Establishing the trend of cinema as an amalgamation of intellectual properties, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein pits the eponymous comedy duo against an army of Universal’s Monsters, striking a balance between slapstick and shock in the name of fan service and financial gain. Though its conception smacks of crass commercialism, the finished product proves to be an elaborate and loving tribute, espousing the evocative shadow and ambience of Gothic horror as the perfect antecedent to giddy humor. Its existence proves that art can flourish in a profit-focused industry, free from the obstruction of voluntary poverty and creative pretense.
Transporting Transylvania to coastal Florida, this pointedly absurd scenario finds Dracula (Bela Lugosi) fleeing Europe with Frankenstein’s monster in tow, seeking refuge with a mad doctor capable of harnessing enough electricity to revive the sleeping giant. Wisecrackers Bud Abbott and Lou Costello stumble into the middle of this fiendish plot while slaving away as baggage handlers, grumbling about the length of their shifts (they “belong to two unions”) and inserting bits of their vaudeville routine into a botched coffin delivery, police investigation and moonlight manhunt.
Much of their shtick derives from Costello’s all-consuming fear, summoned forth by the glare of wax mannequins and supernatural motion of a rogue candelabra. Abbott primarily surveys the madness in an annoyed state of disbelief, leaving Costello to an endless parade of pratfalls, double takes and yipped exclamations, ultimately resulting in casualty and damaged product. This physicality is complemented by the limberness of the pair’s wordplay, which utilizes the English language’s bounty of homonyms as fodder for a series of jocular misunderstandings, best employed in an amusing sequence that transforms Costello from lummox to lothario, much to Abbott’s chagrin.
The physical transformation of the cast of creatures is just as rousing, applied through seamless animation and skillful editing, allowing Bela Lugosi to take flight and Lon Chaney Jr. to shed his clothing and sprout voluminous fur. Sadly, Chaney’s Wolf Man is as plagued by his nocturnal persona as he was in the source material, never permitted to be as vivid or terrifying as his confident cultural counterparts, leaving a majority of the malevolence to Lugosi’s loose-jointed Count.
Despite top billing, Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) is also treated as an afterthought, sequestered to subterranean chambers and strapped to operating tables during pivotal moments. Lacking the yearning and sensitivity of Boris Karloff’s portrayal, Strange posits his monster into puzzled and vacant poses, awakening only at the behest of Dracula’s commanding presence. His casting is the only glaring oversight in an otherwise satisfying matinee effort, populated with laughs and scares in equal measure and the wisdom to trust a paying audience.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal Pictures, 1948)
Directed by Charles T. Barton
Written by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo and John Grant
Photographed by Charles Van Enger