Horror Comedy Movies Owe a Great Debt to Abbott and Costello
Exploring how 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' cemented the tropes and structure of horror comedy films that still endure today.
Invent is a strong word but one thing in regard to horror comedy is certain: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the first film that proved the genre’s commercial viability at the box office and as we all know, in the world of Hollywood, the box office always reigns supreme. Prior to comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s experimentation with horror, horror comedy was ill-defined, featuring a strong lack of balance between these genres which one would be forgiven to assume are on two opposing ends of the spectrum. However, what Abbott and Costello knew at the time was that both genres produce visceral reactions within their audiences, teaching a generation that laughter and gasps of fear are far from dissimilar to one another.
Quentin Tarantino, in discussing the three most influential films of his career, cites Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as the film that taught him how to make distinctions between genres as a child, pushing him to experiment in mixing the two with results as glorious as the iconic ear-cutting scene of Reservoir Dogs. If you’re not sure whether to laugh at the absurdity of it or shriek in terror at the gruesome spectacle, it’s because you’re supposed to do both at the same time. But what exactly lied within Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein that prompted Tarantino and a generation of filmmakers to make these distinctions? And how did it establish such clear-cut rules for a genre that hadn’t even been invented yet that endure to this day?
‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’s Humor All Comes from Juxtaposition
The plot of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein isn’t entirely divorced from your classic horror movie. Released in 1948 and directed by Charles Barton, the film primarily follows Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello), a hopeless romantic of a bumbling baggage clerk at a railway station that receives a mysterious shipment from ‘McDougal’s House of Horrors’… only to discover that it is in fact the coffins of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. It isn’t long after that that Dracula devises his master plan: to substitute Frankenstein’s Monster’s brain for Wilbur’s, ensuring the perfect dutiful automaton who will obey his every order.
The idea of having your brain placed into the body of Frankenstein’s Monster is so terrifying on paper that it’s hard to see where the laughs may emerge from. What makes this movie funny however is that while the protagonist(s) of monster movies is usually strong, capable and courageous, the pair of Abbott and Costello are anything but. They comically cower in fear of Dracula, run into walls in evasion of Frankenstein, and whelp at the sight of the Wolf-Man, all with the same naïveté of characters in the silliest of horror movies.
This juxtaposition would prove to be the most fundamental element of horror comedy to come, whether it’s Shaun playing video games with his newly zombified best friend in Shaun of the Dead or skeletons sticking their fingers up the nose of Ash Williams in Army of Darkness. Abbott and Costello cemented the idea that horror movies are inherently goofy, with the abundance of tropes within the genre such as characters’ careless willingness to walk into dark rooms on their own making it a prime target for delicious parody.
Unlike Most Horror Comedies, ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ Also Pushes the Horror
The film wasn’t just a full-on parody a la Scary Movie, however. Importantly, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is insistent on assuring its audience that they are within the world of a horror movie, even if they are making fun of it. While the majority of horror comedies prioritize the latter genre, substituting scares for something akin to laughs with blood, Universal Pictures boldly cast the actual stars of their era-defining monster movies of the 1930s. Abbott and Costello don’t just fight Dracula, they fight Bela Lugosi, the original star of the 1931 horror classic. The titular Frankenstein? It may not be Boris Karloff, but it is Glenn Strange, who had inherited Karloff’s mantle with personal training from the originator himself. As for the Wolf-Man, that’s Lon Janey Jr., himself having played the character in his 1941 cinematic debut.
Much like the MCU, the Universal monsters began in their own horror movies before crossing over into one another’s to double down on the terror and the spectacle. The significance here however lies in the fact that while a comedy, the horror came from the original actors themselves. This wasn’t some cheap carbon copy of your favorite monster but the real deal, coming from the men who launched the horror genre and turned these macabre characters of literature into household names. The jokes didn’t come from making fun of horror movies but placing two popular comedians inside a genuine horror movie. It’s the difference between critically panned spoofs like Vampires Suck and acclaimed modern classics like What We Do in the Shadows, illustrating how much more fun it is to make fun with something rather than of something.
Highlighting the horror inherent within the Dracula mythos, vampires have functioned best throughout history as metaphors for the predatory elements of sex, with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein being no exception. In becoming the monster’s target, Wilbur also unknowingly becomes the victim of two women’s sexual advances (both a front for what they really want, either to investigate the situation or assist Dracula himself). He’s also hypnotized by Dracula over the film’s runtime, showcasing the sexual power he has over both the men and the women whose blood he consumes. While dialing up the silly factor, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein remains in conversation with real and relatable fears, in particular the fear that those two dream girls fawning over you all of a sudden may have ulterior motives.
‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ Introduced Breaking the Fourth Wall in Horror Comedies
While horror films pride themselves on audience immersion, the horror comedy conversely is in constant need of reminding its audience they are watching a movie in order to give them the permission to laugh at their fears. It’s no coincidence that most defining horror comedies (Re-Animator, Little Shop of Horrors) feature comically exaggerated and even cartoonish special effects and characters. That man-eating plant is meant to be as cheesy as it looks and that’s the only reason that it’s funny.
While Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein didn’t showcase much as far zany and colorful special effects go (though there are several stunningly animated sequences of Dracula transforming into a bat), there are a couple of moments throughout the film where Costello will look and almost wink at the camera. This happens specifically in moments where he’s adorably proud of himself for achieving something, whether it’s the women falsely fawning over him or his climactic tablecloth trick. It’s not so much breaking the fourth wall but cracking it, assuring the audience that their still in the safe hands of filmmakers who want them entertained.
This meta-cinematic intrusion would remain an essential element of the horror comedy and get leveraged in a big way over the last ten years. Without the mashing of genres and Costello’s winks towards the camera, perhaps we would have never had The Cabin in the Woods, which plays on its audience’s pre-existing knowledge of horror tropes, or One Cut of the Dead, a strong contender for the most meta movie ever made, let alone the most meta of the horror comedy genre.
Thanks to these two comedians, the horror comedy had found its building blocks, whether it be the skillful use of juxtaposition, the inclusion of real horror, or the genre’s meta-cinematic tendencies, all of which not only endure but thrive today, with the upcoming Renfield and Cocaine Bear proof of the genre’s continued resonance. Most importantly, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein doesn’t pretend to mask itself as something more than a cheap thrill, but it’s that tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that not only made it a box office smash, spawning several sequels, but the birth mother of an entirely new genre altogether.