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In Defense of the Universal Monsterverse

Universal Classic Monsters

Universal Classic Monsters Essential Collection Blu-Ray (a perfect Christmas gift for wives named Erin to buy their husbands)

Universal Studios has been catching a lot of crap lately about their announced plans to reboot their classic Monster franchises as a shared “Cinematic Universe,” similar to what Marvel Studios has done with their Avengers and related movies. A lot of the internet snark about this particular topic can be dismissed simply by pointing out ill-informed snark is what at least 37 percent of the internet is for (it’s the third most dominant form of content, after porn and pictures of cats), and usually, I think the best way to deal with snarkers is to ignore them entirely. In this case, however, I feel like two of the most oft-cited criticisms of the Universal plan are so blatantly unfair that something needs to be said, and since Bela Lugosi isn’t around to do it, it’s up to me.

First, let’s talk about the notion that Universal is merely trying to copy Marvel’s success. Well… sure, of course they are. Let’s be honest here, that’s what Hollywood does. Virtually any successful film or franchise spawns imitators, plain and simple. Marvel’s parent company, Disney, is doing it themselves, attempting to emulate Marvel’s success with a new series of Star Wars movies. Warner Bros is doing the same thing with the DC Comics characters. Sony and Fox are doing it with their respective Marvel licenses, Spider-Man and the X-Men. Warner Bros is also planning a trilogy of Harry Potter prequels showing the history of the Wizarding World, and Sony is considering a shared universe franchise based on Robin Hood, of all things. And while each of these has been met by at least some level of e-cynicism, the bile being diverted to Universal seems particularly ludicrous to me because, far from copying Marvel, if anything, they did it first.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man

In Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), the monsters began to meet

In 1943 Universal released Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and after that the floodgates were opened. The franchises became inexorably intertwined, Dracula soon entered the picture, and the “monster mash” films became the norm. Granted, the films being made in the late 40s had very little concern with continuity. Characters would suddenly leap to different time periods so they could coexist, dead characters would return to life with little or no attempt at explanation, and nobody gave a damn about consistency. But despite this, it was an early example of what people now think of as Marvel’s model, and in fact is the earliest example of such a thing I’m aware of. (If you know of an earlier one, please tell me, because I want to see those movies.) To be certain, Universal is reviving the concept now because Marvel has been so successful at it, but that in no way negates the fact that they did it over sixty years before Marvel rolled their first foot of film.

The other thing that people are complaining about, a complaint that admittedly has at least a little more validity, is Universal’s recent statement that the new Universal Monster movies will be less of a horror franchise and more of an action-adventure series. I can at least understand why someone would be perturbed by this. The image of Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, or Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman are some of the most enduring images of classic terror. But it is in the characters’ enduring nature that we find the problem. Fear stems from the unknown. The more we know about any subject, the more we understand it, and the harder it is to truly fear it. Drac and Frankie are so well known at this point that modern efforts to make them terrifying invariably run the risk of becoming self-parody.

Pictured: Icon of Evil

Pictured: Icon of Evil

Or to put it more bluntly, we live in a world where the first vision of Frankenstein’s monster kids see is his pink counterpart selling them marshmallow cereal. You can’t make that scary. And they don’t want it scary.

Even in the 40s, Universal seemed to know the monsters were becoming too popular to be frightening. When you watch the old monster mash movies, the emphasis is rarely on fear, but instead on providing you a few awesome fights between beloved creatures. Perhaps the crowning achievement of that period was not House of Dracula or any other such picture, but instead, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

It’s not just Universal, either. One reason Ridley Scott’s first Alien movie was so scary was because we didn’t see the monster in full until the very end. By Aliens, since we all knew what it looked like, James Cameron shifted genres from suspense to action, and it was the perfect move. And what about more modern horror icons like Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, or Chucky? How many films did each of these villains get before they switched from being embodiments of darkness to winking at the camera and going for the most over-the-top kills possible? In fact, horror franchises that don’t go meta often fall apart entirely: Halloween’s sequels grew tepid and dull before a reboot that itself was tepid and dull by the second film, and the Saw franchise limped to the finish line a garbled, confusing shadow of its own early sharp as hell installments.

