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Lunatics and Laughter Day 2: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

abbott-and-costello-meet-frankensteinDirector: Charles Barton

Writers: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo & John Grant

Cast: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, Lenore Aubert, Jane Randolph, Frank Ferguson, Charles Bradstreet

Plot: Chick and Wilbur (Abbott and Costello, respectively, although why they even bothered with giving their characters names at this point is beyond me) are employees of a delivery company. They get a nervous phone call from Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) in London, asking about a pair of crates being sent to a house of horrors. He tells them that he’s flying to Florida the next day, and they are under no circumstances to deliver the crates until he arrives. The full moon rises in London and Talbot undergoes a startling transformation, becoming a Wolfman. Confused by the growling on the phone, Wilbur hangs up. Moments later, Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) arrives to pick up the crates, which he claims contain the remains of the true Count Dracula and Frankenstein Monster. He tells this to Sandra (Lenore Aubert), Wilbur’s girlfriend, who Chick thinks is far too alluring to be with his bumbling friend.

Despite the call from Talbot, McDougal has the proper paperwork, so Chick and Wilbur deliver the crates To McDougal’s House of Horrors. Wilbur is on-edge, surrounded by the creepy contents, but Chick is convinced Dracula and the Monster are just characters from stories. As he leaves Wilbur alone, Dracula (Bela Lugosi, reprising his role for the first time since 1931) rises from his coffin, terrorizes him, and mesmerizes him. With Wilbur entranced, Dracula awakens the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). McDougal and Chick arrive and argue over where the exhibits are while Wilbur, hysterical, tries to explain what happened, but McDougal has them arrested.

Dracula flies to a remote castle where waits Dr. Stevens (Charles Bradstreet) and his assistant… Wilbur’s girlfriend, Sandra. Dracula wants to avoid Frankenstein’s mistake and give the monster a new brain, one so simple and naïve that it will never question his master. Sandra, of course, has just the brain in mind.

Talbot finds Wilbur and Chick, just out of jail, and confirms Wilbur’s story. He has been chasing Dracula, but he can’t go to the police for fear of revealing his own secret. As the moon is about to rise, he gives Wilbur the key to his hotel room and begs him to lock him up overnight, not letting him out no matter what he hears inside. Wilbur’s compliance lasts almost 45 whole seconds, before he goes into Talbot’s room to bring him a bag he left behind. In another comedy sequence, Wilbur narrowly avoids being torn to shreds by a Wolfman he never sees.

McDougal, furious over Wilbur and Chick’s release from jail, meets insurance investigator Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), who plans to use her feminine wiles to trick Wilbur into revealing the location of the missing exhibits. She narrowly avoids Sandra, who came by to arrange a meeting with Wilbur for that evening’s masquerade ball. Joan convinces him to take her to the ball as well, and while Wilbur revels in his two dates, Chick tries to figure out what his dumpy friend has that he doesn’t. (As Sandra tells him, “A brain.”) The two go to Talbot’s room, where they find it’s been torn apart. Talbot wakes and tells them about his curse – he was bitten by a werewolf, and transforms whenever the moon was full. As Wilbur saw the monsters, he pleads with him to help him. They don’t believe him, and continue their preparations for the ball.

Chick, Wilbur and Joan pick up Sandra for the ball (Wilbur allowing each girl to believe the other is Chick’s date). Sandra finds Joan’s ID card for the insurance agency, while Joan finds Sandra’s copy of Frankenstein’s book on life and death. Each suspicious of the other, they return and meet Sandra’s employer, Dr. Lejos, who Wilbur somehow fails to recognize as Dracula wearing a robe instead of his cape. Lejos insists that Dr. Stevens join them for the party, but Sandra suddenly claims she has a headache and can’t go. She brings Dracula aside and says that Joan and Wilbur’s snooping and Stevens’s inconveniently inquisitive nature are making the operation too dangerous. Angry, he hypnotizes her and bites her, and they go to the ball.

