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Celebrating 75 Years of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Let's take a look back at one of the most fun films in the Universal Monsters canon.
Horror and comedy have always been strange but welcome bedfellows. They work within the same emotional dynamic, the windup of tension followed by a release, though one deals with punchlines and the other with jump scares. There's a certain symmetry to the way they function, which means they were always destined to come together at some point.
Horror-comedies did not begin with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the Universal Monsters classic which turned 75 this year. Bride of Frankenstein had already broken out its own darkly comic sensibilities more than a decade earlier, and even Bud Abbott and Lou Costello themselves had already worked within the form through films like Hold That Ghost (also a wonderful horror-comedy you should make time to watch). But by pairing the comedic duo with cinematic icons like Dracula and Frankenstein's monsters, Universal found something new in the formula, something even more overt in the way that audiences were willing to embrace the blending of scares and laughs. In the end, it's a film that works not just because it blends those icons on the big-screen, but because it never lets the comedy take away from the horror, and never lets the scares get in the way of a good joke. It's the best of both worlds, and it still holds up all these years later.
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The setup is fairly simple, at least when it comes to the mechanism that gets the marriage of horror and comedy going in the first place. Abbott and Costello are two baggage clerks at a railroad station tasked with delivering a couple of giant boxes to a horror-themed museum. Those boxes just happen to contain Dracula (Bela Lugosi, reprising the role) and Frankenstein's Monster (Glenn Strange), who are teamed up with a beautiful mad scientist (Lenore Aubert) who just so happens to be romancing Costello's character to get access to his brain, which will then be transplanted into the Monster to make him more docile. Fighting against all of this is Larry Talbot, aka The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.), who's aware of Dracula's plan and is working against his own monstrous nature to stop it.
This is all, of course, in service to letting Abbott and Costello work their signature blend of comedy magic, but the key to the movie's success is that it never leans too hard in one direction or another. Director Charles Barton and the film's two leads find a kind of tonal balance that's remarkable given the rapid-fire style of Abbott and Costello's comedy, beginning with a foggy London cityscape and transitioning to the museum of horrors where the monsters first come out.
There's an authenticity to it all, a sense that the Universal Monsters magic is still present even when Costello is swinging back and forth atop a giant crate, or the duo is arguing over whether or not something supernatural is actually going on. The horror elements, such as they are for a film released in 1948, are never too far away, and they're bolstered by the absolute commitment of the monster performers. Lugosi retains a certain dignity and gravitas as Dracula, just as Strange is able to conjure the presence of the Monster, and Chaney is able to once again embody the Wolf Man with a blend of tragedy and savagery. It works because everyone's committed to their particular bit.
And of course, it also works because Abbott and Costello just had a certain kind of magic to them as performers which meant you could drop them into just about any situation. Ask any longtime fan of their work and they'll tell you that this film is not their best, that the horror elements tend to push back against their comedic talents, and in some ways that's undoubtedly true. But in a modern world of crossovers and mashups that often land with a thud, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is remarkable to watch as a piece of retrospective horror-comedy gold. It's almost seamless, and that makes it weirdly, often hilariously magical.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is available now from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.