It's a Universal horror movie! It's a comedy, yes, but it's also a proper Universal horror movie and as scary as most of them. (Admittedly this isn't saying much.) The secret is that it's not a spoof. We've almost forgotten these days what it's like for a comedy to take its subject seriously, but Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein gets its laughs by dumping the comedy duo into a regular horror film and then seeing what happens.
Check out that line-up. The Wolfman is of course Lon Chaney Jr, but what's more Dracula is Bela Lugosi! This was the only time Lugosi ever reprised his signature role. The studio didn't consider him initially because they thought he was dead! Meanwhile Glenn Strange is back as Frankenstein's monster, although Boris Karloff was approached. Wow, oh wow. Imagine if he'd accepted. The three original legends, together on celluloid. In fact Chaney played two monsters here, standing in as Frankenstein's monster for one scene when Strange broke his ankle. Both Chaney and Lugosi had already done the triple of playing a werewolf, Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, but Chaney remains the only man to have done all those and the Mummy too.
The only shadow on all this nostalgia is the knowledge that Bela Lugosi was a sick man with a painkiller addiction and a dwindling career. This would be his last A-movie. However you'd never know any of that from watching the film itself and he more than delivers the goods. Hats off to the guy.
However the real stars are Abbott and Costello. I'd never seen any of their films before and I didn't have any real expectations, but they're rather good, actually. Bud Abbott is the straight man and not very good at delivering gags. Maybe it's his perpetually annoyed persona. I don't know. Meanwhile Lou Costello is the fat funny one, thus obeying the first law of comedy. "The Fat One Gets The Jokes." (I know, I know. Laurel & Hardy. I'm making sweeping generalisations here.) They kept me laughing and I'm thinking of buying more of their films. "Go look at yourself in the mirror." "Why should I hurt my own feelings?"
The big question of course is how successfully the film blends horror and comedy. Many have tried and failed over the years. The answer is "surprisingly well". This film is blatantly a star vehicle and never pretends otherwise, but it also plays its situations for real. We even have doomy horror music! Obviously light comedy can't really have a body count, but that doesn't mean there aren't victims. It's just that we don't see corpses. Dracula's victims will get up and walk again, while it's not impossible to survive an attack from the Wolfman. Instead of putting the comedy and horror in conflict with each other, this film builds the latter on the former. Abbott and Costello are in mortal danger from these icons of horror and it's their reactions that really fuel the film.
The monsters themselves are handled respectfully too. Lon Chaney Jr plays it absolutely straight, while Glenn Strange is absolutely by the book. He talks, mind you. Not much, but even that was enough to startle me. "Yes, Master." What? These were Strange's first lines ever as the Monster and the first time he had spoken since The Ghost of Frankenstein in 1942.
The most interesting one is Dracula. He's more of a suave gentleman than when Lugosi last played him, but still basically the same blood-drinking nasty. He has plans for the Monster that require brain surgery and a certain amount of social interaction with his food. Occasionally he's even funny, in a charmingly malevolent way. He doesn't get much biting this time, but he's turning into bats and hypnotising folks all over the place. His bat transformations are obviously hand-drawn animation, incidentally, and look like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I suppose that answers my question about how they did the morphing in House of Dracula, then. Oh, and there's an early line about this being "the original Count Dracula", as a tip of the hat to this being Bela Lugosi rather than any of his successors. Hmmm. Interesting. Does that mean that even the characters within the fiction are aware that Dracula has been lots of different people? If nothing else, it's supporting evidence in favour of the theory that Lon Chaney Jr and John Carradine really were Son of Dracula and Random Relative of Dracula respectively after all, rather than actually being the man himself.
Even the guest cast are treating this like a straight horror film rather than a comedy. The girls are fine, while there's a little-known actor called Charles Bradstreet as one Dr Stevens who astonished me. He only did a handful of films before giving up acting and going off to work in real estate, but he's remarkably sinister in a role that in theory should have been a completely anonymous bit part. He's not always so great at line delivery, but boy does he have screen presence.
I really liked this film. It's a lot of fun and I have no qualms whatsoever in coming down on the side of, "Yes, it does count as a legitimate Universal horror sequel." Abbott & Costello are hogging the screen for most of its running time, yes, but that's okay. They made me laugh. Job done. Meanwhile as a horror film it has one or two nice touches, such as the deliciously nasty idea of not bothering to kill your chosen brain donor before strapping him to the operating table. Hell, he's not even unconscious! It all ends with a monster mash as everything goes on the rampage, then has time for one last cool punchline. I'm really enjoying these old classics...