Friday, 24 June 2016

Ghoul assembly: Part One - Comedy of Horrors

The winter months are drawing in - it’s time to light the fire and spend some quality time with old fiends.

I wish there was time to watch more films.  In these days of wi-fi and remote connections, work can now seep into every aspect of our lives - I know it’s my own fault, but my commute went from leisure time to work some time ago.
In the weekends we’re not madly social but 15 years of living rurally has also taught us that you have to work at it - a large property needs to be constantly maintained, but we wouldn’t still be here if we didn’t enjoy it.

But now the days are shorter, nights longer and weather less clement - all opportunities for catching up on more films.  As another summer of superheroes fades into history - marked by one unqualified triumph, one middling entry in a venerable series, and one insulting disaster - the darker months make me want to cosy up with some monsters.

I’m a Hammer guy and always will be, but it’s high time I looked further back,  to the source of some of Hammer’s early inspiration, and heyday of figures who will lurk forever in the pantheon of screen Horror’s greatest - Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney.

Having said this, I love the actors and their work, but starting with the original Universal Dracula and Frankenstein does feel a little like a chore at this stage.  The lead actors are magnificent, but those productions somewhat less so.  I feel I might appreciate them better after I’ve seen some subsequent entries in the original horror cycle.

So I decided to start at the very end, with a film which should have been a final indignity for these classic creatures, but instead impossibly manages to be both amusing, and a fitting send-off for each character: Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948).

It’s long lamented that Universal used and then abused their classic monsters.  Received wisdom states that when box office takings began to level out, they first corralled them together in low budget team-ups, and then finally threw their misshapen children to Bud Abbot and Lou Costello as victims of ridicule.

But for this film at least, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man inexplicably emerge with dignity definitely intact, while fans of Abbot and Costello are still given plenty of what they enjoy. It’s a fusion of comedy and horror which actually works.

I am biased, but I believe this is down to excellent performances from our monsters.  Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jnr were very much fighting personal demons of their own at this time.  Lugosi, criminally mistreated by the studio, was battling a drug addition which he eventually overcame. And Chaney had his own battle with the bottle, physically ageing considerably since his last performance.

I feel certain Chaney wasn't really wearing a green 'onesy',
despite what the lobby card colourist thought.
His haunted demeanour works perfectly for the tormented Larry Talbot, a good man wracked with guilt over the carnage his unwilling transformations bring.  In my opinion he informs every interpretation of Marvel’s Bruce Banner which has followed.

Some of the film's funnier moments feature Lou Costello's
 inept impersonation of Lugosi's signature gesture.
Lugosi, meanwhile, is now into his sixties but gives a performance of immense dignity and urbanity - with a charm which makes his nefarious character irresistibly likeable.  It is only his second and final performance as the vampire count, but he amply demonstrates why even 80 years later he is still the definitive Dracula to many.

Rounding out the menagerie, Glenn Strange may be no Karloff, but he impressively carries the mantle of a character who had gained enough popularity to be the subject of this film’s title.

Frankenstein crated a monster?
The plot is perfunctory and your mileage will vary depending upon how much you enjoy slapstick, but somehow Abbot and Costello director Charles Barton manages to deliver a film which visually stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Universal horrors classics.

In that studio’s first monster team-up, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man,  Chaney’s lycanthrope faced off against Lugosi as the Frankenstein monster.  In Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein  he throws down with Lugosi once more, as the film’s final act sees a prolonged confrontation between vampire and werewolf.  They literally fall in and out of scenes, the retreating Count employing a wooden chair and potted plants as projectiles, while our two human stars are left to evade the unstoppable, scenery-smashing Monster.  This might be comedy, but no-one could complain about a lack of creature action.

Horror films often showcase a spectacular demise for their creatures and the climax of this battle is no exception. Such memorable ‘death-scene’s are fortunate as it really is their end - these actors would never portray their famous characters again in a Universal film, and nor would anyone else for many decades.

I was left feeling a little flat by Universal’s House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein team-up films, ’serious’ productions which I will need to revisit as part of this ‘Ghoul assembly’ series because I remember very little of them.  But this silly film works ways these two didn’t in bringing these iconic monsters together.

Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz produced the wonderful animated film titles.
In fact, it has inspired me to revisit more of the memorable monster team-ups, most, but not all, from Universal.

Next is going to be a film from the 1980s which parallels this one in many ways, comedic but made with a palpable love for these characters.  It features a whole squad of monsters…

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