Horror and comedy have played together on the silver screen since the early talkies, but it took 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to exploit the true mash-up potential. With Young Frankenstein, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and An American Werewolf in London, the genre laughed all the way to the graveyard, paving the way for director Tim Burton’s run of comedy-horror exemplars. Let’s take a ghoulish look at horror films with a funny bone.
In the 1930s Universal Pictures made its name producing horror classics Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man. A decade later comedy was king, with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello serving up one box office smash after another. Universal executives came up with the brilliant idea of introducing its current cash cows to some of its stars from the past. In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the goofy twosome plays Florida freight handlers in charge of transporting the remains of Dracula (played by the one and only Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) to McDougal’s House of Horrors. A series of hilarious adventures leads the cast—including another famous Universal fiend, the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.)—to an island hideaway where the monsters are defeated. Abbott and Costello drift away in a rowboat feeling heroic.
But wait! There’s one more comic jolt: A cigarette appears in the air just behind Abbott—who, of course, is doing all the rowing—and the disembodied voice of future horror film icon Vincent Price has the last word: “I was hoping to get in on the excitement. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m the Invisible Man.” The boys promptly leap overboard.
Long, lean and effete, Vincent Price became forever linked with horror films after his turn as the vengeance-seeking sculptor in House of Wax (1953). Schlock director Roger Corman restarted Price’s career in the 1960s with a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations—including House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven. Price, playing villains too lovable to hate, caught the eye of a young horror fanatic named Tim Burton. Price’s mellifluous voice and cultured demeanor set him apart from his film contemporaries, and his embodiment of the outsider aesthete came to define Burton’s own cinematic characters. While working as an animator at Walt Disney Productions, Burton paid homage to his hero with “Vincent” (1982), a well-received short film, narrated by Price himself, about a young boy who “wants to be just like Vincent Price.” Two years later, Burton cast Price as Mr. Rzykruski, a character in his black-and-white undead-dog romp, “Frankenweenie,” the short that ended Burton’s tenure at Disney and launched his career as a feature films director. In 1990 Burton directed his muse in what would be Price’s final film performance: a mad scientist bringing his creation to life in Edward Scissorhands.
Walt Disney Productions was so impressed with “Vincent,” Tim Burton’s first short, it gave the 25-year-old director $1 million to create “Frankenweenie” in 1984. But the studio thought Burton’s reimagining of the Frankenstein story too scary for children. Burton and Disney parted ways, and the movie was shelved. A generation later, Disney released a new, feature-length version of Frankenweenie.
Like Young Frankenstein, Frankenweenie parodies and pays tribute to James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. Mel Brooks and Burton borrowed heavily from the Universal classic, right down to the electric neck bolts and angry, torch-bearing villagers. But neither director is slavish. In Young Frankenstein, Brooks goes straight for the slapstick, from the hunchback Igor’s migrating hump to the tap-dancing monster. In Frankenweenie, Burton and his cowriter, Leonard Ripps, explore their own heartfelt response to the question, What if we brought the dead back to life? About Frankenweenie Burton has said, “What’s more pure than the story of a kid and his first pet? Mix that with the Frankenstein myth and it causes problems.” Both Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein and young Victor Frankenstein in Frankenweenie share the same problem: What do you do after shouting, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” amidst flashes of lightning?
While on the set of the 1974 comic Western Blazing Saddles, Gene Wilder had an idea for a new Frankenstein movie. But director Mel Brooks was discouraging: “We’ve had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law—we don’t need another Frankenstein.” Wilder proposed a more comic approach: “What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever? He was ashamed of those wackos.” Brooks replied, “That’s funny.” The result was Young Frankenstein, in which, among other shenanigans, the monster proves he’s a man by doing a tap dance to Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
In Brooks’s film, Igor (“It’s pronounced EYE-gor!”) goes to retrieve the brain of a noted genius but returns instead with an abnormal brain (which he says comes from “Abby Normal”). Perhaps Brooks was inspired by another send-up of James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein: In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein the search for a brain turns poor Costello into an unwitting donor. With Costello’s brain, Dracula is assured, the monster will be “so simple, so pliable, it will obey you like a trained dog.” Spoofs or no, Frankenstein movies demonstrate that a good man’s brain is hard to find.
