Bloody October: Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein

LAST NIGHT: ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is my favorite horror-comedy – yes, even before Ghostbusters.  It also scared the crap out of me when I was about seven.  My father decided to show it to me because it was the film that proved to him that monsters were something to laugh at.  And what effect did it have on me? Well, Dracula climbed out of his coffin and I ran screaming from the room.  This was further exacerbated by the fact that we lived in an old Victorian townhouse on 9 acres of woods that was regularly infested by bats.  My father spent the rest of the evening trying to convince me that Dracula wasn’t real and that he was not going to turn into a bat and suck my blood.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein still gives me chills, but that’s mostly a result of that childhood experience.  In the adult world, it’s simply an entertaining film, especially for those who enjoy the original Universal Monsters.  Because they’re all here! The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man – the latter two played by the actors who originated them.  The plot revolves around the resurrection of Dracula (Bela Lugosi) who has plans to revive the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange) with the help of Sandra (Lenore Aubert), a crazy doctor who eventually loses some blood to the Count.  The crux? Old Franky needs a new brain and he’ll find it in the head of Wilbur (Lou Costello) a dull-witted baggage clerk.  Opposing the gruesome ghouls is Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who keeps turning into a wolf – that full moon lasts an awfully long time.

The monsters play it fairly straight while Abbott and Costello ham it up around them – but they’re all game.  Lugosi in particular seems to be enjoying the chance to play his most iconic role and spout lines like “What we need today is young blood … and brains.”  I only wish that Karloff would have agreed to reprise his role as the Monster.

I think the reason this kind of freaked me out when I was a kid was the fact that the whole film turns on the notion that monsters really do exist:

Chick (Bud Abbott): I know there’s no search a person as Dracula.  You know there’s no such a person as Dracula.

Wilbur: But does Dracula know it?

The comedy is broad, the plot nonsensical, and the film is deliciously fun.  But honestly, it kept me believing in monsters.

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Bloody October: Young Frankenstein

LAST NIGHT: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)

Right, so maybe Young Frankenstein isn’t quite a scary movie, but it is a classic in every sense of the word.  Before I ever saw FrankensteinBride of Frankenstein, or Son of Frankenstein, I saw this.

The plot is actually straight from Universal Horror – which is what Brooks is going for, after all.  Frederick von Frankenstein  (It’s pronounced ‘Frahnk-en-steen) (Gene Wilder, insane) goes to Transylvania to take over his family castle.  There he meets Igor (Marty Feldman, hilarious), his lovely assistant Inga (Teri Garr) and Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman, scaring the horses).  Convinced to begin trying to build his own Creature, Frederick steals a corpse and sets about making his own little Monster.  No way this could possibly go wrong.

It’s the plot of every Frankenstein movie, more or less.  But this is a comedy.  And what a comedy! Brooks is at his best when he’s parodying something he truly loves.  His love of Frankenstein films comes through in every frame.  Whole sections are lifted from Bride of Frankenstein and particularly Son of Frankenstein – like Gene Hackman’s Blindman and Kenneth Mars’s Inspector Kemp – but it never goes over into disrespect or derision.  It’s hilarious because it’s so loving.

Not a little of this has to do with the cast.  Gene Wilder is at his best – alternately wild and balanced, likable and pretentious, with hair that Einstein would have envied.  But everyone is not only game for their roles, but also exceptional comedians.  No one can inject humor into a small role like Madeleine Kahn; she’s resplendent and hilarious as Elizabeth, Frederick’s venal, virginal fiancée.  Likewise Teri Garr, in a role that could have fallen into the ‘dumb blonde’ category.  Then Marty Feldman, Kenneth Mars, Gene Hackman, Peter Boyle as the Monster, the villagers … they’re just all so good. Wilder and Brooks wrote the script, which might have something to do with this film being far and away Brooks’s best work.

In any case, if you haven’t seen it, you need to.  You’ll never look at Franky the same way again.