It's easy to forget, but the 1999 version of The Mummy was actually pretty good

It’s easy to forget, but the 1999 version of The Mummy was actually pretty good

And lest we forget, Universal itself has had success with this approach in the past. In 1999, when director Stephen Sommers was tapped to reboot The Mummy, the resulting franchise owed far more to Indiana Jones than to Karl Freund, and it hit very big for a while. They tried to get scary again with the 2010 remake of The Wolfman, and it flopped. Last month’s Dracula Untold, which had a tacked-on post-credits sequence that could have made it a sort of back door pilot for the new Universal Monsterverse, similarly bombed. (Although the studio has not made any official declaration as to whether Dracula Untold will be “canon” in its new universe, I for one am betting against it.) I’m not saying it’s no longer possible to make Dracula or Frankenstein scary, but to do the sort of long-term franchise Universal is picturing, taking an action-adventure route is not only easier, it’s more practical as well.

If the movies come out and suck, then sure, I’ll complain. I’d rather have no Universal Monster movies at all than have bad ones. But nothing that has been said so far indicates an inherently bad idea. Granted, if people online were inclined to wait for evidence to complain about something, an awful lot of bloggers would run out of things to talk about. But frankly, that’s a chance I’m willing to take.

What I Watched In… October 2014

Favorite of the Month: Gone Girl (2014)

Favorite of the Month: Gone Girl (2014)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Devil’s Pass (2013), B
2. Gone Girl (2014), A
3. Josie and the Pussycats (2001), B-
4. F For Fake (1973), C
5. Beautiful Creatures (2013), C+
6. Witch’s Night Out (1978), B+
7. Summer Lover (2008), D
8. When the Zombies Come (2013), B
9. The Canterbury Tales (1972), C-
10. Screamtime (1983), D
11. Market Hours (2014), B+
12. St. Vincent (2014), A-
13. Leprechaun (1993), F
14. Werewolf (1995), D-; MST3K Riff, B
15. Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002), B+
16. The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus (1962), C+
17. Dracula (1931), A
18. Dracula’s Daughter (1936), D+
19. Son of Dracula (1943), C+
20. House of Frankenstein (1944), C+
21. House of Dracula (1945), B-
22. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), A
23. Interview With the Vampire (1994), B-

Showcase Presents the Universal Dracula Legacy

It’s Halloween once again, and the Showcase crew assembles for their (mostly) annual monster movie marathon. This year the gang tackles the six films that make up the legacy of the king of the vampires: Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

Building a Franchise

In this weekend’s episode of the All New Showcase podcast, Kenny Fanguy and I talked about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as other studios that are trying to duplicate their success. Sony is trying to expand their one Marvel franchise — Spider-Man — into a full-blown universe, while 20th Century Fox is planning to merge their two Marvel properties (The X-Men and the Fantastic Four) into one world. Warner Bros is finally launching a DC Cinematic Universe, and Disney seems to have similar plans for the Star Wars franchise now that they own Lucasfilm. It’s the usual pattern in Hollywood, folks — whenever somebody finds success, everybody else wants to duplicate it. In this case, though, I applaud it. A lifelong comic book nerd, the shared universe style is something I dearly love. And in fact, it’s something that kind of surprises me has never been done in the movies before.

