Our review of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Blu-ray), published August 23rd, 2012, is also available.
Jeepers! The creepers are after somebody—and guess who!
Far from the straight-out monster movies of the '30s, Universal had wrung the genre for all it was worth through the '40s, with every conceivable combination of monster meeting monster making it to the screen. The culmination of the change in the genre for Universal came with 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the definitive horror comedy of the golden era. Combining the stand-up antics of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello with the same actors who had starred as monsters in "straight" horror films struck a chord that resonated with crowds then and still has a place in the hearts of film lovers today. Along with the Classic Monster Collection, Universal has released this film on DVD under the heading of "Comedy Legends"; sporting an excellent picture and fine sound with the extras we've come to expect.
Facts of the Case
Chick (Abbott) and Wilbur (Costello) get in over their heads when they deliver two crates to a house of horrors. The crates contain Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein's monster (Glenn Strange). The vampire is working with a femme fatale to find a brain so simple, so pliable, that when transplanted into the monster he will be completely under Dracula's control. Of course Wilbur has just such a brain, and he and Chick, with help from Talbot (AKA The Wolfman, played by Lon Chaney Jr.) have to stop them while keeping Wilbur's head on his shoulders.
Abbott and Costello were among the most successful comics at making the transition from burlesque to film and radio. By the time Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was made, they were among the biggest box-office draws, and this film would be no exception. The combination of monsters playing it straight with the familiar routines from the comedic duo made for a film that audiences found both scary and funny. The theory behind it is that laughter is based on the same area of thought as fear, and it certainly seems to be true. As is often the case, the film carries more of a nostalgic charm today than any true scares, but people still love the humor and the nostalgia in some way harkens to a more innocent time.
Boris Karloff, who played the monster first in Frankenstein, turned down a reprise of the role because he feared the monsters would only be demeaned and denigrated. To the film's credit, this was not the case. While the monsters certainly held back from capturing and killing the comics, they were played much as they were in prior films. From the angst-ridden Talbot to the enigmatic Dracula, they were recognizably themselves. If anything, Frankenstein's monster is even more of a tragic, sympathetic figure than before. I was happy that even in this comedic venue the filmmakers gave the creatures they had created for horror their due respect.
Some of the bits are still funny; particularly the scenes where Lou keeps seeing the monsters and Bud always misses them, and doesn't believe his outlandish tale of walking vampires and creatures. There are some good one-liners as well, such as when Talbot tells them "When the moon is full, I become a wolf" and Costello responds "You and 20 million other guys." Many still love the film, though I confess it is more nostalgia than true esthetic enjoyment that drives me. Vaudeville type humor was dying by the 1950s, and I'm afraid that I don't have the same appreciation for it that others profess.
What I can say in appreciation here is for the historical information that this great DVD from Universal provides. Just as in the Classic Monster discs, there is a wealth of information provided in the bonus features. Film historian David J. Skal hosts the 33-minute documentary "Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters: The Making Of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," which includes a wealth of historical information and background, both of the film and the people who played in it. Again we have the one-two punch by combining the great documentary with a feature length commentary track; this time from film historian Gregory W. Mank. I'm really becoming a fan of these commentary tracks from fully prepared historians who have interviews and in depth information covering every aspect of the film. Again we get what I like to call "a film school course in a box." Following up these two outstanding features is a set of production photographs and lobby art, set to run in sequence by themselves and with the musical score in the background; lasting about nine minutes. The theatrical trailer, production notes, cast and crew information and a weblink complete the extras, making for a comprehensive look at virtually everything you could ask for.
I was also pleased with the picture quality of this 52 year old classic. While there is some film grain and some other defects such as nicks and dirt from the source print, it looks quite good for its age. Blacks are black, detail is sharp, and there are no edge enhancement problems or other artifacts. I'm very satisfied and happy that the film has been preserved in such a state for posterity.
The soundtrack has been doubled from the original mono into a 2 channel mono track, which does expand the sound. Noise reduction has been applied, which helps bring down hiss to a nearly inaudible level. Only at high volume in quiet moments will you be able to detect it at all. The frequency range is attenuated at both the high and low ends by the source recordings, as is normal in 50 year old tracks. There is a bit of sibilance and strident qualities to the sound, but not in a distracting or annoying manner. The overall experience is terrific considering the film's age.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Other than minor notes about the sound quality, which is actually fine, my only real complaints are again general ones. I dislike having to go back to the menu to switch audio tracks, and I'm not completely happy with having to skip through both a montage and a studio logo before getting to the film itself after hitting the Play button.
I'm not going to complain about the film; I think its nostalgic charm outweighs any quibble I could have about some of the humor.
Fans of the film, and of the classic monster movies, will be glad they purchased the disc. The extra features are worth the purchase price alone. Feel free to buy this disc, as well as the other entries in the Classic Monster series.
Universal and everyone involved in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein are exonerated of any charges or liability, and the film is released to a new generation to remember how horror comedy used to be.
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