Each week in the month of October, we’re going to highlight a different Horror movie for your viewing pleasure. This is a bold statement since this is clearly two fridays late, so let’s see if I keep that promise. Starting the month off with a bang, we’re going to talk about 1948’s Bud Abbott and Lou Costello meet Frankenstein. It’s a great place to start because it’s a greatest hits of not just Universal Monsters, but 20th century American Halloween imagery in general.
Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein is on a list of classic movies that I could not give less of a shit about no matter how many people I knew and trusted swore by it, until one day I finally watched it. Art is a subjective experience, and the context of when and where in your life you meet a work of art, or revisit it, often has a lot to do with how you react to it. So buckle up, ’cause this is a personal essay, not a review. Growing up I loved the Universal Monster Movies, like a lot of kids did. Monsters where the best. I also loved Laurel and Hardy, and living in a house with my Poppop, saw a lot of both of these kind of movies. Abbott and Costello, to me, were in the latter category of Laurel & Hardy and the Three Stooges, and Not Laurel & Hardy or the Three Stooges. So despite my Dad and Poppop’s insistences that there was this movie called Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein and I would love it, to me that meant there were two idiots who were clearly not funny since they were neither Stooges, nor Laurel & Hardy, and they were making fun of my beloved Frankenstein. I wanted no part of it. I was wrong, guys, and I was wrong about Stephen King, Blade Runner, and Jaws, I know. I’m writing the article, I have perspective now.
I finally saw pieces of A & B meet F on TV one night maybe seven or eight years ago, with my Dad and Poppop while visiting home. We were switching back and forth from that and Alien or something, so I didn’t get the whole picture, but I did learn two things; Dracula and the Wolfman were also in the movie, and it was brilliantly, stupidly, funny. Several years later, ten months into a notedly awful year, my good friend Mike’s Mother passed away very suddenly. They were very close, and she passed just weeks before his birthday and Halloween, effectively destroying his favorite time of year. He called me up one day in the midst of this to say that the old theater in town was playing Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, did I want to go? I took off work to go.
The old Forum Theater is a fantastic old building with a great light up art deco marquee that has been a fixture in my hometown since my Poppop was little. It has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and demolition since the 80’s, but has been kept alive for the occasional plays, dance recitals, and revival movie screenings. It’s a huge, dark, cold, dusty, spooky old building with kidney-colored seats where I once met Jim Carrol in a God damned basement room under the stage. My Poppop used to tell me how he took my Dad to see The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad at the forum a dozen times. It’s a magic place. So at 11 o’clock in the morning on a crisp October saturday a few days before the funeral, my friend and I saw Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein.
We arrived about five minutes late, and wandered into a theater that sits probably 200 or so people, and was currently sitting maybe thirty, and found our seats. I noticed looking around that the audience was composed mostly of young families with little kids, a few older couples, one or two lone fat middle -aged guys in Megadeath shirts, and then my friend and I, who I’m sure were mistaken for a young gay couple. This is all worth to noting, because I can’t think of a better way to see Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein for the first time, than at a saturday matinee in October in a spooky old theater in an audience full of little kids. The movie is a nonstop barrage of slapstick humor and monsters, it is children’s theater at it’s finest.
Lou Costello is a giant six year old who is too blissfully stupid to see death half the time it’s staring him in the face, or recognize desperation and terror in the voice or eyes fellow human being Lawrence Talbot, played with heartbreaking sincerity by Lon Chaney Jr. And therein lies the backbone of what makes the movie work, The heroes are idiots with no arc, they have no idea they’re in a horror movie, and the Monsters (played by their originators, except Glen Strange, who was still a veteran Frankenstein) are played as serious as a heart attack. It was the first movie to feature any of the Universal Monsters since 1945’s House of Dracula, and if you’re paying attention, the very serious plot is that Dracula is trying to replace the Frankenstein Monster’s rebellious brain with a more pliable one (Lou Costello’s), so he will have an unstoppable sunlight-proof ally with which he will inherit the earth. The only person who can stop this is Lawrence Talbot, the Wolfman, who if I’m not mistaken was cured of his lycanthropic curse in his last appearance, which means he was so desperate to stop Dracula that he re-subjected himself to his nightmarish curse, and this is a suicide mission. And into this grim, apocalyptic Universal Monster movie, stumbles two idiots who are oblivious to all of it. Imagine Chris Farley and David Spade bumbling through Freddy vs. Jason, but, you know, better. It’s tailor-made for kids, it even has a great animated title sequence. It’s a brilliant movie.
It was amazing to hear the kids react too, seeing the movie, like us, for the first time. They were equally relieved, and sad, when Glen Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster, was set on fire on the dock at the end. I heard an audible gasp, when the Wolfman tackled Dracula out the castle window, and a chorus of warnings to the screen that Dr. Lejos is clearly a clever disguise of Dracula, and is not to be trusted. And they laughed their asses off, just like us. I never laughed so hard in a movie theater, and neither, I bet, did Mike. The movie was made in 1948 but seeing a guy fall on his ass is always funny. The very end of the movie has a cameo by the invisible man, an animated smoking cigarette voiced by Vincent Price, to which my friend and I reacted as excitedly as when Samuel L. Jackson Showed up as Nick Fury at the end of Iron Man.
But the highlight of the day for both of us came a little while before that, during the Monster-Mash third act. Halloween is my favorite holiday, always has been, don’t know why, but it’s better than Christmas. There are two moments in my recent life where I have had that bizarre, Wonder Years, reflective, circle-of-life, emotional echo. A moment where as an adult, you see yourself as a child, and you see the circle close in on itself, with the profoundly bittersweet knowledge, which is deeper than simple nostalgia, that there was a time in your life that was truly as good as you remember it, and it’s gone. There were two of these moments for me, and they were both about Halloween. This was the second one. I can’t remember exactly when, it was either in the catacombs under the castle, or in the laboratory above, But Wilbur is fretting his way through a dark room. An archetypal buffoon, filled with childlike fear. Somewhere behind him, unseen by Wilbur, The Frankenstein Monster appears, and lumbers towards our unsuspecting hero, arms outstretched. And somewhere to the left of me, out of the dark, the utter silence was broken by the voice of a little girl shouting “Watch out fow Fwankenshtein!”. Mike and I turned to each other silently, grinning like idiots in the pale silver-blue light of the screen and punching each other’s shoulder’s in unspoken excitement. There we were, somewhere right next to ourselves, at five or six years old. The monsters still worked. The movie still worked. The magic was real.
Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein is a movie that simply works. It’s perfect for an October day, or night, as it may be. ‘Idiots vs. Evil’ is a tale that will be retold in a million forms down the ages, and this movie is as fine an example as you can find. Comedy and Horror are two genres that are so deeply dependent on timing, especially in film, and this is one of the rare movies that nails it on both fronts. Call a loved one or a friend and give it a watch, if you haven’t. And I’ll see you next week.