Oh, there have been small crossovers. Alien Vs. Predator comes immediately to mind, and Freddy Vs. Jason. Godzilla faced off against King Kong and a plethora of other kaiju back in the day, and if we go back to the 40s, Universal Studios had their “Monster Rally” sequence of films, in which the likes of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf-Man, and Abbott and Costello would encounter each other over and over again. But nobody ever did it on the scale that Marvel has, or that these other studios want. In fact, I’ve heard some rumors buzzing that the big movie studios are looking at a lot of their different properties to see just how this may be done. So that gets me thinking: what other film properties might evolve into this sort of larger cinematic universe?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is Harry Potter. Granted, the books have all been adapted, but Warner Bros has recently announced a new sequence of films based on the spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This should surprise no one. For over a decade now, the top-grossing Warner Bros movie has either been a Harry Potter film or a DC Comics film. Since they’ve got neither scheduled for 2014, they’re no doubt looking to fill the gap in their schedule. If they can get creator J.K. Rowling on board for this, I’m fine with an expansion of the Potter universe. Now let me make something clear — I don’t want any more movies about Harry Potter. His story is over and done with, and I really don’t need to see his adventures as an Auror after the death of Voldemort, because frankly, anything else is going to be anticlimactic. But one of the best things about the Harry Potter world is that Rowling did, in fact, create an entire world — a rich, detailed world, one with many curious ideas and facets that she only brushed up against in her original seven novels. Fantastic Beasts will be the story of Newt Scamander, a wizard who lived centuries ago and cataloged the most amazing magical creatures in the world. There’s plenty of story potential there. Stories of young Dumbledore or McGonagall? I’d watch that. The story of the founding of Hogwarts? I’m there. There are ways to expand the Potterverse that don’t require Harry, Ron, or Hermione, and if anything, that’s the direction Warner Bros should go in.

Universal Studios is planning a remake of Van Helsing, which itself was an attempt to do a sort of modern “monster rally” film. I say they should go all-out. The Universal versions of Frankenstein and Dracula are still the most recognizable in the world, so why not use the new Van Helsing to relaunch a Universal Monster Universe? Throw in Frankie and Drac, put in a Wolf-Man, give us the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Tie in the Brendan Fraser Mummy films while you’re at it — the original Van Helsing had a very tenuous tie in the first place, and it’s easily the most successful Universal monster franchise in decades. Even kids who have never seen a Boris Karloff picture love the monsters, and this is a perfect time to bring them back.

20th Century Fox, as we’ve said before, has both Aliens and Predator in its pocket, and regardless of the quality of the crossover films in those franchises, it’s a pretty natural pairing. The two concepts fit well together, and I think there’s still more that could be done with them. But you know what else Fox owns that could do with a bit of a boost? The X-Files. Think about it for a minute… a new X-Files movie, one that opens with Mulder and Scully sent to investigate a mysterious crash site uncovered beneath the arctic ice, and they wind up finding a Predator, or one of the Engineers from Prometheus. Ridley Scott may not be wild about it (especially if, as the rumors persist, he plans on linking the Aliens franchise back to this own Blade Runner film), but I think there’s room for connectivity here.

I’m just spitballing, friends, I’m throwing stuff around to see what sticks, but I think there could be fun had in any of these directions. If Sony insists on bringing back Ghostbusters, why not build that into a universe with not just ghosts, but all manner of supernatural entities and different squads of heroes combating them? Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are probably done with Men in Black, but there’s plenty of juice left in that universe. Sam Raimi is already planning to tie the reboot of The Evil Dead back into the original Evil Dead/Army of Darkness franchise — why not take a page from the comics and have Ash encounter the likes of Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, or Herbert West?

I know I’m throwing a lot of things around here, but that’s how these things start. Here’s hoping that somebody decides to run with this ball soon, and decides to do it the right way.

DRACULA WEEK DAY 1: John Carradine in House of Dracula (1945)

House of DraculaDirector: Erle C. Kenton

Writer: Edward T. Lowe Jr.

Cast: John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Martha O’Driscoll, Lionel Atwill, Onslow Stevens, Jane Adams, Ludwig Stossel, Glenn Strange, Skeleton Knaggs

Plot: Count Dracula (John Carradine) approaches a scientist, Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), and asks him to discover a cure for his immortal curse. Edelmann and his hunchbacked assistant, Nina (Jane Adams) study Dracula’s blood and discover an unknown parasite. As Edelmann begins his experiments on Dracula a new patient arrives – Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who seeks a cure for his own curse. When told the doctor is unavailable, an upset Talbot flees to the police station and demands to be locked up. The police summon Edelmann to examine him, and he arrives just in time to witness the rising full moon and Talbot’s transformation into the Wolfman.

