The 2009 Boris Karloff Blogathon is underway!
During this week, over 100 blogs around the world are posting about the life and art of one of filmdom's most famous fiends, Boris Karloff. Click here to see a complete list of participating blogs at the Frankensteinia site.
Here at SCARED SILLY: CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD HORROR-COMEDIES, we're taking a look at some of "Uncle Boris"'s funniest features. Today we highlight…
RATING: ** & ¾ out of ****
PLOT: Prominent defense attorney Amos Strickland, about to publish his memoirs books a room in the Lost Caverns Hotel. The Hotel is a “gimmick” resort literally built on top of a cavern filled with dark shadows and an alleged bottomless pit. Also staying in the hotel are several disreputable characters who all received acquittals with Strickland defending them – now worried that his “tell-all” tome will expose their true guilt. Among the nefarious assemblage of assassins is Swami Talpur (Boris Karloff). Freddie (Lou Costello) is an earnest but clumsy bellboy at the hotel. His bumbling annoys Strickland so much that the attorney has him fired. Freddie vows revenge, which provides the murderous miscreants with a perfect scapegoat when Strickland ends up murdered. House detective Casey (Bud Abbott) believes Freddie is innocent and tries to help clear his name, but one circumstance after another (including the criminals trying to plant evidence on Freddie)… as well as one corpse after another… pops up to incriminate Freddie, as the criminal crew conspire to throw the white hot spotlight off their own trails. Will the real killer come to light before Freddie takes the rap?
REVIEW: As recounted in the seminal book on Bud & Lou, “Abbott & Costello in Hollywood” by Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo, producer Robert Arthur is quoted as saying that “Lou always wanted to do a good detective film. But I could never get a real good script for him.” I guess he and Costello didn’t hold 1942’s "Who Done It" in the same high esteem that I do (it’s my all-time favorite Abbott & Costello movie) but I can’t imagine either found “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” a suitable improvement upon seeing the finished product.
It’s no surprise really given the film’s origins. Anyone with a passing knowledge of how mainstream Hollywood works could see this one coming a mile away. It’s not just in recent years that Tinsel Town execs labored under the notion that if they drew big bucks from a well one time, they could go back to that well for more. Universal Studios had already mined their classic monster franchises several times over with various “monster rally” films, culminating in “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
Now understand when you read that (as reported in several books and blogs) “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” was a mammoth success that it is no exaggeration. The film grossed 3.2 million worldwide in 1948. For comparison’s sake, even adjusting numbers for inflation, “Meet Frankenstein” probably put more people in more seats than many of the higher-grossing endeavors of Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell!
Naturally the studio would want a repeat of that kind of success for Bud and Lou. With a mystery script already kicking around development-land for the duo (for several years in fact - it was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bob Hope), it was only natural for the suits to say, “Hey, how can we capitalize on the scares that ‘Meet Frankenstein’ delivered to audiences?”
The answer was simple – ramp up that mystery script with additional chills and make sure there’s a suitably spooky character for the studio to attach a big name boogeyman. As these things go, time is of the essence as well – you have to strike while the iron’s hot. “Meet the Killer’s” script had a phony mystic that reportedly was supposed to be a female character. The part was obviously hastily rewritten once the studio hired Karloff to play the role. On top of that, it is not a featured part as the script stuck to the “parlor room” mystery motif of having several suspects. Worst of all – and I’m not giving anything away here because if you didn’t read it here you’d inevitably read it in any review of this movie – Karloff isn’t even the killer as the title suggests! It is upon this shaky foundation of smoke and mirrors that “Meet the Killer” is built.
As usual when a movie just misses the mark, the biggest problem is the script. In addition to the issues cited above, the mystery itself is just not great. You have all these suspects with a motive to kill Strickland… but the motive is that they don’t want him to print his memoirs and expose them as killers! This is twisted (illogical) logic, as they risk being found out as murderers anyway if caught. Another case of twisted logic is the idea that patsy Freddie’s life should be endangered by the suspects. If a ready scapegoat has fallen into their laps, why would they want to kill him? Finally, the suspect who turns out to be the killer is a real surprise… so much so, that the resolution can be considered a “cheat.” And worse, it negates much of what has come before in the film, including a featured scene between Costello and Karloff.
Despite its shortcomings, there are several bright spots in the film which elevate it to more-than-above average status. This is definitely a case where the main performances rise above weak material and some clever set-pieces help, if only temporarily to disguise the mishmash of the whole.