Bloody October: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

LAST NIGHT: THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

I’m really behind on these, ’cause I definitely watched this one last Friday.  Anyways:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  This is one of those films that you either love and indulge in, or you sit there for two hours going: what the fuck is happening? The bare bones of the plot cannot do justice to the supreme campiness of Rocky Horror. Newly engaged young people in Denton, Ohio,  Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) have their car break down on a back road and – of course – wind up in a creepy castle with even creepier inhabitants. Dr. Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), a transvestite mad scientist, his lovely assistants Magenta (Patricia Quinn) and Columbia (Little Nell), and butler Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien) have come together to throw a party and premiere Frank’s newest (and sexiest) creation Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood). Brad and Janet have no idea what they’ve gotten into.

There are simply no words. References to 50s and 60s horror films abound, Meat Loaf makes an appearance to sing a song and get murdered; complicated sexuality reigns supreme.  There’s violence, sex, nudity and rock music. Tim Curry is the sexiest transvestite ever, the music is over the top, the ending beyond bizarre.  At the end of the day, Rocky Horror is what Robin Wood would call an ‘incoherent text’.  It begins to ramble in the second act, and finally explodes in the third.  But in between it is so much fun that you just have to sit back and, well, give yourself over to absolute pleasure.

Watching it again reminded me of some parties I’ve gone to: it all begins with a lot of fun, drinking and dancing and ends with the Apocalypse.  Still, you know that you want to do the Time Warp again.

Bloody October: The Wolf Man

Last Night: THE WOLF MAN (1941)

Poor puppy.  The Wolf Man is the saddest of the Universal Monsters, a woefully misunderstood creature who can’t help what he does and just needs his daddy to love him.  Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his family castle in … well, I think it’s England, but the accents are all over the place.  His father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) is a kindly but distant fellow who loved Larry’s elder brother much more than his big, cuddly and sad-eyed younger boy.  Larry instantly falls for the pretty girl in the window Gwen (Evelyn Ankers).  But of course, he gets bit by a gypsy werewolf (Bela Lugosi, underused) and descends into the netherworld where he can no longer control his animal urges.

The Wolf Man is the iconic werewolf film, referenced in every single werewolf movie since, and Lon Chaney Jr. is the perfect werewolf.  He’s a large but gentle man, sad-eyed and generous, and does not deserve what becomes of him.  Which is exactly the point.  Unlike many of the wolf men who come after him, Larry really is just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He’s bitten only because he tries to help a girl, and no one will believe him when he claims to be a danger to himself and others.  The other characters are all archetypes: the hunter (Patric Knowles), the policeman (Ralph Bellamy) and the doctor (Warren William).  The film plays like a gothic fairytale, down to the little old gypsy woman and her poem about pure hearts and wolf bane.  The Wolf Man is a late Universal film, but it deserves to rank up there with Dracula and Frankenstein.

Bloody October: The Exorcist

Last Night: THE EXORCIST (1973)

I’m a terrible horror fan.  26 years old and I had never seen The Exorcist until this week.  Terrible.  I blame the educational system.

You know the plot, but to reiterate: Regan (Linda Blair), a pretty normal adolescent girl and daughter of an actress (Ellen Burstyn), is possessed by … well, by Satan, apparently, although I have my doubts.  Call in Father Damian (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to exorcise the demon.

The Exorcist is one of those films that I fear has not aged terribly well.  This is not to say that it’s not a great film – it is.  The performances are uniformly excellent, the special effects spectacular for their time period, the script intelligent (and humorous), and the directing above standard.  But for all that, I must admit that I did not find it particularly scary.  The scares have been done so many times, in parody and out of it, that I saw them coming a mile away.  Regan’s spinning head and vomiting green goo are both pretty freaky in terms of effects, but not in terms of scariness.  More troubling is her tendency to swear at everyone and stab herself with a crucifix, but even that, while shocking, is not particularly frightening. What’s more, I was never convinced that this was really Satan.   Doesn’t the Prince of Darkness have better things to do than inhabit a little girl’s body? Shouldn’t he be trying to overthrow the world, or bring about the Apocalypse, or teach people at crossroads how to play guitar?

