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Tag Archives: Bela Lugosi

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (June 15, 1948)

There are two schools of thought regarding Charles Barton’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

On the one hand, it was the final nail in the coffin of the increasingly moribund Universal monster series. If you’re a horror purist, then Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein represents the nadir of Universal Studios’ monster movies.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who loves horror-comedies, then Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein represents one of the best-known and most enduring films in the genre.

It wasn’t the first horror-comedy. Paul Leni’s silent film The Cat and the Canary (1927) was the cornerstone of Universal’s horror machine, and it had plenty of comedic elements. James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) is both scary and incredibly funny, which is not an easy mixture to pull off.

And the practice of throwing comedians into a horror-movie scenario didn’t start with this film either.

The Ritz Brothers were paired with Bela Lugosi in The Gorilla (1939), and Bob Hope and Paulette Godard starred together in a remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939) and the horror-comedy The Ghost Breakers in (1940).

So by the time Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was released, not only were horror-comedies an established part of the box-office landscape, but Universal Studios had firmly demonstrated that they had run out of ideas beyond the “mix and match” approach, which gave us Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945), each one more campy and silly than the last. (And the last “straight” monster movie that Universal released in the ’40s — Jean Yarbrough’s 1946 film She-Wolf of London — was pretty dull.)

My main problem with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is that I don’t find Abbott and Costello funny. The duo started in vaudeville, and every comedic set piece in their films feels to me as if it needs to be watched in the midst of an easily amused, wildly guffawing audience for the full effect. Watching their films at home just doesn’t work for me. (I felt the same way about Mel Brooks’s 1974 horror-comedy Young Frankenstein when I rented it years ago. After hearing for most of my life that it was one of the funniest movies ever made, I was shocked by its obvious jokes, its incredibly slow pacing, and the way Gene Wilder mugged for the camera. The problem, I think, is that the jokes are timed to allow for a large audience to rock with laughter before the next joke is dropped. If you’re watching it for the first time alone, however, it can feel awfully slow.)

As a nearly life-long aficionado of Universal monster movies, I appreciated the look of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The film is set in Florida, and the sets are an effective mix of castle-like structures and steamy swamps. I also enjoyed seeing Bela Lugosi reprise his most famous role — Dracula. John Carradine played the Count in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, and he was fine, but there’s no beating Lugosi. And it’s always fun to see Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, a.k.a. The Wolf Man.

I also liked that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein wasn’t overloaded with characters. Lugosi performs a kind of double duty. As Dracula, he turns into a bat and bends people to his will, but he’s also a mad scientist, scheming to bring Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) back to life to do his bidding. (The gag is that he plans to use the brain of Lou Costello, one of the dumbest characters in the history of cinematic comedy.)

Despite its classic Universal-horror look, there’s really nothing scary about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The director, Charles Barton, was a hard-working journeyman who had a lot of experience directing comedies and none directing horror. But the special effects do look really good. The main thing that stood out for me was Dracula’s transformations into a bat, which look much better here than they did in Dracula (1931). In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein the transformations are achieved with a mixture of hand-drawn animation and puppetry. Still, I’ll take the eerie power of the original and its rubber bat on a string over an Abbott and Costello horror-comedy any day.

Scared to Death (Feb. 1, 1947)

Christy Cabanne’s Scared to Death is a terrible film, but I had enormous goodwill toward it after the first reel. I get that way when the front door of a house flies open in a movie to reveal Bela Lugosi and little-person actor-extraordinaire Angelo Rossitto standing on the front porch, wearing matching black suits.

If you don’t know Rossitto by name, you might recognize him by sight. He had an incredibly long career in TV and movies, stretching from 1927 to 1987. He was the quiet, dark-haired dwarf in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and Blaster’s better half, Master, in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a lot to do in Scared to Death, and the sheer awfulness of the movie ground down all my goodwill to dust by the final reel.