Edelmann believes he can cultivate a mold that will allow him to reshape Talbot’s skull, which will relieve the pressure on his cranium and prevent his transformation. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of the movie either.) Unwilling to wait for enough mold to be cultivated, Talbot flings himself from a nearby cliff. That night, as Edelmann searches for Talbot, the Wolfman attacks him. Talbot changes back before Edelmann can die, and the doctor discovers he’s hiding in a cave perfectly suited to grow the spores he needs. As they search the cavern, they find something totally unexpected: the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). Because what the hell. They bring the monster to the hospital, hook him up to machines that can bring him back to life, then decide not to do it. This should end well.

Dracula, remembering that his name is in the title of the movie, stops by and sees Edelmann’s assistant Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll) playing the piano. For no discernible reason, he uses his power to mesmerize her. Wary, Edelmann tells Dracula he will require another transfusion to test his theory, and Dracula agrees. Edleman falls asleep during the experiment, though, and Dracula reverses the transfusion, placing his own blood into the doctor’s veins before fleeing. Edelmann follows Dracula to his coffin, which he drags into the sunlight and opens, reducing the vampire to a skeleton and laughing at the fact that there’s still a third of the movie left to go.

The transfusion begins to affect Edelmann, darkening his eyes, causing his reflection to vanish. He is becoming a vampire. This conveniently leads to him having a dream sequence largely made up of clips of earlier Frankenstein movies, which tempts him to resurrect the monster. The good in him forces back the evil, and he decides to use the spores to operate on Nina while he’s still himself. She convinces him to use his time to operate on Talbot instead, and he does so, knowing it will not be until the next full moon that they can be certain he was successful.

Edelmann, meanwhile, begins to succumb to the vampire, killing a villager and fleeing the same crowd of angry townspeople who spent most of the 1930s and 40s waiting for Universal to make another monster movie so they could find work. The police come to Edelmann’s hospital, believing Talbot responsible for the murder. Talbot realizes Edelmann is the real killer, and he pledges to help him stay sane long enough to help Nina, then destroy the evil within him. As the next full moon approaches, Talbot is astonished to find he does not transform: the operation was a success. The Wolfman is no more. As Nina tries to tell Edelmann, she finds him resurrecting the Frankenstein Monster, having given in to the evil within him. He kills Nina and has the monster attack the police. Talbot retrieves a police weapon and guns down Edelmann as the mob arrives for their scheduled appointment. The lab catches on fire, because 1945, and the monster is destroyed as the mob, Talbot and Milizia flee.

Thoughts: By 1945 the Universal Monster franchise had largely evolved into a bizarre mishmash where the monsters – particularly the three heavyweights – appeared in each other’s films indiscriminately and with little to no regard to continuity. Just the year before, in House of Frankenstein, audiences saw Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster each meet their demise, but here they are without any attempt at an explanation. Today we’d just call it a “reboot” and pretend the earlier movies never happened, but nobody wants to ignore the Universal Classics… nobody in their right mind, anyway.

If there’s one thing this movie proves, it’s that trying to come up with a scientific explanation for what has always been supernatural in-canon is usually a bad idea. The parasites in Dracula’s blood are bad enough, but the explanation for Larry Talbot’s transformation Wolfman is close enough to “it’s all in your head” as to almost be insulting to fans of the character. One can easily believe George Lucas watched this movie just before he whipped up the concept of Midi-Chlorians.

The good news is, no matter how crappy the plot of a movie, it was always a treat to watch Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange in their legendary forms. Chaney’s Wolfman has always been the saddest and most tragic of the Universal monsters, a creature that wishes for nothing but peace but is utterly unable to find it. When Stan Lee created the Hulk, he always credited inspiration coming from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I’ve often thought the sad case of Bruce Banner had more in common with Lawrence Talbot. And with that in mind, it’s nice to see him sort of get a happy ending for a change. Sure, by the time he met Abbott and Costello three years later he was the Wolfman again, but so what? Frankenstein wasn’t burned anymore and Dracula had regenerated from a skeleton back into Bela Lugosi somehow. Who cares? It’s the 40’s! Party!