Perhaps the point is that it’s not Satan, but just a rather mischievous demon who got bored.  In any case, it’s a great film, but it failed to give me even a single bad dream.  I must admit that I expect more from the Fiend.  At least some more colorful curses than just telling priests to fuck off.

Bloody October: The Cabin In The Woods

Last Night: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

It’s taken me this long to finally see the Joss Whedon penned The Cabin in the Woods.  Oh, how I wish I had not waited.  It’s … epic.  Somewhere in the vein of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil with a smattering of Scream.  Then again, it really does stand in its own category.  Five college kids go to a cabin in the woods and everything begins to go horribly, hilariously wrong.

My one objection is that it is not really scary.  It’s funny, it’s dark, it’s provoking, but there are few scares, mostly because we know at least part of what’s going on from the very beginning.  It helps if you have a working knowledge of quite a few horror franchises, are apprised of the rules of slasher films, and can recognize certain tropes without having them handed to you.  But there’s so little that can be said about The Cabin in the Woods without giving the game away, so I’ll just say that it’s well worth a watch.  And you don’t even have to keep the lights on.

Bloody October: Sleepy Hollow

Right, so as I have limited time but I really want to keep updating this here blog o’mine, I’m going to start posting short musings uponst the scary movies I watch this October. Why? Because the leaves are falling, the skies are going grey, the wind howls through the skeletal trees and it’s time to consume massive amounts of candy and have bad dreams about werewolves, non-sparkly vampires, haunted houses, nasty ghosts and Vincent Price.  Or Peter Cushing, whoever takes your fancy.

LAST NIGHT: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999).

Ever will I defend Tim Burton, because of movies like this. To launch my October scary-movie-watching, there’s nothing better than Burton’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek tribute to Hammer horror. Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane, a pale-faced New York constable headed upstate to the wilds of the Hudson Valley to investigate several beheadings that have been blamed on the local ghost. He finds, natch, a bunch of weird locals, foggy and twisted woods, a few more beheadings and a lovely Burtonian waif in Christina Ricci. Cue gushing blood, heaving bodices, one hell of a carriage chase and a burning windmill.

Burton and Depp were at their best in the 90s. In some ways, Sleepy Hollow is the icing on the cake of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. References to Hammer films abound, from the outlandish blood, spinning heads and dark backstory, to the presences of Michael Gough and Christopher Lee in bit roles. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but neither does it turn the gothic and  romantic story into a parody. Depp as Crane is a likable but squeamish detective, tortured by the past and not terribly certain about the future. He avoids the caricature that has sadly colored his latest roles; watching it last night, I was struck with the realization that this might be the last time we see Depp the Actor instead of Depp the Star. The cast surrounding him from Ricci on down is uniformly excellent, all of them sinking their teeth into their parts with gusto – especially Christopher Walken in a non-speaking but pivotal role.

The film bears only a passing resemblance to Washington Irving’s folksy horror story, despite an excellent tribute in the middle of the film as the Horseman rides Ichabod down bearing a flaming pumpkin in his hand.  It does trade in folk tales and cinematic references – the burning windmill will please anyone who has seen the original Frankenstein.  The film looks and feels like a New York horror story with an edge of Hammer and Universal. Burton knows his horror. He does his best work when he tries to make a good story first and layers the Burtonian influences on second.

Sleepy Hollow is the way I always start my Halloween. It’s a more adult film than Beetlejuice or The Nightmare Before Christmas, and miles away from disappointments like Alice in Wonderland. I know viewers who don’t like Tim Burton who love this film. But it helps if you like Tim Burton.