30 October 2006

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

An entry for the Vampire Blog-a-Thon


starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney, and Bela Lugosi
written by: Robert Lees & Frederic I. Rinaldo & John Grant, based on characters by Mary Shelley & Bram Stoker
directed by: Charles T. Barton
NR, 83 min, 1948, USA

There's a truism in film that given the opportunity, a Hollywood studio will revisit a franchise until they've wrung every ounce of blood from it, until the franchise itself has become such a parody of itself that people forget why it was so successful in the first place. In television, they call it "jumping the shark"[1]. Rocky V (1990) is a good example[2], but the film that is perhaps cited the most is the epic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where not only does Universal insert two comedians into the Frankenstein legacy, but combines it with Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Invisible Man. A Monster Mash, if you will. Of course, this was not the first time the studio had tweaked the Frankenstein storyline, as we'd previously been given Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, where...uh...Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein (1944), where the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man are all revived for the purpose of revenge, and House of Dracula, a reciprocal home game for Dracula. Later, they gave us Van Helsing (2004), where I spent 132 minutes wondering if being un-dead might make things somewhat enjoyable. But, in 1948, seeing as Universal had run out of monsters, they opted to turn the proceedings into a comedy. It sounds like a terrible idea because, well, it is a terrible idea, the sort of thing that only a Hollywood studio could come up with after a heavy round of drinking.[3]

But here's the part that makes you question the existence of karma: it worked. Instead of being a complete trainwreck, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a hit. And not a medium-sized, go figure hit, but Universal's second-highest grossing film of the year. Not only that, but Universal then did the unthinkable--they ended the series on a high note. So it goes.

Enough history. What about the film? How exactly do Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein?

Here's the thing...they don't. As any astute fan will tell you, the green guy with the bolts in his neck is not Frankenstein, but Frankenstein's Monster. Frankenstein himself--that mad doctor with the hunchbacked assistant--is long dead. We have his writings that conveniently detail his experiments, but the man is no longer with us, and therefore unable to meet that most famous of comedy teams.

Anyway, here's the plot: our heroes work as some type of baggage handlers. While on the job, Costello receives a call from London where Larry Talbot, a.k.a. the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney), asks him not, under any circumstances, to deliver any packages to a local house of horrors. But the owner (Frank Ferguson) insists, so with nary a thought to the warning, they deliver the packages. Lo and behold, they contain Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein's Monster (Glenn Strange), a fact that Abbott refuses to believe, despite Costello's insistence. Later, the Wolf Man arrives to stop Dracula from his dastardly plan of reviving the Monster by using Costello's brain. And, well, that's pretty much it. Throw in some subplots about Costello's girlfriend being a doctor in cahoots with Dracula and Abbott being accused to trying to hurt the owner of the house of horrors, and you've got enough of a plot to justify the rest of the proceedings.

Because those proceedings--the scenes where Abbott and Costello flex their comedic muscles--are easily the best parts of the film. And, some might argue, are among the best in their hallowed career. Take the scene where Costello discovers that Dracula is alive. With Abbott out of the room, he begins to read the legend of Dracula. This triggers Dracula's slow, creaking emergence from his coffin. Costello gets scared and calls for Abbott, and Dracula ducks back into the coffin. Naturally, Abbott doesn't believe him.

Abbott: I know there's no such person as Dracula. You know there's no such person as Dracula!
Costello: But does Dracula know it?
Costello: You know that person you said there's no such person? I think he's in there... in person. I was reading this sign, Dracula's Legend. All of a sudden I heard...
Costello imitates a creaking noise
Abbott: That's the wind.
Costello: It should get oiled.

The film's grand irony is that Dracula and his accomplice, Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lénore Aubert) have hand-picked Lou Costello as the brain for their planned transplant. It's not as if they choose the one conveniently at hand. No, she has befriended Costello well in advance of Dracula's arrival for the sole purpose of using his brain. Of all the men she could have used, for some reason she opts for Costello. The audience realizes that his is not exactly the the sort of intellect that changes the world or, as he puts it, "I've had this brain for thirty years. It hasn't done me any good!" Of course, as well all know, a thinking Monster is a potentially dangerous one, so a superior intellect may not be the best fit. Come to think of it, Dr. Mornay is probably counting on it.

Effectively, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is two films jammed into one. There's the plot-heavy film that's an extension of the previous Frankenstein films and the parallel Abbott and Costello comedy that just happens to be occurring on the same sound stage. In reality, they have little to do with each other, save for some forced machinations added to justify the mash-up, but the strange thing is they work together. Most of the Frankenstein films, save for Bride of Frankenstein (1935)[4], tend to be stretched rather thin, as do some of the Abbott and Costello films. So, to combine them into one film is to ensure neither half of the equation is forced to carry more of the film than it can handle. Who cares that there doesn't seem to be any reason for them to be in the same film? They compliment each other well, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters.