Scared to Death is notable for two reasons — Lugosi only appeared in three color films, and Scared to Death is the only one in which he received top billing. Also, it’s a picture that’s narrated by a dead woman on a slab in a morgue. Trust me when I tell you that neither of these things is a reason to run out and see Scared to Death.

The color process used for Scared to Death was Cinecolor, which is a two-color film process, and it just doesn’t look that good, at least in the public domain print I watched. Also, the narration by the dead woman is interesting at first, but it becomes unbearable after the first dozen or so times her corpse cuts into the action to speak its piece. Part of the problem is that the sound editing is so terrible during the transitions that the viewer will start to dread the corpse’s appearance, especially if the viewer is sensitive to loud, abrupt noises.

Scared to Death is only worth seeing if you love corny old horror-comedies or are a connoisseur of bad films. Lugosi and Rossito are always fun to watch, as is George Zucco, but everyone else in the cast is either flat or intensely grating, like Nat Pendleton, who supplies comic “relief” as the dim-witted police inspector.

Bottom line — among films narrated by a dead person, Scared to Death will never be confused with Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Devil Bat’s Daughter (April 15, 1946)

Frank Wisbar’s Devil Bat’s Daughter is a film that follows the template created by Dracula’s Daughter (1936), but doesn’t quite get it right.

Like Dracula’s Daughter, Devil Bat’s Daughter is a sequel to a Bela Lugosi horror film — in this case, The Devil Bat (1940) — that does not feature Lugosi. Instead, the protagonist is … you guessed it, his character’s daughter. But while Dracula’s Daughter was a slick, good-looking Universal horror picture that featured a haunting lead performance by Gloria Holden, Devil Bat’s Daughter is a run-of-the-mill Poverty Row mystery thriller whose connection to its predecessor feels forced.

I haven’t seen The Devil Bat, but based on plot synopses, there seem to be several inconsistencies with how its treated in its sequel. Nina MacCarron (Rosemary La Planche), is the daughter of Dr. Paul Carruthers (Lugosi), of The Devil Bat, but she uses her mother’s maiden name. Returning in a stupor to her father’s home in Wardsley, New York (Heathville, Illinois, in the original), she collapses while searching the basement where he conducted his experiments (the basement was also apparently not present in the first film). She is taken in by the physician Dr. Elliot (Nolan Leary), who cares for her while she lies in a catatonic state. After she escapes from the hospital, Dr. Elliot has her transferred to the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Clifton Morris (Michael Hale), who treats her while she lives in his home with him and his wife, Ellen Masters Morris (Molly Lamont). With Dr. Morris’s treatments, she slowly returns to normal, but she is plagued by terrifying visions (rippled footage from The Devil Bat).

Intrigue abounds. We learn early on that Dr. Morris has a mistress, Myra Arnold (Monica Mars), who is pressuring him to divorce his wife, whom he only married for her money. When Ted Masters (John James), Mrs. Morris’s son from her first marriage, returns home, he and Nina start to fall for each other, but a series of murders throws Nina’s sanity into question. The film seems confused about what type of picture it wants to be. There’s plenty of talk of vampires (Lugosi was inextricable from his most famous role), but it doesn’t come to anything, and this isn’t really a horror picture.

Devil Bat’s Daughter is modestly entertaining, but I was hoping for more. Director Wisbar was a German émigré, and his previous film, Strangler of the Swamp, was a great-looking, creepy little horror picture. Like Devil Bat’s Daughter, it also starred Rosemary La Planche, Miss America 1941. It’s too bad for genre film fans that La Planche wasn’t in more movies, especially horror movies. She could have been one of the great scream queens. She’s uniquely pretty, with thick eyebrows, big eyes, bow lips, a very straight nose, and mountains of wavy hair. Her face retains its attractiveness even when she’s screaming, and she sure can take a fall while running.

