For nearly 70 years now, a very sad debate has raged among very sad people who either have no problems of their own or far too many to face. Namely, is 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein an official entry into the Universal Horror shared universe or a goofy, one-off, standalone picture? It’s a question far too many people feel very strongly about.
Oh, for Godsakes. Okay then, so let’s take a brief historical survey through Universal’s horror franchises to see if we can figure this one out once and for all.
Frankenstein and Dracula were both released in 1931. Satisfied a sewer genre like horror could rake in the big bucks, Universal charged ahead (and again we’re concentrating only on the franchises here) with The Mummy in 1932 and The Invisible Man in 1933. While other early horror outings like The Black Cat and Murders in the Rue Morgue didn’t exactly leave much room for follow-up stories, these other monsters had legs and personality enough, and were certainly grossed enough, to demand a sequel—if not four or five sequels.
Even though both titular monsters had been killed off reasonably decisively in the original ’31 pictures, the first requisite sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, arrived in 1935, with Dracula’s Daughter following a year later. As both initial franchises picked up steam, and the sequels started appearing regularly, Mummy and Invisible Man follow-ups went into production around 1940. In 1941 Universal introduced Larry Talbot as the reluctant and depressive Wolf Man, and he was immediately as popular and iconic as any of the others, making sequels a simple inevitability.
As the Mummy and Invisible Man sequels rolled on in their unmolested insular way, and with The Creature from the Black Lagoon still a decade off, in 1943 Universal took a chance that was really no risk at all. Audiences loved these monsters all by themselves well enough, right? So what would they think about tossing two into one movie? Sure, the chronologies and geographies were all over the place, but since we’re dealing with eternal monsters here, who cares?
For the first Wolf Man sequel, Larry Talbot’s continuing storyline crossed over into the Frankenstein monster’s in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) after the old gypsy woman, Maleva tells Talbot that Dr. Frankenstein is the only man who can cure his condition.
Prior to this, Frankenstein’s monster had been burned up in a couple fires, blown to smithereens, and dumped in a sulfur pit while Talbot had, as per the rules of the legend, been beaten to death quite completely with a silver-tipped cane wielded by his own father. It didn’t much matter, as all it took was a carefully directed bolt of lightning to revive Talbot, and the monster had somehow escaped that last fire only to find himself cryogenically frozen in a block of ice back in the basement of the Frankenstein castle (which itself had been destroyed and rebuilt at least twice). Shortly after they start duking it out at film’s end, both the Wolf Man and the monster are washed away in yet another flood in the castle basement.
The film was a big hit, and knowing a good thing when they saw it, the following year Universal upped the ante by dropping Dracula into the mix for House of Frankenstein. Dracula himself had not made an appearance in a Universal picture since the original, which ended with Van Helsing pounding a stake through his undead heart. Since then, Dracula’s skeleton and coffin had presumably been touring around Europe as part of one seedy sideshow or another.
He’s finally revived again when a mad scientist named Niemann comes into possession of the coffin and removes the stake from the skeleton’s chest. It doesn’t last long, though, as he dies once again after Niemann ditches the coffin at his earliest convenience. Ironic thing is that Dracula is excised from the story even before getting a chance to meet either the monster or the Wolf Man, who are now both frozen in another block of ice in the basement of Frankenstein’s castle. After being thawed out this time, Talbot is decisively dispatched for the second time with a surefire silver bullet, the monster sinks in quicksand, and angry townsfolk once again torch Frankenstein’s castle, or at least what’s left of it after all those earlier floods and fires and dismantlings.
This is all going someplace, trust me.
In 1945’s House of Dracula, both Talbot and Dracula have been revived yet again without explanation of any kind, and Talbot is still trying to commit suicide. Frankenstein’s monster, meanwhile, has somehow ground his way out of the quicksand and into the caverns beneath a cliff near the home of a quack called Dr. Edelman. And as it so happens, both Talbot and Dracula show up separately at Edelman’s place. Presumably, his newspaper ads promise he can cure things like vampirism and lycanthropy.
Edelman, who apparently picked up Dracula’s coffin at a yard sale, gets fed up with the vampire’s bad attitude and drags the coffin into the sunlight, setting it on fire. Not only is Dracula decisively killed off for the third time, but he’s once again killed off before getting the chance to meet Talbot or the monster. (Even though they were both patients of Edelman’s, their appointments were always on different days,) Edelman informs Talbot all his troubles can be traced to a stray piece of bone pressing on his brain, which can be resolved with a simple outpatient procedure. Afterward, a presumably cured Talbot joins still another angry mob of locals in the hunt for Frankenstein’s monster, who finds himself trapped in yet another burning building.
Alright, then, three years later in 1948, the bodies of a very much alive Dracula and Frankenstein, disguised as wax figures, are shipped to a freight warehouse in Florida, with orders they be delivered to a local house of horrors. Meanwhile Larry Talbot, who has been turning into a werewolf again, has been trying to track down the bodies of Dracula and Frankenstein ever since that whole debacle at Edelman’s place, convinced they’re alive and up to no good.
Okay, let’s stop there for a second. The central argument forwarded by those people who insist (and loudly) that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein could not possibly be a continuation of the Universal Horror shared universe notes that Talbot had been cured of his lycanthropy at the end of the previous film. So how is it that he’s turning into a werewolf again, huh? I mean (derisive snort)… that doesn’t make any sense at all!