[1] A reference to the Happy Days episode where the Fonz--leather jacket and all--does, in fact, jump over a shark.

[2] It's probably safe to assume the upcoming Rocky Balboa (2006) will fit in this category as well.

[3] Like Kazaam (1996).

[4] Which just happens to be in the 100 films series. Here's my less-than-stellar entry.

26 October 2006

25 October 2006

The Death of Bullwinkle

There’s a review of Marie Antoinette coming. Perhaps even today. But, until then, a summary of the moose hunting trip:

I’d never flown with my camera before, and after much research discovered that Northwest’s policy is to check it. So, I loaded it into the case that could survive a nuclear attack and took it to the airport. They directed me toward the TSA’s oversized luggage area in the Pittsburgh airport, where the guy looked it over (but not nearly enough for my comfort. Let’s just say there could have easily have been something illegal inside that he wouldn’t have caught. There wasn’t, but he wouldn’t have caught it if there was) and let me lock it. I wandered over to security wondering if I’d ever see my camera again.

But, while sitting at the gate, something occurred to me. With security at airports being what it is, it’ll be awfully hard for a baggage handler to just wander off with the case and the lock is such that the type of things needed to destroy it aren’t allowed anywhere near luggage to begin with. This made me feel a lot better.

I got to the Portland airport just fine (after a quick change in Detroit–perhaps my favorite airport) and sure enough my camera was there as well. My mother and my brother’s fiancé picked me up, and we headed north.

Wednesday: I’d ordered some tapes from Amazon and had them shipped directly to my parent’s house, but they had yet to arrive, so until I had something to record on, I drove around Camden looking for a place that could rent me a shotgun mic for the week. I couldn’t find one, but they directed me to a couple of places in Portland.

Thursday: Went to Portland (like an hour and a half away). First place had all theirs out on loan, second place rented for nearly $300 a week, third was around $60 for a week. Naturally, the $300 one is going to be significantly better, but since I wasn’t going to be using a boom or anything, I decided to go with the $60 one, since I likely wouldn’t have been able to utilize much of the difference in quality. That night I helped my brother run his basketball practice (he coaches our alma-matter).

The plan for the film involves getting interviews from the key people to try and create a sense of the context in which the hunt will exist. I’d mentioned this, but unfortunately I couldn’t find the time to do it before the hunt. So...

Friday: saw The Illusionist. Quite good. Edward Norton is a fantastic actor.

Saturday: Still no tapes. This is a problem. They should have arrived days ago. So, I drive to Augusta and spend $70 at Circuit City for fewer tapes than I bought online for $30. This is the problem with midcoast Maine. If you desperately need electronics, your options are limited. I remember now why I never shop at Circuit City. Now that I have tapes, I meet up with the rest of the family and we head to Bath for my cousin Blaine’s wedding. Blaine is going on a moose hunt Sunday, and I had originally planned to film parts of the wedding, but he’s going on a different hunt, and with a crew of one, I decide the logistics of the whole thing just isn’t worth it. Too many releases to have signed, etc., for something I probably won’t be able to use. Had he gone on our moose hunt, well that’s a different story.

The ceremony was quick–5 minutes total–but the key moment came when the minister asked if anyone objects and on cue the dog (who was the ringbearer) starts howling. I have actors who don’t have timing that good.

Sunday: Up at 4:30. Drive 3 hours north to the vast woods of Northern Maine. Once there we drive around on logging trails “scouting”, which basically means we look for either moose, or signs that moose have been there recently. There are a surprising number of people doing the same thing. Some have found spots and are camping out in the woods.

We then go to my relative Leslie’s camp (near our hunting camp) where Edwin (who is related to me somehow) has been living since his wife kicked him out. He’s installed solar panels and a satellite dish. We watch the Patriots game and he mentions that he’s seen a number of moose in the immediate area. So, we scout that area and find a spot. Unfortunately, with the Patriots game playing in the background, I don’t film this exchange, as there are more rights issues there then I care to deal with. By the time we get back to the camp I’m exhausted. I fall asleep at 8:30.

Monday: First day of season. Up at 4:22 a.m. I’m the last one up. A quick breakfast then we’re off, driving in pitch black toward our spot. We’re set up at 6. It’s so dark I have to turn the gain on my camera all the way up in order to see anything at all. The plan, as I understand it, is this: my father and my brother will set up in our spot and try to call a moose in (that’s where I’ll be). George will sit in the car just down the road with a radio to see if a moose is coming from the one direction we can’t see so well. Alex and his son will drive around the are and try and spot one.

6:13: Start of moose season. Sunrise isn’t for another 15 minutes. I can’t see a damn thing. My camera is having trouble holding focus. I’ve got the auto focus on in case I have to move quickly.