At the ball, Chick and Wilbur encounter a fearful Talbot, who is upset by Chick’s wolf-mask. Sandra, now a vampire, tries to bite Wilbur, but he’s saved by Chick and Talbot, seeking the now-missing Joan. As they search, the full moon appears and Talbot transforms. He attacks McDougal, who blames Chick when he sees the wolf-mask. The party goes mad and people flee, with Chick and Wilbur finding a hypnotized Joan with Dracula. He mesmerizes the boys and takes Wilbur and the girls away. Finally convinced, Chick finds Talbot and they go to Dracula’s mansion, where Wilbur’s brain is being prepared for transplant. Talbot and Chick burst in. Talbot is about to free Wilbur, but once again, he transforms, and Frankenstein’s Monster breaks free. The five of them engage in a mansion-encompassing battle of positively Scooby-Doo-ian proportions, until finally the Wolfman seizes Dracula and they plunge off a cliff. The Monster chases Chick and Wilbur to the dock, where Stevens and Joan set him on fire. As they sit in a boat, Wilbur berating Chick for not believing him, a cigarette hovers in the air, and the unmistakable voice of Vincent Price introduces himself… he’s the Invisible Man.

Thoughts: This film is, inarguably, the greatest horror-comedy ever made. Okay, maybe it’s not inarguable. You can argue it. You’d just be wrong. What’s not arguable, however, is that it is by far my favorite movie out of all the films selected for Lunatics and Laughter, and (with the possible exception of Ghostbusters) the one that I’ve watched the most times. It isn’t Halloween unless I see Bud and Lou go toe-to-toe with the greatest Universal Monsters.

That, in fact, is what makes this such a fantastic movie, friends. Universal Studios took their two greatest comedic stars at the height of their popularity and mashed them into a movie with three of their most popular monster franchises, even getting the classic Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. to reprise their roles as Dracula and the Wolfman, respectively. (Only Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is missing from the classic trinity, and he would get his chance to dance with the boys later in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff and again in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

It’s such simple alchemy – director Charles Barton got five amazing performers and allowed them to do what they do best for 83 incredible minutes. Abbott and Costello pull off the same sort of brilliant wordplay and slapstick that made them Hollywood legends, while Lugosi, Chaney and Strange (playing the Monster for the third time since Karloff’s retirement) give their performances all the force and horror they had in their respective series. The film doesn’t bother with little things like continuity either – there’s no effort to explain how Talbot knew Dracula or the monster, how Dracula found the creature’s remains, or even how any of the monsters were alive, as most of them had a tendency to die at the ends of all of their films. The sequels usually had a halfhearted resurrection scene, but Barton sees no need to even bother with that. The audience doesn’t care about any of these things. They know who Bud and Lou are, who Dracula and the Wolfman and the Monster are, and that’s all they need.

And damned if they weren’t right.

Like I’ve said, comedy and horror are flip sides of the same coin, and I’ve never seen a movie that demonstrates it as perfectly as this one. Our five lead characters (because that’s who Bud and Lou are, no matter what names they were using in the movie, they played the same two characters they always did) come from totally different styles of film: slapstick comedy and tales of pure terror. But when we put them together there is no clash. Everybody is themselves, everyone is entirely in-character, and it all fits together seamlessly. Even the scenes with Lugosi popping in and out of his coffin, giving Costello the stimuli for one of his legendary freak-outs, works for a Dracula who simply enjoys toying with his eventual prey. He even pulls the same sort of hypnosis and gets the same light-across-the-eyes treatment as he did in the original 1931 version of Dracula.

The plot, meanwhile, is straight out of the horror movie handbook. Dracula’s scheme to give the monster a simple brain keys into Costello’s movie persona perfectly. At the same time, it’s still the kind of devilish plan that many a horror movie villain has concocted over the years. Hell, let’s be honest – it’s a more logical plan than thousands of the others movie monster baddies have conjured up over the years. Talbot’s logic – “the police won’t believe me unless I tell them I’m a wolfman” – is kind of sketchy. It’s more likely they’ll just think him even crazier. But it’s still the same sort of logic that dominated this sort of movie back in the 40s and 50s, and therefore is easy to forgive. Similarly, the special effects are of the highest quality available at the time. Talbot’s werewolf transformation looks as good as it ever did in his own films. And while it may be pretty obvious that the Monster burning on the dock at the end is a mannequin being pushed along with sticks, in 1948, how else were you gonna get that shot?