Actor Boris Karloff, the original Frankenstein monster, declined to appear in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But 66-year-old Bela Lugosi was ready and willing to spoof his signature role of Count Dracula opposite the comic duo. Although Lugosi is practically synonymous with Dracula, his role in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was only his second cinematic appearance in the iconic cape. It was also his last. Born in 1882 near the western border of Transylvania, Lugosi came to Hollywood after bringing Count Dracula to Broadway. With his opening line in the 1931 film, “I am Dra-cula. . . . I bid you welcome,” he became a star. According to Universal Studios, after the release of Dracula women sent more fan mail to Lugosi than to Clark Gable. Still, Lugosi never became the leading man he wanted to be, his thick Hungarian accent typecasting him as a villain. “It’s a living, but it’s also a curse,” Lugosi acknowledged. “It’s Dracula’s curse.” Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was Lugosi’s last major Hollywood film role. At least he got to trade screen time with another horror legend, Lon Chaney Jr., reprising his role as Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. the Wolf Man.
As Count Dracula in the iconic 1931 film, Bela Lugosi says, “To die, to be really dead—that must be glorious.” Lugosi died in 1956 and, at his request, was buried in his Dracula cape. At the funeral home while viewing Lugosi’s body, actor Peter Lorre turned to Vincent Price and whispered, “Should we drive a stake through his chest just in case?” Lugosi was plagued by back pain and took opiates to keep working. At 72 he entered a state hospital for his morphine addiction. Today a stint in rehab can be a shrewd career move, but Lugosi became a pariah in Hollywood and could find work only in such low-budget clunkers as Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). Tim Burton depicts the story of Lugosi’s final years in his critically acclaimed film Ed Wood (1994), for which Martin Landau, playing Lugosi, won an Oscar for best supporting actor. (An Oscar was a validation Lugosi desperately craved but never received.) Burton later cast Landau in Frankenweenie as the voice of Mr. Rzykruski, a mentor (played by Price in Burton’s original short) to the young boy determined to bring his dog Spot back to life.
At its peak, Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982)—the best-selling album of all time—sold 1 million copies a week. But by the summer of 1983, sales had slowed. Frank Dileo, head of promotions for Epic Records, suggested releasing a third video, based on the album’s title track. Dileo told Jackson, “It’s simple—all you’ve got to do is dance, sing and make it scary.”
Upping the scary quotient is Vincent Price’s rap, which, in the nearly 14-minute video, enters like a classic horror voice-over: “Darkness falls across the land, / The midnight hour is close at hand. / Creatures crawl in search of blood / To terrorize y’all’s neighborhood.” When “Thriller” premiered on MTV on December 2, 1983, it was a sensation. Released on VHS as a stand-alone film, “Thriller” sold more than 9 million copies and is far and away the most successful video of all time. And the epic music video introduced Price to a new audience. Shortly after its release, Price told talk-show host Johnny Carson about being chased down the block in Paris by a group of teenagers. Today just as many people remember Vincent Price for his rap on “Thriller” as for his wry acting.
In An American Werewolf in London, Jack and David, two American college students backpacking in England, ignore the warnings of the locals at the Slaughtered Lamb pub and find themselves face-to-face with a werewolf. Jack is killed and David severely wounded. While recovering, David is visited by Jack’s undead corpse, who tells him he’ll become a werewolf at the next full moon. David’s transformation into a wolf, shown as if in real time with very few cuts, is one of horror’s signal scenes. While David’s murderous werewolf rampage through Piccadilly Circus provides the horror, Jack’s appearances as a snarky corpse rotting before our eyes provide the comedy. “I will not be threatened by a walking meat loaf,” says David to his decomposing friend.
An American Werewolf in London and “Thriller” feature the same disclaimer: “Any resemblance to any persons living, dead or undead is coincidental.” Rick Baker’s makeup for An American Werewolf in London won him an Oscar and impressed the singer Michael Jackson. Raising the stakes, Jackson hired Baker and director John Landis to transform him into a werewolf and a zombie for “Thriller.” As Michael says to his girlfriend (played by Ola Ray), “I’m not like other guys.”