CMBA’s Laughter is the Best Medicine blogathon: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

The wonderful silliness of the ‘Abbott and Costello Meet…’ series of films is an absolute joy to behold! And because this is still Horror Month, I thought I would combine the two, comedy and horror, for the second Classic Movie Blog Association blogathon of 2021, Laughter is the Best Medicine, and talk about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, dir. Charles Barton)!

The plot is very simple: at a railway station, baggage clerks Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello) receive a call from Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) about a shipment for something called McDougal’s House of Horrors. Talbot then turns into the Wolf Man, obviously, and Wilbur thinks the whole thing is joke. But when McDougal asks for the shipment to be personally delivered to his wax museum, Chick and Wilbur come across a horror movie scenario, involving Dracula (Bela Lugosi), Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and a whoooole lot of misunderstandings.

Filled with hilarious one-liners, slapstick moments and a heavy dose of dramatic irony, this was the first in a series of movies in which the beloved comedy duo meet several of the Universal monsters and boy, did it start something great! Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a hodgepodge of pop culture references, increasingly absurd situations and familiar horror and comedy tropes which, amazingly, work incredibly well together. Weirdly, Costello supposedly didn’t like the script at all, saying his child could have written something better, but later changed his mind when director Charles Barton was added to the project. Boris Karloff, on the other hand, refused to play the Monster again, but agreed to promote the film instead, which was nice of him. Luckily, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr were on board! It’s actually amazing that this whole thing even happened in the first place. A genius idea, I have to say. Click on the link above for more Laughter is the Best Medicine entries!

WORLD CINEMA: I Vampiri (1957)

Not going to lie, picking a horror film for the WORLD CINEMA series wasn’t easy. There are too many great ones that I have already talked about, like Les Diaboliques (1955) or Nosferatu (1922), obvious classics that other bloggers, YouTubers and podcasters have already reviewed countless times, or I just couldn’t make up my mind regarding the remaining ones. Ultimately, I went with Italy’s first horror picture of the sound era, I Vampiri (1957, dir. Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava).

Set in Paris, despite being an Italian film, I Vampiri starts off quite abruptly, as the body of a young woman is found floating in the river. In the next scene, the coroner explains that she has been drained of all her blood, like the previous victims. We are dealing with a serial killer that the Parisian press has nicknamed ‘the Vampire’, one that journalist Pierre Lantin (Dario Michaelis) is obsessed with, despite being told repeatedly to drop the case. It is Lantin himself who guides us through I Vampiri, the most reliable character in this beautiful mess of a film.

It is probably safe to say that I Vampiri’s place in film history is more significant than its actual effectiveness as a horror film. That despite its sellable plot with an admittedly good twist, it is too busy being too many things at once for any of them to be explored thoroughly. It goes from Horror, to Gothic, to police procedural, to romantic drama involving Lantin and the alluring Gisele du Grand (Gianna Maria Canale), to family drama, back to horror, while trying to keep its elements in place. The behind-the-scenes antics, with then-cinematographer Mario Bava stepping in to complete the film after Freda realized he couldn’t make it in just a few days like he said he would, may have contributed to its shambolic nature, but this also may have been a case of ‘going all out’ knowing what was at stake – Italy had yet to produce a big horror sound picture.

Yet, despite its lack of sense of direction at times, it somehow manages to pull itself together in the end and, all in all, I Vampiri is a perfectly enjoyable film, with a good, if misused, plot, gorgeous cinematography and striking special effects – the climactic moments are rather fascinating to watch. An interesting study on what was to come, particularly with Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) as well the entire Italian horror genre, and a good one at that.

The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton’s horrifying masterpiece

Can you believe it’s October already? I certainly can’t. But you know what that means. Horror Month is here! And we kick off this year’s celebrations with Robert Mitchum’s terrifying turn as the Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955, dir. Charles Laughton). But before we go any further, I must confess something: I cannot stand Shelley Winters. There I said it. Been sitting on that for 15 years. Some actors grow on me, some don’t. She never has. And yes, I’ll acknowledge that she has her moments – you don’t win two Best Supporting Actress Oscars if you don’t – but she just doesn’t do it for me and I can’t quite figure out why. So I’ll refrain from going too deep into her contribution to this film, which, again, I acknowledge is good and needed, and instead I’ll focus on the man of the hour.

Robert Mitchum plays the utterly wicked Harry Powell, a preacher who preys on women, marries them, then kills them. And when he finds out that Ben Harper (Peter Graves), the man he’s sharing a prison cell with, has hidden money somewhere in West Virginia, his wife, Willa Harper (Winters), becomes his next victim. After Ben’s execution and Powell’s release, he goes after Wilma and her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce)…

Based on the Davis Grubb novel of the same name, and adapted by James Agee, Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort is a truly frightening tale from start to finish. From Walter Schumann’s eerie, ominous music, cut off by Lillian Gish’s lovely voice in the opening narration, to her ‘duet’ with Powell in the name of good and evil, the film explores contrasts stunningly. The LOVE-HATE thing is now, of course, iconic and endlessly re-created, but its irony still stands and makes its point beautifully, even if we’ve seen it a million times. Laughton’s and cinematographer Stanley Cortez’s blunt use of horror tropes – the lighting, the shadows, good vs evil – is also effective and makes for one incredibly visually striking film, almost like something you’d see in a True Crime documentary these days (Willa at the bottom of the river, anyone?). And Harry Powell… I mean, has Mitchum ever been this… uncool? Actually, I take that back. Even as one of cinema’s most terrifying characters, he still manages to be cool (ish). Because of course he does. Not to mention that Powell’s evil ways can only come to fruition because of his enormous charm. Powell is clearly a narcissist, on top of being a psychopathic serial killer. But he’s not cool-cool, Robert Mitchum-cool that is, and that’s why his performance is so great. And if he can pop into the Horror celebrations for once, instead of next month’s Noir festivities, then that shows you how versatile he really was. And yes, some have claimed that The Night of the Hunter has noir elements here and there, and obviously it does, but out of the two, it is a lot more horrifying than anything else. And it stays right here. Happy Horror Month, everyone!