6:19: Dad’s phone rings. Alex has spotted a moose just outside Leslie’s camp. Ryan (my brother) takes off running. Dad and I follow. We get over there and sure enough there’s 3 moose about 200 yards away in a clear cut. We have a bull (or whatever) permit, but he’s standing directly in front of the cow, so we have to wait until he moves enough that the shot won’t go through him and injure the cow.

We wait. I hold the shot.

6:28: Ryan calls George over to see if maybe there’s a clear shot from where he’s standing. I swing the camera around to get this and a shot goes off. I swing the camera back to the moose and he’s on the ground. He doesn’t get up.

Edwin wanders out of the camp with a cup of coffee. He offers us the use of his 4-wheeler, and after some rudimentary cleaning, the moose is on the 4-wheeler and then on Alex’s truck in roughly an hour. The moose died maybe 50 yards from another road. I’m told it’s not uncommon for it to take 8-9 hours to get a moose out of the woods.

Weight: 700 lbs. Rack: 49 inches. Back on the road by noon. By 4pm the moose is in a tree at my parents house being cut up.

While looking at some of the footage, my camera eats a tape, meaning the gears have to probably be replaced. I get none of the context footage I need. This is not good, but considering how little hunting footage I have, I may have to just make it really short anyway. We shall see. Anyway, right now I’m in the process of looking over the footage to see what it is I actually have.

03 October 2006

current cinema: La Science des rêves


starring: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, and Emma de Caunes
written and directed by: Michel Gondry
R, 105 min, 2006, France

Shy and introverted by day, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) uses his dreams and imagination as his chief form of expression. The dreams--elaborate fantasies that exist in a world dominated by arts and crafts--allow him to escape reality in favor of a world where he hosts a nightly TV show, is seduced by co-workers, writes an acclaimed book, becomes something akin to Antoine Doinel[1], and is generally beloved. Only, Stéphane often confuses his dreams with reality, so when he woos Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a similar soul who lives next door, he has trouble reconciling the girl in his dreams who loves him and the actual girl who might, if given the chance.

This is not a healthy habit for Stéphane to indulge, but in Michel Gondry's La Science des rêves it is neither a shortcoming nor a virtue, but rather a fundamental part of who he is, a necessary by-product of a misunderstood creative genius. Or perhaps he is a genius who has not yet begun to reach his potential. I'm not sure which.

Not that it really matters. We know Stéphane is far from normal, and that is enough. He fashions himself an artist, but he finds his disaster calendar series to be a difficult sell after his mother gets him a job cutting and pasting letterheads. Without creative stimulation, his mind wanders and his work becomes secondary to his imagination, just as life is often secondary to his dreams. When that happens, Stéphane is effectively paralyzed.

Fittingly, this is similar to the character flaw he projects on Stéphanie—that she can’t finish anything, despite a lack of evidence. To Stéphane, the fact that he believes it is enough to make it true, reason be damned.

Reason is a low priority here, but, even with that in mind, there are times where La Science des rêves feels like a series of filmed ideas, half-realized dream sequences that do little to advance either the plot or the characters. One wonders if Gondry occasionally falls in love with images at the expense of the film's greater whole. It's in these moments where his direction, which in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was so deft, wanders, stumbling around for a bit while he searches for a narrative thread. This is due, in part, to the nature of the story Gondry chooses to tell. Managing the chaos La Science des rêves embraces is a Herculean task, to be sure, and Gondry very nearly pulls it off. It would hardly warrant discussion if he hadn't done it before, but he has, and comparisons to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are inevitable. Done correctly, they are also helpful. La Science des rêves struggles where its predecessor soars--on the page. What's missing is the unique genius of Charlie Kaufman, the ability to be at once quirky and melancholy. Gondry is by no means a bad writer--in fact just the opposite--but he's no Charlie Kaufman, and it may just be that he's a better visual artist than he is a storyteller. Ergo, the film's chief flaw: a threadbare narrative that's unable to plumb the depths required to match the level of everything else.

Much of the film hinges on how well the audience responds to the visual artistry. So if you, say, loathe Gondry's music videos[2], you'll likely have trouble connecting beyond a surface level to La Science des rêves. Such is life.

That’s not to say you won’t love the ride, for it would be difficult not to enjoy La Science des rêves which, in addition to the wonderful flights of fancy, is wickedly funny from beginning to end. All told, La Science des rêves is a thoroughly entertaining trip through Gondry’s imagination, even if it doesn’t prove to have any real weight behind it, vanishing almost as quickly as it appears. Still, it’s one hell of an experience, sort of like a lucid dream.

[1] Doinel is the main character in François Truffaut’s series that began with Les Quatre cents coups (1959) and culminated in L’Amour en fuite (1979).

[2] He's done videos for Björk, Beck, and the White Stripes, among others.