting the monsters play it straight. On the phone with Costello, Chaney enters the grips of his werewolf curse, and the mood stays tense and tortured. Cut to Costello in a brightly lit lobby: “Hey, you’ll have to get your dog away from the phone. I can’t hear a word you’re saying!”
As David J. Skal points out in a short documentary on the new Blu-ray edition (a special feature ported over from the old DVD version), it wasn’t that hard to link humor and horror. Most of the monster movies contain silly bits, and Abbott and Costello could be dropped into just about any stock movie genre with predictably funny results. They’d even done horror before with Hold That Ghost, from which they borrowed a routine for this film. And they’re funny here, too, even though they lean less on the burlesque patter routines that made them famous and more on the effortless chemistry they’d developed over the years. Costello gets so worked up he can hardly talk, except to call out for Abbott, whose concern for his pal doesn’t stop him from blowing his top while coming to his aid. It works every time.
It works a little better than usual here, too, in part due to the contrast between the funnymen and their ghoulish foils. Years later, Chaney pointed to the film as the end of the sort of horror movies he made, because they made a joke of the monsters. But Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein contains more chills than most of the later monster movies. That’s partly because Chaney, Lugosi (returning to the role that made him famous for the first time since 1931’s Dracula), and Strange don’t act as if they were in a comedy, and it’s partly because of the incongruity. The ghouls seem more threatening because they don’t belong in an Abbott And Costello comedy. It’s a weird idea that works largely because of its weirdness.
Key features: A good commentary from historian Gregory W. Mank and the aforementioned Skal documentary, which also covers the many subsequent films in which Abbott and Costello met one kind of monster or another. (Because what’s a good idea if it can’t be squeezed for every last dime?)