The Body Snatcher (May 25, 1945)

BodySnatcher
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

The Body Snatcher is based on Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story of the same name, which was first published in December 1884. Stevenson’s story was inspired by a crime well-known to Scots to this day; the Burke and Hare murders. Burke and Hare were two Irish immigrants who sold corpses to Dr. Robert Knox for use in his dissection experiments in 1827 and 1828, and were symptomatic of a time when scientific curiosity was outpacing social and religious squeamishness. Prior to the Anatomy Act 1832, the only bodies that doctors could legally dissect were those of executed criminals. There were simply not enough executed criminals to fill the needs of medical schools, however, especially with the decline in executions in the early 19th century, so doctors and anatomy students frequently turned to sellers of corpses on the black market. Most of these sellers simply dug up freshly buried bodies, but Burke and Hare went an extra step, saving time by smothering people to death and selling their bodies. In the film, set in Edinburgh in 1831, the “Dr. K.” of the story becomes Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (played by Henry Daniell), a respected surgeon who relies on the ghoulish cabman John Gray (played by Boris Karloff) to provide him with the corpses he needs to experiment on before he can cure crippling ailments. In a typical move for a film of this time, there is also a blandly handsome young doctor (played by Russell Wade), who adds little to the proceedings, merely existing to show the idealistic, humane, and optimistic face of medicine. The meat of the film is the twisted and symbiotic relationship between Gray and Dr. MacFarlane, whom Gray constantly calls “Toddy,” an old nickname that the doctor hates.

The Body Snatcher was produced by Val Lewton, who is one of the few producers to have survived the advent of the Auteur theory and emerge better remembered than many of the men who directed his films. A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Lewton was a talented purveyor of horror and dread. He methods were suggestion and atmosphere, and he avoided cheap shocks and grotesque makeup. His monsters didn’t look like monsters, and the terror his films conveyed was largely psychological. And when horrific events did occur in his films, they did so mostly off screen. They delivered chills through the power of suggestion, and occasionally a stream of blood flowing under a door.

Prior to making The Body Snatcher, which was directed by Robert Wise, Lewton had a string of low-budget horror hits for RKO, all of which are currently available on DVD and are considered minor classics; Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur), I Walked With a Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Leopard Man (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Seventh Victim (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Ghost Ship (1943, dir. Mark Robson), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise), which was originally supposed to be called Amy and Her Friend, and has only a tangential connection to the original Cat People. He had also produced two non-horror films, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944, dir. Robert Wise) and Youth Runs Wild (1944, dir. Mark Robson).

Lewton was under a few strict edicts from RKO when making his famous horror films; each had to come in at under 80 minutes long, each had to cost no more than $150,000, and the title of each would be provided by Lewton’s supervisors, which could explain why an intelligent, understated, and artful film like I Walked With a Zombie has the lurid title that it does. After the success of Cat People, however, which was made for $134,000 and grossed nearly $4 million, the studio interfered little with Lewton’s scripts and productions, generally allowing him to make exactly the kind of picture he wanted, as long as he brought it in under budget. I’ve felt for a long time that Lewton, who was a mostly unsuccessful novelist and journalist before he got into the movie business, felt as if he was better than the cheapjack films he produced. He may have been a master of the power of suggestion, but sometimes his films just feel too removed from the world of horror that they depict. I’m not saying that Lewton’s pictures would be better if they were awash in blood and guts, but sometimes they feel clinical and distant.

Along with I Walked With a Zombie, The Body Snatcher is one of my favorite Lewton pictures, due in no small part to Karloff’s brilliant performance. While the film itself can be stagy, Karloff’s performance is not. Each line he speaks drips with malevolence, while still showing the twisted humanity hidden somewhere deep inside. Gray is a man past redemption. One of the first things he does in the film is use a shovel to kill a little dog who is guarding its young master’s grave. That Karloff can create a somewhat sympathetic character from what he’s given is nothing short of phenomenal. I can think of few actors who are able to do what Karloff does with monstrous characters. (Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs is the only person who immediately springs to mind.) Part of the success of Karloff’s performance lies in its nuances. He interacts with nearly every character in the film–Dr. MacFarlane, his young assistant, a little crippled girl (played by Sharyn Moffett), a pathetic servant named Joseph (played by Bela Lugosi)–and is a subtly different person in each scene.

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