#8 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
The Universal Monster franchise was dead. Long live the Universal Monster franchise!
After having worn the core three creatures as thin as possible through a series of decreasingly interesting matchup movies that seemed to try to take the monsters seriously while just covering the same ground over and over again, Universal decided that the only way forward was to make them outright comedies. Recruiting the comedian act of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, along with their frequent collaborator Charles Barton as director, Universal seems to have accidentally made the best monster mashup movie of the entire franchise. The focus was on the comedy, but just underneath is the threadbare makings of a plot that actually effectively uses the three key monsters throughout.
Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) calls from England a small railroad station in Florida to warn them about a pair of boxes they are receiving containing Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange). At this train station are Wilbur (Costello) and Chick (Abbott) who don’t take the call seriously before agreeing to hand deliver the boxes to the house of horrors owned by McDougal (Frank Ferguson). All of this is punctuated by the comedic stylings of the core pair as Chick angrily tries to wrangle Wilbur to do his job, but Wilbur, though antics and shenanigans messes stuff up. It tickles me pretty consistently, especially the way Costello mugs for the camera. It’s never too much, but just enough to get the comedic point across.
Wilbur has an unexplainable romantic relationship with the pretty Sandra (Lenore Aubert), a relationship that Chick cannot understand (neither could my wife while she watched with me, getting quite irritated at it). It turns out that everything is connected (strange concept, right?), and Sandra organized the passage of Dracula and the monster to Florida where she is going to take out Wilbur’s brain and put it into the monster’s head to create the perfect slave for Dracula. The Wolf Man figured this out and is trying to stop it. Hey! Dracula doesn’t just disappear from the movie after the first act! How cool is that!
The plot turns a bit when Wilbur and Chick unload the boxes and, in an entertainingly funny scene, Dracula and the monster get up and escape, leaving Wilbur and Chick holding the bag, so to speak, and under investigation by the insurance company. In walks Joan (Jane Randolph), an insurance investigator out to prove that the pair lost the valuable displays as well as Talbot, coming to America to help find the monsters. There are comedic bits about the Wolf Man being just behind Wilbur and Wilbur not noticing, about a goof like Wilbur having both Sandra and Joan falling over him while Chick watches flabbergasted and tries to negotiate himself into having one of the two for a date to the big masquerade ball. It’s consistently fun stuff.
The actual plot, again, is the best mashup of these monsters (especially once you add Dracula) that Universal had done. Dracula wants to make the Frankenstein monster a more perfect servant, so he uses our actual stars in his plan. The Wolf Man wants to stop it. It all culminates in a battle of the monsters where all three are involved. It’s like basic monster mashup concerns that the Universal movies hadn’t gotten right since Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. That’s not the big appeal of the movie, of course, that’s the comedic stylings of Abbott and Costello up against the evil monsters as comedic foil, and in that regard the movie is consistently entertaining.
So, it’s really a combination of a well-assembled monster mashup with strong comedy from a good comedic pair. It doesn’t treat the monsters all that seriously (Dracula walks really slowly when Wilbur needs to get away while hamming it up), but it takes the story seriously enough to work. It’s also really nice to see Bela Lugosi back in the role that he originated that kicked off the whole thing. He owns that role in a way that neither Chaney nor Carradine were able to match in their outings as the Count Dracula, and he brings the same fun to the role as he did twenty years prior.
Is it great art? No. Is it consistently entertaining in a couple of different ways? Very much so. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein may not be the height of the whole franchise, but it’s an entertaining direction to take a moribund series that had descended into repetition in the hands of lesser talents over the previous decade.