Truly, the only moment that strains credibility, even for the time, is when Talbot and Chick plan their rescue mission. Talbot tells Chick they should hide and wait, since it is now morning and Dracula will be helpless until nightfall. Um… wouldn’t that make this the perfect time to attack? Come on, dude. (Honorable mention, though, goes to the fact that Talbot makes his transformation four nights in a row. Isn’t three usually the limit for a full moon?)

Bud and Lou, a classic vaudevillian comedy team whose act translated to film and television far better than most of their contemporaries, pull off a lot of the same shtick they usually do. They engage in verbal battles, with Bud tossing out unnecessarily complicated words so Lou can amusingly misunderstand them. Bud leaves Lou alone at inconvenient moments so he can be the sole witness to creepy happenings and have entertaining panic attacks. And once or twice, Lou is allowed to get the better of his buddy in a battle of the logical fallacies. In short, they take their standard routine and inject it into a horror movie. But not for one second does it feel forced, do any of the comedic interludes feel like a distraction, or does any of it feel like padding. They’re just there to have fun, as they always do. (Reportedly one scene – where Wilbur sits on the Monster’s without realizing it – took an absurdly long time to film because Glenn Strange simply couldn’t stop laughing at Costello’s antics in his lap.)

Even the old comedy trope – the panicky one sees the madness, the straight man conveniently misses everything until the last minute – feels fresh and original here. And no, it wasn’t, not even in 1948. When Chick pulls out the wolf-mask, you just know there’s going to be a moment when Wilbur encounters the real Wolfman and thinks it’s his buddy in disguise. You’re waiting for it. You would feel disappointed if it didn’t happen. But Abbott and Costello never disappointed on that front.

The finale is simply great. From the moment Talbot and Chick arrive at the mansion until Vincent Price makes his uncredited cameo, we go through one chase after another, with doors and props being smashed at every turn, our heroes bumbling into the monsters at the worse possible moments, often saved through circumstance, luck, or the good ol’ Rule of Funny. If you are physically capable of watching this movie without laughing, you need intense psychoanalysis. And if you didn’t love the Universal monsters before, this will do the trick.

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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 8: The Cat People (1942)

Cat PeopleDirector: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: DeWitt Bodeen
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph

Plot: A young woman from Serbia meets and marries a handsome young American man. But their relationship is stalled due to a fear that, should she allow herself to become intimate with her new husband, she will fall victim to an ancient curse that causes people in her family to transform into killer panthers. After they’ve been married for some time – during which she never allows herself so much as a moment of physical passion with her husband – she begins to suspect that he is having an affair with his attractive young assistant. And then we realize lust isn’t the only emotion that can trigger the curse… jealousy works, too.

Thoughts: Like a lot of early horror films, this one uses folktales (real or imagined) as the basis of the monster, such as it is. The idea of an “old curse” is standard. What’s interesting to me is the way Irena (Simone Smith) claims the curse came upon her family: in centuries past, they dabbled in witchcraft and consorted with the devil, and as such were branded with this inability to grow close to anyone. This immediately calls to mind the question of how, exactly, they’ve managed to perpetuate the family line over the centuries, if they turn into monsters and slaughter anyone they grow physically intimate with. (The 1982 remake answered this question in the logical and extremely squicky way of saying that family members could only be intimate with one another, despite them being from Serbia and not members of any particular royal family.)