Right. Well. If you go back to the top here and read things through carefully again, um, you’ll note notions like “continuity” and “logical explanations” weren’t exactly front and center during all those story meetings as the execs at Universal were mapping out the continuous narrative of the shared universe.
Or, let’s look at it a different way. On at least two occasions, Talbot was apparently killed and cured of his affliction by the exact means specified by the gypsy legend. Finding he was still quite alive after being bludgeoned to death with a silver-tipped cane and shot with a silver bullet, Talbot likely concluded everything that damned Maleva fed him was nothing but a line of horseshit.
Hell, she was the one who told him the only one who could cure him was Dr. Frankenstein, without bothering to tell him Frankenstein had died decades earlier. So why not also conclude that shady quack Edelman’s “brain pressure” diagnosis was a load of horseshit too? Talbot simply had the misfortune of listening to a bunch of people who had no idea what they were talking about. So of course he’s still a werewolf, you ninnies.
And if you’re one of those sticks in the mud who’d argue that it’s more comedy than horror film, and is therefore disqualified, well, remember Universal had always tried to work some level of humor into their horror films (usually via a jittery maid or Dwight Frye), and that Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Lorre, and Lionel Atwill all starred in viable horror comedies. Likewise, there was nothing new about dropping, say, the Ritz Brothers or Lee Tracy into an otherwise fairly straight horror film, so why not Abbott and Costello? They were a much bigger draw after all than The Ritz Brothers.
Yes, unlike The Gorilla or Doctor X, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is first and foremost an Abbott and Costello vehicle. But beneath their constant (but still very sharp and hilarious) shtick, the plot, simple as it is, fits in perfectly well with all the films that had come beforehand. More than any other comedy team of the day, Lou Costello’s wisecracking and frantic superstitious paranoia, and Bud Abbott’s rational skepticism, make them the perfect foil for the unearthly and monstrous goings-on.
After nearly a century of being burned, crucified, beaten, chased, blown up, and drowned repeatedly since first being brought to life, the monster is understandably in a weakened state. Dracula, though having never met the monster prior to this film (but undoubtedly knowing him by reputation), believes a brain transplant would revitalize him. The idea had been attempted, or at least theorized, in two previous entries. He conscripts a beautiful but evil young surgeon (Lenore Aubert), who lives in a castle on a small barren island just off the coast, to find a suitable living brain as a replacement. It has to be simple and pliable to ensure Dracula will be able to control the monster after the operation. She, of course, chooses a freight handler named Wilbur (Costello) to be the donor of choice. Larry Talbot, again despite never having met or even mentioned Dracula in the past, learns the two monsters are en route to Florida and immediately books a flight in hopes of stopping them before it’s too late. Also like in previous entries Talbot has on several occasions undertaken long and arduous journeys on hunches.
Once there, he teams up with Wilbur’s friend and fellow freight handler, Chick (Abbott), to rescue Wilbur and stop the fiendish plot. In the climactic fight, Dracula attempts to turn into a bat and fly away (with some help from Woody Woodpecker animator Walter Lantz), but Talbot’s Wolf Man grabs him and they tumble into the sea. Frankenstein’s monster chases Wilbur and Chick down a pier, which they set ablaze. The monster himself tumbles into the sea as well. The film closes with Wilbur and Chick making their escape in a rowboat, only to learn they’d been joined by the Invisible Man (voiced by Vincent Price), who makes a crack about not being in the picture.
As for the film’s Universal horror pedigree, well, Bela Lugosi agreed to play Dracula for only the second (and last) time of his career. It would also be his last appearance in a major studio production. Glenn Strange, who had a long career as a movie cowboy, played Frankenstein’s monster for the third time, tying him with Boris Karloff. Karloff himself, though, while not asked to be in the picture, agreed to do publicity so long as he didn’t actually have to see it. And Lon Chaney Jr., the only actor to play Larry Talbot, was also the only actor to have played all three leading monsters (if you count his turn as Dracula’s son) at one point or another in Universal pictures.
As for the argument at hand, it’s also worth noting that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein marked the last time any of the three lead monsters would appear in a Universal film for the next 60 years, even though their demises here were hardly as decisive as they had been in previous entries.
The Invisible Man’s closing joke is actually a telling one. As mentioned, he and the Mummy had never been involved in any Universal crossovers, and though there was some talk originally about including the Mummy in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the idea was dropped simply to maintain the sanctity of the shared universe established in the previous three films. In the years that followed, though, Abbott and Costello would indeed try to capitalize on the success of Meet Frankenstein by meeting The Invisible Man, The Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even Boris Karloff himself in separate films.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is not only a logical and valid continuation of the shared universe, but a culmination of the series. It remains deeply respectful of its heritage, while at the same time taking some gentle, late-‘40s family-friendly piss out of the otherwise stuffy genre conventions. Why not simply think of it as yet another crossover film? Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man crossed between franchises, so what’s so awful or damning about crossing between genres? Not only is it a hell of a lot better than a number of the previous entries (like Son of Dracula or Ghost of Frankenstein), it’s also, at long last, the only entry in which Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man appear in the same scene.