Movie Night: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Year: 1948

Director: Charles Barton

Production Company: Universal International Pictures

Leads: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello

Well that’s gonna cost you overtime ’cause I’m a union man, and I work only sixteen hours a day.

A union man only works eight hours a day!

I belong to two unions.

51F4U16LZjL._SX500_Oh my, this was too long in coming. After too many Jackie Chan and superhero movies, it was time to introduce Little Satis to the birth of comedy.

His first impression of course was, “Ew…black and white?”

I tried to explain to him that yes, they did have color back then, but they just didn’t use it very much. I also tried to explain to him that just because it was in black and white didn’t mean it wasn’t any good.

It turned out I didn’t need to do much explaining. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a showcase of the duo at their very best, in an absolute farce of a movie with more holes than plot, and whizz-bang cracks every two seconds. What’s so amazing to me in watching these movies is the feel of spontaneity and dynamism that exists throughout; you almost feel as if you’re watching a stage comedy performance. Yet at the same time, every joke and pun fits perfectly into the plot (which is, of course, a joke of its own), and never feels over-rehearsed or generic.

In a nutshell, Dracula travels to the United States with the Frankenstein monster, hoping to find a new brain to revive him and make him his servant. The Wolfman is hot in pursuit, but of course can’t go around at night, because of the full moon (which apparently rises every night). Dracula sets himself on Lou Costello’s brain, of course, it having “no will of its own, no fiendish intellect to oppose his Master.”

Through a series of frankly bizarre and calamitous events Abbott and Costello manage to defeat Dracula, blow up the Frankenstein monster, toss the evil assistant out of a window, and save the girl, who is inexplicably attracted to Costello.

I don’t get it. Out of all the guys around here that classy dish has to pick out a guy like you.

What’s wrong with that?

Go look at yourself in the mirror sometime.

Why should I hurt my own feelings?

However, above the comedic gold, perhaps the true gem of this movie is the chance to see Bela Lugosi return to his infamous role as Dracula (as well as, to a lesser extent, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman). He is to me the epitome of Dracula (I’m so sorry, Christopher Lee), and to this day when someone mentions the name Dracula, I hear Lugosi’s lilting and sinister Hungarian accent, and see his cape folded over his face. His stone-faced demeanor is such a contrast to the shenanigans of Abbott and Costello that he brings if anything more of a chill than were it a serious movie. His character observes the two as though they are the world’s greatest fools; there’s a moment early on where the expression on Lugosi’s face is priceless:

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 11.29.23 PM

Oh, what a joy this film is; and of course the goal was achieved: opening Little Satis’ eyes to movies that were made before he was born.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Tales of Despair: Eternal Blood

The Vampire – Philip Burne-Jones

I was one of the (probably many) goth kids who grew up obsessed with all things dark; lord amongst the demons and monsters were, naturally, the vampires. What a beautiful romance these creatures held; to live eternally, at the price of the blood of your fellow men and women. The visceral attraction of blood, warm and flowing, the bitter metallic taste, the swoon of the letting – these were the things that captured my mind.

With this came the gloriously evil tales – not only the fantasies of Nosferatu and Dracula, but the terrifying histories of Vlad the Impaler, and the Countess Báthory. Drinking, bathing, delighting in blood – all was dark, brooding, and beautiful. A natural part of this was the romanticism of the vampire, and I will hold my hand up and say that I watched many vampire movies – notably Francis Ford Coppola‘s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, long before reading of the literature.

Gary Oldman as Dracula (1992)

Francis paints a picture of a medieval man, tortured by war and death, renouncing god for eternal life upon the suicide of his one, only, true love – that he will await her forever, fed on the blood of men. And wait he does, until by happenstance, he sees her likeness in Mina, the fiancée of Jonathan Harker, a minor solicitor visiting his Transylvanian castle. Determined to fulfill his prophecy, he abandons Jonathan to his fate amongst the vampires of his castle, traveling to England in a desperate attempt to be with her. He meets with her, charms her, and seduces her – only to be torn apart again as she leaves him to be wed to Jonathan (resulting in one of the most memorable performances by Gary Oldman, weeping in agony over his loss of her).

Yet his work is done; she remembers him, and becomes infatuated, and begs him to transform her as well. And then, as she begins to change, Dracula retreats once more to his home. Now bound to him, Mina can think of nothing else, and Jonathan, now accompanied by the delightful Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, realize they must pursue and destroy the count if they are to save her. In the bitterest of endings, the wounded Dracula begs his long-lost love to give him peace, and – having lived to see he beloved one last time – he is put to death by her own hand.

First edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Little did I know how little – and how much – this romanticized tale had in common with Bram Stoker‘s brilliant and seminal novel from 1897. While the characters remain the same, their intentions, motivations and desires could not be more different. Strikingly told from the perspective of journal entries and newspaper clippings, the loose plot is similar – Jonathan Harker, the newly-appointed solicitor, traveling to Transylvania to aid the Count Dracula in finalizing his purchase of land in London, and to teach him the ways of the English. Gradually ensnaring Jonathan in his castle with the three vampiric sisters, Dracula comes to London – for the pure desire to live amongst the great population, and to feed at his leisure.

Dracula does turn Mina, but not out of any romantic desire – it is a punishment, revenge against the men who would destroy him. He uses her, tracks his foes through her visions. In doing so, however, he betrays his own intentions, and is eventually hunted down and destroyed.

By all accounts, Bram’s original text is heart-stopping and gripping; the format of its writing ensures the survival of no character, for there is no narrator. We are left until the very end to know, even, whether the party of vampire hunters have triumphed over the bloodthirsty Count. In some ways, Francis’ version is one filled with emotional torment, anguish and despair – to pine for a lost love for four hundred years, only to be denied a life with her in the final moments is a heartbreak of unsurpassed proportions. Yet Bram’s original tale is by far the most frightening, and reeks of an entirely different form of despair: the knowledge that you are fighting an all-encompassing evil, one that delights in the destruction of all men.