Of more interest – to me, anyway – is the way the perception of witchcraft has changed over time. Sure, whenever a movie that seems vaguely related to the topic is released today you get your requisite group of picket sign-carrying protestors condemning everybody who’s going to see the movie to Hell, but they’re considered a joke by both the media and most passerby who see them. In truth, these days if a movie uses witchcraft as its hook, we usually see a case of an innocent person accused of witchcraft and being tormented by an oppressive society. (For the best example of this, see 1996’s The Crucible, the script for which was written by the original playwright, Arthur Miller.) The alternative is typically a more classic representation of witchcraft wrapped up in a movie that’s laughable in its presentation of something that was once considered a very legitimate threat. (For the most recent example, as of this writing, see 2011’s Season of the Witch. This movie gets bonus cheese points for having Nicolas Cage with long hair while simultaneously being bald.)

At any rate, in 1942 witchcraft was seen as a much more legitimate source for horror, and a curse being a punishment that goes down generations was something that could cause true fear. The 1982 version of the film throws away the witchcraft elements in favor of a more vague curse, which is apparently still acceptable so long as you don’t specify that it’s a result of bubbling cauldrons or dancing in the moonlight with Mephistopheles. Even the specific manifestation of the curse is given a Biblical connection – Irena chats with a zookeeper who kindly takes the time to explain who the Book of Revelations describes a beast from Hell that is “like a leopard, but not a leopard,” which to him is pretty much the definition of a panther.

The other thing about this film that I find really odd is the way the relationship grows. In 1942, when filmmakers didn’t get quite as explicit about sex as they do today, they got away with a man falling and love with and marrying a woman who refuses any sort of physical intimacy – even so much as a kiss – giving him an excuse that would today either have the man drop her for a loony after the first date or do everything he can to get her onto Dr. Phil. Granted, Oliver (Kent Smith) eventually does seek out psychological help for Irena, but only several chaste months after they are married. I don’t care it if is 1942, nobody is that good. Let’s be clear about this: this is not a fear that Irena developed some time after she and Oliver got involved, this was a barrier between them from the day they met. A month after they start dating, he mentions to her that, y’know, normal people in love kiss, and she starts with the whole “I turn into a cat” thing. This, Oliver, this is the time to seek out mental help. Not after you marry a woman who insists on separate bedrooms and a bowl of Fancy Feast at night.

In many ways, this Oliver Reed character begins the film as something of a fantasy man. He’s good-looking, square-jawed, loves Irena from the moment he meets her despite her little “quirks,” and is resistant to temptation from Alice (Jane Randolph) even once she pretty much starts throwing herself at him. But even Mr. Perfect eventually starts to break down – he gets mad at Irena when she starts skipping her therapy sessions, and ultimately decides to leave her for Alice. Even then, though, the film doesn’t give us reason to believe there’s any hanky-panky going on before he proclaims he wants a divorce. Look at the timeline here: Irena is given the 1942 Man of the Year on a silver platter, then drives him away because she acts cold, jealous, and irrational. (Well, okay, it only seemed irrational, turns out she really did turn into a murderous cat, but one can hardly blame Oliver for not quite believing that.) You can’t tell me that the writer of this film wasn’t firing a warning shot across the stern of the Women of America, whose husbands at this point were increasingly getting shots fired across their own sterns over in Europe and the Pacific.

The movie’s ending is suitably tragic, and the body count is remarkably low (compared to modern films). And to be frank, while it’s entertaining in its own way, I don’t see it as being that great a precursor to modern films, except perhaps to show how different societal norms have become in the last 70 years. There’s a taste of Jekyll and Hyde in here, a flash of the subtle sexuality that would later become more dominant in the works of Anne Rice, but nothing I really feel is definitive the way I’ve felt about some of the other movies I’ve seen. The film’s sequel, 1944′s Curse of the Cat People, is even less memorable, with no “cat people” present, instead tapping into The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and turning into a ghost story about a married Oliver and Alice terrorized when Irena’s ghost begins visiting their six-year-old daughter. Weirdness.

We’re taking our biggest jump in time yet next, and I’ll talk about why that is tomorrow, when we get down to the classic 1958 sci-fi chiller The Fly.