I’m not a huge fan of American comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello if I’m honest – they’re rather like a second-string Laurel and Hardy born for the talkies rather than the physical comedy golden era of the silent movies – but they win a place in my heart because of their 1948 horror spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in which the inept duo meet all of Universal Studios big horror icons of the day, from Frankenstein to the Wolfman. In particular, that film is the only other time Bela Lugosi reprised his classic role as Dracula.
I’ve not previously gone on to watch any more of Abbott and Costello’s output, but I recently picked up six of their films on three discs that includes Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, the film hastily organised as a follow-up for the previous year’s … Meet Frankenstein which had been an unexpected smash hit. The script had apparently originally been intended for Bob Hope.
With the Universal horror icon component seen as key to the previous film’s striking success, the studio roped in Boris Karloff to play an appropriately eerie fake Indian swami with hypnotic powers. That allows Costello to reprise the same vacant-minded japery he’d enjoyed with Lugosi’s mesmerism in the earlier film.
Karloff is great of course, but also rather irrelevant for the most part despite his presence in the title. And – spoiler warning – it’s worth noting that despite the title, Karloff’s character is not in fact the killer of prominent criminal attorney Amos Strickland who ends up dead within minutes of the film’s opening, leaving Costello’s bellboy Freddie the prime suspect. In fact the hotel setting is packed by an almost Murder On The Orient Express-level of under-developed suspects, not that the solution or whodunnit is remotely important. The script throws in an unmasking scene at the end almost by habit, although the culprit is not guessable – unless you have a good working knowledge of the villains of the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes B-movies also produced by Universal, in which case you’ll spot him a mile off.
The film is no great work of art, and Abbott and Costello give pretty much an identical performance to every other film in which they appear – no matter what characters they are assigned, they always play them the same way, with most of the same jokes too. (Genuinely, their recycling of material and resistance to trying anything new ultimately led to the end of their screen career in the 1950s.) And yet despite the low ambitions of both the stars and the production, this film still emerges as a thoroughly enjoyable piece of flimsy.
The main part of the film is an extended French farce involving an escalating number of dead bodies and increasingly desperate and absurd attempts by the duo to discard them, including one delightfully macabre moment of a game of cards with a number of dead men’s hands which got the film banned in Denmark at the time. Just when you think they must surely have milked the scenario for everything they could, the film changes tack and finds a new line to play so that it hits 82 minutes without feeling like it’s overstaying its welcome as the writers are consistently inventive enough to keep this rolling along happily. It’s helped by some excellent production values, especially the scenes in the “Lost Cavern” which obviously borrow sets from other Universal productions to give a quite superb large-scale atmospheric knock-out climax.
It’s no masterpiece, but it is an unexpectedly large amount of fun all the same. It’s certainly made me open to the idea of watching more of their output, at least those set around spoofing other genre productions of the era of which there are quite a few – … Meet the Invisible Man, … Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (also with Karloff) and … Meet the Mummy, as well as their sci-fi opus … Go to Mars.