Anyway, on to Dracula himself. John Carradine as the legendary nosferatu has surprisingly little to do in this movie, even though he’s the title character. (In truth, at this point Universal’s naming convention was practically random: grab the name of any monster that appears in the movie and add a few other words. This film could just as easily have been titled Curse of the Wolfman or Return of Frankenstein or Dr. Edelmann’s Wonder Emporium and it would have been equally – if not more – accurate.) To Carradine’s credit, in the time he’s on screen he puts forth a solid performance. There’s a charm and a menace to him, and one can believe a woman would allow herself to be in his presence long enough to be affected by his hypnotic powers, which is convenient, because that’s exactly what the alleged plot calls for.

That said, the Dracula in this film is written in a terrible fashion. He begins the story by seeking a cure for his vampirism (something he never showed any particular interest in before), then starts going right back to his old “hypnotize ‘em and suck their blood” routine as if he wasn’t tired of that crap at all. He falls for Edelmann’s transfusion trick entirely too easily, then sabotages the very experiment he asked for in the first place. I spent half the film watching Carradine and shouting: “WHY ARE YOU DOING THINGS? STOP. THIS MAKES NO SENSE. YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE A HOUSE.”

The real star of this movie is Onslow Stevens as Dr. Edelmann, who starts out as a well-meaning scientist skeptic before becoming a creature of cartoonish evil. The dream sequence he has is nearly laughable, as his “good” and “evil” selves seem to argue over whether or not to resurrect the Frankenstein Monster… as if there could be any doubt that he would. Stevens does a great job with what he’s given, he’s just not given A material.

This is not a very good movie, to be blunt. But even the worst of the Universal Monster pictures had a strange sort of charm to them… the fun of seeing these characters overcame the cheesy effects or the ludicrous storylines. While this should never be anyone’s first choice of a monster movie to watch, if it’s available or if you’re doing a marathon of the classics, it has its place.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Lunatics and Laughter Day 5: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

an-american-werewolf-in-londonDirector: John Landis

Writer: John Landis

Cast: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, Anne-Marie Davies, John Woodvine, Frank Oz

Plot: American college students David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking across Europe, beginning in northern England with plans to work their way south to Italy. The plans are shattered, though, when they stop at a small-town pub called the Slaughtered Lamb in the town of East Proctor. The locals distrust them, and Jack distrusts the five-pointed star painted on the wall. They leave, disturbing the barmaid and prompting warnings to stay on the road and beware the moon. The Americans are attacked by a huge wolf, which kills Jack and bites David before the villagers arrive and shoot it down. As he passes out, David sees that the beast has turned into a man.

He wakes up in a hospital in London three weeks later, where the police take his statement, but believe he was attacked by a lunatic rather than an animal. One of the Nurses, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) takes a personal interest in him, convincing him to eat even when he isn’t hungry, keeping him company at night. He begins having dreams of running through the woods, naked, slaughtering and eating animals, then later seeing himself in a hospital bed, threatening Alex. After a particularly bad dream, Jack appears in his room, chatting jovially with his friend despite the fact that he’s a mutilated corpse. As David struggles to figure out if he’s dreaming, Jack starts quipping about his own funeral, putting him at ease before he can drop the bomb on his buddy. They were attacked by a werewolf, and since he was killed by a supernatural being Jack is cursed to walk the earth until the werewolf’s bloodline is severed. David, bitten by the wolf, is now part of that line, and Jack begs him to kill himself so they can both find peace. Jenny comes into his room, thinking him waking up from another nightmare, and he kisses her and declares himself a werewolf. When David is discharged, Jenny invites him to stay with her, and their relationship progresses quickly. Despite his newfound happiness, Jack’s corpse continues to haunt David, again begging him to kill himself before tomorrow’s full moon.

David’s doctor, Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) drives to the town where David was attacked, trying to figure out why David’s version of events differs so greatly from the official report. He finds himself blocked by the same villagers who turned out David and Jack, but this time, one is willing to talk. He warns Hirsch that David is in danger, and will “change” with the full moon. That night, as Jenny works a late shift at the hospital, the predictions come true – David undergoes a terrifying change from man to monster. He rushes into the night and attacks people, as the previous werewolf attacked him. Hirsch returns to London and compares notes with Jenny. Convinced that something is wrong in East Proctor – and wrong with David by extension – he calls her apartment. When David doesn’t answer, he calls the police.

