The late ‘40s were a high noon for the horror genre, easily the most desecrated ghost town era for a genre that has reinvented itself time and time again. From the irrepressible expressionist deviants of the ‘20s to the chiaroscuro nightmares of the early Universal films in the ‘30s to the sly, insidious Val Lewton carnival of the early ‘40s, horror was on a hot streak for decades until it hit the ice wall of WWII. Not that the real world horrors of the war inherently superseded the desire to thaw out the terror of the cinematic variety, but the will to nightmare was to be discovered somewhere else until the dawn of the atomic age ‘50s films, before horror would draw its fangs and get downright pernicious with the turn of the ‘60s and the prestige variant of the genre in the New Hollywood of the ‘70s. In the century of cinema thus far, only the late ‘90s can go blow for blow with the late ‘40s for sheer abandonment as horror packed up and went out to the country to cool its heels.
While the cinematic fright house was predominantly untenanted, someone had to make a buck, and grand master of the American horror genre Universal was – and has historically proven – unwilling to sit blindly on their treasure trove of classics. At the time, this meant burglarizing their newest success story, a two-headed monstrous hybrid of a different variety from House of Frankenstein: burlesque comedy duo Abbott and Costello, arguably America’s favorite box office draw throughout the early ‘40s and perhaps the perch upon which the spinning, often self-flagellating, top of Universal was tentatively upholding itself by the skin of its teeth. The once venerable world of cinematic horror would have to venture to dark corners of the cinematic world where comedians skulk about.
Enclosed in a mostly irrelevant narrative that proposes the only way for Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to control the Frankenstein Monster (Glen Strange) is to replace the Monster’s brain with Lou Costello’s dimwitted, obsequious one, the film’s conceptual shenanigans is off on the right foot with the amusing proposition that Dracula and company can mostly continue unabated in the far-off land of La Mirada, Florida in a castle that for all intents and purposes was shuttled in from Eastern Europe. While the suggestion that eccentric, insulated Southern US coastal islands are rather little more than soundstages of palpable artifice is, in fact, not that far off from reality (if you’ve spent any time in that part of the country), the film is generally a cagey affair devoid of any sort of flamboyant surrealist or absurdist humor. Mostly, it’s a tenuous construct of circumstantial monster behavior dancing around the divining rods of Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello) who are, far more than any horror character, the linchpin of a film that is mostly content to shuttle monsters around disrespectfully to force them to engage with the two real stars. Lon Chaney Jr., returning as full-on frenemy Larry Talbot / Wolf Man, practically attracts to our two heroes with animal magnetism.
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s comedy is, admittedly, more nebulous and less wittily divine than, say, a Billy Wilder screenplay; the essence of the stuff is in the fluff. For them, body position, cadence, tone of voice, and physicality are the crux of their style more than conceptually intelligent rigor or, dare I say, “jokes”, which has the net effect of making them seem superficial to many modern audiences – the humor is less obviously intellectualizable. Which is a theoretical decrement that isn’t alone in this film; it shares the bed most notably with the film’s general air of visual anemia, while the monsters are vacant threats to say the least.
Lugosi and Chaney, the progenitors of their diamond-encrusted characters, are trivialized. The Hungarian with the magnetic eyes (returning to the role for the first time since playing Dracula seventeen years before in the original Dracula) is plainly on hand out of desperation for a paycheck in an A-list production at the time (he’d been B-listed for years, soon on his way out the door to the Z-list after this production). But his commitment shines through, unlike Chaney, who mostly can’t be bothered to try amidst his semi-befuddling role in the film as an object of derision and humor rather than a malevolent omen of mortal terror or a traumatized lost soul. Glenn Strange, for his part, can’t be bothered to lend a personal stamp on a monster that Boris Karloff turned into one of the defining cinematic innocent others searching for meaning in the world; Karloff, for his part, refused to participate, although that didn’t stop him from teaming with the comic duo for Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or, the adroitly, psychotropically named “Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” (with a title like that, one suspects Karloff was contractually obligated to appear just so critics like me could enjoy typing that sentence out for fun).
With all those foibles, that Meet Frankenstein actually works, and bracingly so at that, is a singular testament to the duo whose names are on the tin. Although Bud Abbott is as wonderfully acrid as his reputation as the greatest straight man in the industry denotes, it is Costello’s boyish, self-inflicted tragedy that is the wrenching center stage of the comedy. His self-deprecatingly aware double-takes intimate a burlesque showman’s awareness that he is being watched by an unsympathetic world that he is woefully underequipped to command or even coexist with. Unlike, say, Graucho Marx or even fellow buffoon Stan Laurel, for whom the world was always ready to carve out space, Costello was a continual accident whose desperate nature belied his self-awareness about his own incompetence to even survive a conversation.
Admittedly, the truly great Costello moments are whirlwinds of desecration and obliteration, with the portly boy scout struggling simply to keep up with the violence of the language he was raised on but can’t quite accept as his own. Meet Frankenstein is bereft of the indomitable, slyly vituperative comic wordplay that molded the eccentricities and overlaps of the English language to the duo’s needs in classic skits like “Who’s On First?”. This is the burden of the higher concept origin of the later features in the duo’s oeuvre; the shift is from the specifics of a disarmingly cunning screenplay to a broader conceptual lunacy, like a bid for attention rather than a fibrous dissection of the English language. It’s the difference between resting on concept and relying on one as a fount of possibility. Still, as a bid for attention from a company that desperately needed it circa 1948, it’s a pretty nifty one all things considered.