By PATRICK McCRAY
Bela Lugosi only played Dracula twice on the screen. One of those two films is substantially more watchable, exciting, logical, suspenseful and intense. Of course, I speak of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.
His first Dracula film contains a beautiful series of visual poems and quotables. And, of course, the hypnotic Bela Lugosi. As such, it was the perfect template for Philip Glass to apply his music, decades later. (Should we be calling it DRACULAQATSI?) While that creates a haunting and unique cinematic experience, it does not necessarily make it the stuff of rip roaring entertainment. Call me impertinent, but when I go to see a movie about the greatest vampire of all time, I expect, well… rip roaring entertainment. DRACULA is a classic example of a movie where everyone talks endlessly about the titular character, but that character is actually on screen for very little time. At least, it feels that way.
After years of Marvel’s TOMB OF DRACULA, as well as decades of other, more dynamic takes, I expect a lot from the King of the Vampires. It feels like he should be the Blofeld of the Universal Monsterverse. He’s wealthy, brilliant, calculating, socially seductive, megalomaniacal, and a master strategist. But we really don’t see that in Tod Browning’s original film. As the Universal films went on, Dracula — or Dracula-like figures — became much more catalytic and interesting. Unfortunately, Bela missed out on these reindeer games.
1948’s ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN was the last of the Universal monster rallies, and it arguably surpasses the ones that came prior, madcap though they were. Best of all, though, it features Bela Lugosi’s return as the Count. At age 65, Lugosi puts in a marvelous performance, and I think we can thank a combination of life wisdom and a great script. Dracula revels in his power… as well as his charm. After years of playing the Count on stage in the identical script, show after show, Lugosi looks like he’s having a blast in this film. There are only so many choices an actor can make with the same script time and again. This movie finally allows Bela to take all of Dracula’s potential and actually do something fresh and exciting with it.
In a comedy? Absolutely, and it’s because of the mechanics of a good parody. It’s a parody of the Universal Monster mashes, yes. (That’s a tall order, since they’re almost parodies of themselves, already.) The best parodies not only lampoon their genre; they also work as strong examples of what’s being sent up. A prime example is AIRPLANE!, which may be the best spoof of all time. It’s a side-splitting film, and it also works as a disaster drama. When I watch it, I’m laughing while being invested in the fate of Ted, Elaine, and the passengers of the food-poisoned flight.
Similarly, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN works as a pulpy horror adventure. If described, the film’s plot — and many of its details — sounds like the stuff of pure, comic book excitement. Dracula seeks to replace the brain of Frankenstein’s monster with one more pliable to his will. His target becomes well aware of the threat he’s in, but is unable to find support from his skeptical friend, leaving him alone… except for the Wolfman, whose human avatar is aware of Dracula’s plan, and wants to stop it. Between them? Two women with hidden agendas and vast powers of seduction. Trapped in Dracula’s castle, the medieval meets mad science. Victims are hurled from cruel dungeons to perverse laboratories. Creatures escape and engage in savage combat, going far beyond the brief tussle meted out to us in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN. Lawrence Talbot, the tortured human cursed to be the Wolfman, finds the release of death at last — we assume. Despite the feral animal he has become, Talbot’s humanity remains. At the film’s climax, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to rid the world of Dracula once and for all.
You could make that movie. It’s a straight, horror adventure. Except that the brain donor is Lou Costello, and his skeptical friend is Bud Abbott. And they do wacky stuff. And lo, it was good.
It’s Lugosi who steals the movie. He plays it straight, delighting as a Dracula with, you know, a substantial plan beyond trying to land some babe. He’s an active part of the story, and because it’s not the ritual that is DRACULA, where we know he’s fated to be destroyed, there’s actual suspense. His enemies are flawed human beings, and not brave Van Helsings. This increases the stakes and suspense in the film. It contains a legitimate sense of, “What will happen next?”
This 1948 classic is the final time we would see the monsters together like this. Glenn Strange is a wonderfully intimidating Frankenstein’s Monster, and Lon Chaney, Jr. is just as engaging as the desperate and tragic Lawrence Talbot, Wolfman-at-large. Even Vincent Price “appears,” somewhat, as the Invisible Man. Looking at the film, we know that Lugosi’s life and career were on the cusp of total implosion. That makes his turn in the film bittersweet. The sweet, however, is magic for monster kids. Lugosi’s Dracula is an active villain who has lost none of his grace. If anything, there is a wistful and gentle joy woven into Lugosi’s performance. Did he know that this was his last turn as cinema’s Dracula? Who can say? It was only his second, and he seems determined to make the most of it.
Mr. Lugosi? You did.
PATRICK McCRAY is a comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.