The next day, David wakes up in the zoo, naked, in a wolf pen. With some quick thinking, he covers up and gets away. Hirsch, meanwhile, finds the morning paper full of stories about a brutal series of murders where the victims were half-eaten. When David returns to Alex’s apartment, particularly excitable and enthusiastic, she plans to take him back to the hospital. Along the way, the cab driver tells them about the murders, and David flees, planning to turn himself into the police, but the officer dismisses him. He runs away and Alex, Hirsch and the police who investigated his attack begin searching for him. David calls his family in America, hurriedly telling his sister he loves her before attempting to slit his wrists. Finding himself unable to do so, Jack’s corpse appears again, leading David into an adult ovie theater. The corpse, now more decrepit than ever, introduces David to the people he killed the night before, now trapped as a living dead just like Jack. He’s still in the theater when night falls again, and the killing begins again. The wolf escapes into the London streets, going on a bloody rampage, killing some and causing traffic crashes that kill many more. The police corner it in an alley and Alex rushes to the scene, approaching it and trying to draw the real David out. It lunges at her and the police open fire. The beast turns back into David as it dies, and Alex weeps.

Thoughts: Reportedly, director John Landis wrote the first draft of this script in 1969 and fought for over a decade to get it released, as studios thought it was too funny to market as a comedy and too scary to market as a horror film. You’ll excuse me if I find that just precious – as the whole point of my project is that the two both can, and have worked hand in hand for decades. On the other hand, the fact that I’ve located so few great horror/comedies before 1980 to include in this project seems to indicate that it wasn’t always the relatively easy sell it is today, and I have to suspect the success of An American Werewolf in London is one of the things that helped turn the tide and convince filmmakers that the conflicting styles could, and do, work together.

Landis is clearly a fan of the old Lon Chaney Jr. Wolfman pictures, even throwing out several references to them throughout film. He goes much farther than Universal could in the 40s, though, showing extremes of violence that wouldn’t have been allowed at the time. His special effects are, as to be expected, considerably more advanced as well. The transformation scenes are very good – simply done, but effective. Not to harp on it, but there’s no way this movie would be made today without giving in to the temptation to do the entire transformation via CGI (see the 2010 remake of The Wolfman if you don’t believe me), and that would really kill one of the most memorable sequences in this film. Naughton’s performance during the transformation is really excellent – even before any of the special effects show up he’s putting on a terrific, very convincing show of agony that makes you receptive when the limbs and face start to transform and the hair begins to sprout.

But the truly innovative thing about the movie, to me, is the tone of the film. This takes us back to a Type A picture, and an extreme Type A at that, far more horror than comedy.  Landis basically wrote a monster movie, a modernized retelling of the Lon Chaney Jr. picture, and laced it with just enough humor and off-the-cuff commentary to market it partially as a comedy. Most of the humor actually comes through Jack – a snarky type even when he’s alive, but he becomes the master of the deadpan quip after he dies. David gets a little bit of physical comedy later, once he transforms for the first time. The sequence where he tries to sneak out of the zoo naked, stealing bits and pieces of cover-up along the way, feels like it could have fallen out of an old Marx Brothers or Hope and Crosby routine.

Landis is great at pulling an emotional reversal as well. When David calls home and tells his sister he loves her, there’s a horrible sense of finality to it. It’s a very genuine moment, where you understand you’re listening to a man who’s planning to die, trying to get everything straight before it happens. Considering that David was dancing around in a red fur-trimmed coat just minutes before, the viewer is left completely unprepared. The pace of the film as a whole is surprising, in fact. There’s a very long build-up to David’s first transformation, and once he realizes he’s responsible for the murders you blink and realize there are only about 20 minutes left in the film. It feels like there should be more, like everything has happened much too fast. When the end finally comes, it’s over in the blink of an eye. BAM-David is shot! Alex cries! Begin credits! There’s no denouement to cling to, no moment to allow your emotions to work themselves out before you feel a bit of a tear turn up for the poor American who became something he never wanted to be, did terrible things he never wanted to do, and died in a way he never would have wanted to die. It was a departure for Animal House director Landis and it’s a bit of a departure for this project, but it’s a good one.

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.