Guest writer KEVIN NICKELSON tells us how three cranky monsters and an aging comic duo made screen history with Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein
I’ve always wondered if laughter and screams of fright come from the same area of the brain. It turns out they do. Like the connection between comedy and tragedy, humor and horror both involve the setup of a situation designed specifically to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience.
The droll malaprop that leads to a guffaw and the ramped up tension of the chase between monster and victim leads to profound guttural wails. Humor can also be a relief mechanism to counter a high stress event. The Relief Theory was offered by Dr. Julia Wilkins of the Department of Special Education at St. Cloud University in Minnesota. Dr. Wilkins found that people who reached for humor and laughter in stressful situations saw distinct reductions in levels of tension.
Frankie, Drac and a wolf guy face off against their own nightmares… a comedy team!
My earliest memory of being exposed to the mixture comes from 1982, living in San Jose, California and viewing a film on the local San Francisco channel KBHK-44’s Saturday comedy block. In 1948 Universal Studios, having run the course with their monster series in the 1940s, decided to put their box office comic king duo, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, in the way of three creatures out for mayhem. The result was a comedy-horror masterpiece called Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein that became a standard-bearer for other chortles and chills fests to come.
The plot, Dracula targeting Lou as a pliable brain for the Frankenstein monster so that his bidding will be done without fuss and Larry Talbot’s wolf man hero chasing the batty one, is rather basic and really just the thread to stitch together some familiar Bud and Lou routines (the candle moving gag is dusted off from Hold That Ghost for instance) with riotous brand new comic setups (much of which involving Lou and Dracula) and genuine chills.
“What we need now is young blood… and brains!”
The movie works so beautifully because the comedy and horror work in support, rather than at the expense, of each other. The scene in McDougal’s House of Horrors with Bud and Lou unpacking the crates containing the Count and the monster shows the perfect balance in prime action. The creepy air provided by the wax figure props, dim lighting and thunder and lightning effects does not get muted even as the joking banter flies. Bud: “You’re making enough noise to wake up the dead!” Lou: “I don’t have to wake him up. He’s up!” I still have the odd sensation of rolling on the floor laughing but with goosebumps on my skin.
Having a director in Charles T. Barton (no stranger to either supernatural themes or comic stories, having helmed Bud and Lou’s The Time of Their Lives just two years prior) who has the ability to know the strengths and weaknesses of his cast and the confidence to let each do their thing is the biggest plus in the movie’s corner. In fact, one definitely gets the feel of two sides playing the adventure from a different angle. Bela Lugosi as the prince of darkness, Lon Chaney jr as Talbot/werewolf, and Glenn Strange as the hulking guy with the neck bolts are all snarls and scare tactics just as before (as if they’re still in a House of only it’s Costello, not Frankenstein) while Bud and Lou act appropriately terrified, using their silliness to soften their, and our, nerves at the right moments.
How in the heck do Vincent Price and Woody Woodpecker factor in here?
Part of the look and charm of the film lies in the hands of Walter Lantz (famed animator of the Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy and Andy Panda cartoons among others). The opening title sequence has a simple sense of fun and wonder for the kid in each of us. He also provides the vampire-to-bat transformation sequences shown in a few places, both striving for and achieving that coolness reaction. As for Price, well, producer Robert Arthur (along with screenwriters Robert Lees, Frederic Rinaldo and John Grant) had the ingenious notion of having the invisible man introduce himself to the duo in the picture’s final scene. Future horror star Vincent Price was hired to voice the bit in what is, quite possibly, the first example of a filmed setup for a sequel.
So, if you want to see the ultimate symbiotic balance between laughing jags and screaming outbursts, and release that inner child stuck inside of you while you’re at it, check out the glittering gem that is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. As the original bat-man opines: “Well, you young people. Making the most of life. While it lasts.”