While they might seem like opposites, horror and comedy films have a long lineage of being intertwined. In many ways they provide the same sort of thrill, just delivered in a different package. Going back to the silent era horror comedies have always been a favorite among movie fans. This week in From the Vault, we take a look at some of the greatest classic horror comedies.
The Cat and the Canary
Cast: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard
Running Time: 72 Minutes
This was a remake of the 1927 silent film of the same name that virtually invented the 'old dark house' genre. Ten years after his death, the relatives of Cyrus Norman gather at his estate in the Louisiana Bayou for the reading of his well. These include Hope as Wally Campbell and his frequent co-star Paulette Goddard as Joyce Norman. The will stipulates that if the heir goes insane or dies in the first thirty days, the estate goes to the next person, whose name remains a mystery, setting up the perfect scenario for murder. Rounding out the cast is veteran horror film star George Zucco as Norman 's lawyer named “Crosby” and Gale Sondergaard as the sinister housekeeper.
This is Hope's first truly great film. He is at his best with the wisecracks and protecting Joyce (in his cowardly way) when she is named the heir. The film works equally well as both a comedy and horror. The old estate is filled with spook-house trappings like painting with the eyes cut out, secret panels, sliding bookcases, etc...It's also a well done mystery as you try to figure out who is trying to kill Joyce.
You’ll Find Out
RKO Pictures 1940
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Kay Kyser
Running Time: 97 Minutes
You’ll Find Out earns props as one of the least known and most underrated horror comedies. It’s pretty hard to find on home video but it does pop up on Turner Classic Movies from time to time. Mix three horror legends, Karloff, Lugosi, and Lorre (in the only film that all three would be teamed together), and then toss in 40's band leader Kay Kyser and you get...one really goofy movie.
It's a rather cheesy and goofy comedy horror romp, similiar to Bob Hope horror/comedy fare of the 1940's, mixed though with Kysers swinging big band. It is kind of an old dark house thriller with swing music, a thunderstorm, secret passageways, comedy, mystery, attempts at murder, a butler (who, oddly enough, is never a suspect), creepy characters, etc.
Karloff plays a family friend who is secretly plotting to steal the family fortune. To this end he has allied himself with a bogus medium, Bela Lugosi as Price Saliano, and a fradulent paranormal investigator, Peter Lorre as Professor Fenniger. Together they try to pull a fast one on the Belacrest family. Peter Lorre steals the show with his quiet understated manner. All three are excellent, however, and makes you wish there were more of the three together. Near legendary status for the teaming of these three great horror stars.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is perhaps the seminal classic horror comedy of all-time. Take the most popular comedy team of the era, and pair them with Universal’s top monsters and you end up with a sure-fire hit. The film is important for several reasons. First, it would become the swan song for Universal’s top monsters, The Wolfman, Dracula, and the Frankenstein’s Monster. After several early monsters jams like House of Dracula and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, this would be the final grouping of the trio. It was also Bela Lugosi’s return to playing Dracula, the role that made him famous in the 1931 film.
Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello) are working as baggage handlers at a train station when Lawrence Talbot (Chaney, Jr.) calls to try and warn them about the crates that contain the bodies of the monster and Dracula. But Talbot transforms into the Wolfman before he can complete his call. Chick and Wilbur deliver the crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors where the owner thinks he is getting just a couple of props and not the real monsters. Dracula rises and re-animates the monster, leaving nothing but empty crates and Chick and Wilbur accused of stealing the bodies.
They are bailed out of jail by a beautiful insurance agent who pretends to fall in love with Wilbur in hopes that he will lead them to the missing monsters. Meanwhile, Dracula has enlisted the aid of Doctor Sandra Morna (who just happens to own her own castle) to replace the monster’s aggressive brain with one more sedate…namely Wilbur’s! Talbot arrive on the scene intent on destroying both Dracula and the Monster leading to the climactic battle between the three monsters and a cameo by the Invisible Man just as the credits roll.
Abbott and Costello tops the pack in the horror comedy class because it was not only hysterically funny, but also an effective horror film as well. Poor Wilbur can barely contain his horror as he’s strapped to a cart as the monster breaks free. While Chaney Jr., and Lugosi both had their turns playing the Frankenstein Monster, here they get to return to the roles for which they were best known as Glenn Strange steps into the large boots of the monster for the third time. The film was so popular that Abbott & Costello would later meet The Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), The Invisible Man (1951), Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and The Mummy (1955).
Monogram Pictures (1946)
Cast: The Bowery Boys
Running Time: 68 Minutes
The Bowery Boys/East Side Kids were no strangers to making horror comedies. The team had made two previous films Spooks Run Wild (1941) and Ghosts on the Loose (1943), both of which co-starred horror icon Bela Lugosi. Despite the fact that those two films could boast the presence of Lugosi, the Boys best horror comedy is Spookbusters from 1946.
The boys have opened up their own extermination business and are hired to clear the ghosts out of a creepy old mansion. As they explore the mansion all sorts of weird things begin happening like lights flickering, unexplained sounds, revolving walls, etc…The boys think the mansion might really be haunted. Instead, the house is actually home to your typical mad scientist. When Sach stumbles into the mad doctor’s lab by accident, the doctor decides to use him in his experiment. He intends to remove Sach’s brain and transplant it into a gorilla.
I have no idea why in 30s and 40s Hollywood that there were always mad scientists wanting to stick human brains into gorillas but it’s a frequently used plot device. But Spookbusters is a fun movie with some great slapstick comedy and wise guy one-liners as the Bowery Boys have to contend with the mad doctor and his henchmen.
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