Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Last Prowl for the Classic Universal Monsters

As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, Universal Pictures had driven the monsters that had saved the studio from oblivion during the Great Depression--Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Mummy--pretty much into the ground. A series of ever-worsening sequels pretty much dispatched them with greater efficiency than any torch-weilding mob was ever able to do.

However, they had a few final shining moments in a handful of films starring comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Lenore Aubert, and Bela Lugosi
Director: Charles Barton
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The reluctant Wolfman, Larry Talbot (Chaney) learns that Dracula (Lugosi) intends to revive Frankenstein's Monster and use it as his personal super-soldier. He pursues the evil vampire lord to the United States where he finds his only allies to be Wilbur and Chick (Costello and Abbott), a couple of less-than-bright shipping clerks. Unfortunately, Dracula as an ally of his own--mad scientist femme fatale Dr. Sandra Mornay (Aubert), and she has Wilbur wrapped around her little finger. Little does Wilbur know that his girlfriend doesn't love him for his mind but rather his brain... she intends to do Dracula's bidding and transplant into the rejuvinated monster!

"Abott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" is a wild screwball comedy with the two master comedians doing their usual routines within the framework of a solid script and a story that's actually pretty logical in its own crazy way. I think it's the first fusion of comedy and monsters, and one reason it works so well is that the monsters are played straight. Even when they are involved in funny schtick (Dracula and the Wolf Man are both part of several routines), they remain as they were featured in the serious monster movies they were in.

Too often, I hear this film written off as Universal's last and crassest attempt to wring some dollars out of their tired monster franchise. While that may be all the studio bosses had in mind, the creators involved with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" managed to make a great movie that is still worth watching today. It's even superior to many of Universal's "straight" movies with Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man (or, for that matter, countless recent so-called horror films). Much of its strength grows from the fact that has a plot that with some tweaking could be a straight horror movie.

I recommend this underappreciated film to any lover of the classic monster films, as well as lovers of slapstick comedy.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Starring: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Bud and Lou, a pair of rookie detectives (Abbott and Costello), are hired to helping a boxer who has been falsely accused of murdering his coach, they soon find their client is harder to spot than clues: The desperate man drinks an experimental invisibility potion to avoid being captured by the police, and he then proceeds to help them set up a frame to unmask the real killers.

This film has some great comedy routines in it, with the best of them involving boxing--such as when Costello is supposedly boxing a prize fighter but it's the invisible man who is landing the punches. Unfortunately, the material that gets us from one gag to the next is rather dull. This is the first Abbott and Costello film I've watched where I found myself reaching for other things to do while it was running. (I must add, though, that the special effects were well done, particularly the one where the invisible man is driving a car.)

"Abbott and Costello Meet Invisible Man" isn't exactly a bad movie, but I was expecting more from it. I think those who have seen other A&C horror spoofs will, too. I recommend saving this one until you've seen the rest, or maybe just skipping it all together.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello and Marie Windsor
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Abbott and Costello (played by Abbott and Costello) are a pair of down-on-their luck adventurer who try to get a job escorting an an archeological shipment as their ticket back to the US from Cairo. However, before they secure the job, the archelologist is murdered, the most important part of his find goes missing--the mummy Klaris--and Costello ends up with an ancient medallion that is the key to unlocking a lost treasure that rabid cultists are sworn to protect and dangerous femme fetale (Windsor) will do anythng to possess. Soon, they are targets and dupes of every shady character in Cairo, along with being stalked by the mummy.

I don't think "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy" deserves quite the level of scorn that many reviewers seem to heap on it. While Abbott and Costello aren't at their best in it, it is a very amusing spoof of the string of mummy movies from Universal--and almost every mummy film that followed as they set the template--and it's got plenty of hilarious moments. (The "pick-pocket routine" where Costello visits the villainess in her den, the chase scene in the secret hideout of the mummy cultists, and the various bits with the multiple mummies at the movies climax are all comedic highpoints that should evoke chuckles from even the most jaded viewers.)

The film is far from perfect, however. I already mentioned that Abbott and Costello aren't exactly at their best in this film--which was, in fact, one of the last times they worked together--and an attempt to reinvent the classic "who's on first" routine with some digging impliments is about as uninspired as I think the pair's work ever got. Finally, the mummy costume in the film is about the worst that I've ever seen--only the ones featured in Hammer's "The Mummy's Shroud" and Seduction Cinema's "Mummy Raider" are worse.

I recommend "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy" to lovers of the classic monster movies who have a sense of humor about them, as well as fans of classic comedy. There are better examples of this type of film out there, but this one still has enough good bits to make it worth seeing. (Heck, it's more entertaining than the serious mummy movies it spoofs.)


  1. Yeah, I too find Meet the Mummy a lot more fun than it's credited, and Meet the Invisible Man a bit dull. (Jekyll & Hyde is the weakest of all, I'd say.)
    As for the worst mummy costume, though, I've always found Tom Tyler in the otherwise excellent Mummy's Hand a bit distracting - you can see his scraped-back hair even!

  2. I guess Meet Frankenstein would have to be my favorite by default but Invisible Man is a very close second. I maintain that it's the funniest one of the bunch.