It starts off quite promising with wonderfully animated opening titles. The cartoon Bud & Lou are painting their names (using paint from cans marked “blood”) while standing on a scaffold. Suddenly, a hail of machine gun fire spells out “Meet the Killer” in bullet holes. Costello mocks, “you didn’t dot the ‘I’” and then a knife is thrown right to that spot. The camera pans down where the paint drips to write “Boris Karloff” as Frank Skinner’s “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” music conspicuously plays. The Bud and Lou caricatures are spot-on, fully exploiting their Mutt & Jeff qualities of tall and lanky contrasted by short and stout. And Costello voices his own character – a lovely touch.
Karloff usually gets a lot of flack for his Abbott & Costello films (this one and “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”) – accused of everything from “phoning in” to “sleepwalking through” his performances. I disagree. I think Boris did what he could with the horribly underwritten parts he was handed. To be fair, the mystery’s solution in “Meet the Killer” renders the majority of Karloff’s actions pointless. That’s not Karloff’s fault – that’s just lazy screenwriting. I think Karloff knew that the marketing department was behind his inclusion in this movie, so he delivered exactly what was mandated – a shadowy, sinister figure just a few diabolical plots away from being a UK cousin of Fu Manchu.
Karloff gets two “duet” scenes with Costello. First he tries to hypnotize Costello into killing himself in a scene that is either hysterical or in poor taste depending upon your outlook, or what mood you’re in. But one thing is certain, both Karloff and Costello play the scene with conviction, with Karloff doing all he can to make the threat palpable while Costello does all he can to make a farce out of the whole affair. When Karloff tries to get Costello to hang himself, Costello’s weight brings down the light fixture the noose hangs from. When Karloff tells Costello to jump from the window sill, he jumps into the room. When Karloff gives Costello a knife, Costello uses it to clean beneath his fingernails. This and other failed efforts by Karloff provide Boris with one of the film’s funniest lines: “Amazing, even under hypnosis the will of an idiot to cling to life!”
The other duet unfortunately is a throwaway. Costello tries to sell an incriminating handkerchief to Karloff. Defending the price he’s asking, Costello notes that “it’s really nothing to sneeze at” in the all-too-brief exchange. This scene was obviously tacked on – Karloff merely walks into the scene, trades some lines with Costello and then walks off again.
Despite other reviews (and in the case of Costello reports to the contrary), it seems Bud and Lou threw themselves into their roles. Especially Bud, who has a field day here as hotel detective (nee “dick”) Casey. Bud approaches this as a bravura character part, shading Casey with a bit more depth than the typical Abbott straight man/con man part he plays in most of the team’s films. The “hotel dick” was a standard of both stage plays and movies, and almost always depicted as a bowler-wearing, cigar-chomping, over-confident character. Tex Avery’s classic cartoon short “Who Killed Who?” featured quite a blustery hotel dick, ready to barge in first and ask questions later. Bud’s Casey follows suit.
For his part, Lou Costello, who was felled by a bad bout of rheumatic fever (a recurring condition) following filming of “Killer,” remarked that he just “didn’t have time for it” when interviewed by the Los Angeles Herald. But he is quite game in many of the scenes, rising to the challenge of the mayhem and chaotic situations the plot throws his character into. It is one of Costello’s most astute performances in terms of both his body language and his steady stream of quips, perfectly married to the black humor trappings, and marred only by one too many instances of whininess.
And what trappings they are! As people begin to die one-by-one and are innocently found by Freddie and Casey in various closets, it becomes a game of transporting dead bodies around to avoid suspicion to Freddie. A macabre comedy of errors ensues as circumstances lead to the pair ending up with bodies that they think they’ve already disposed of. There are countless puns revolving around killing, murder, and death; and lots of comic interplay between Casey and Freddie over how everyone is out to bump Freddie off. The Underground Caverns and “bottomless pit” are the gimmick that provides the spooky shadows, clanging gates out of nowhere and secret passages.
The film is reminiscent of Laurel & Hardy’s 1942 “A-Haunting We Will Go,” which itself took some cues from Abbott & Costello’s 1941 “Hold That Ghost,” but the material works much better in the hands of the brash Abbott and childlike but smart-alecky Costello than it does with the naively innocent men-children Stan and Ollie. Both “A-Haunting” and “Meet the Killer” are just barely horror-comedies, but the Abbott & Costello film has the slight edge. Both have men of mystery, but the Laurel & Hardy film’s Dante the Magician is a benevolent force. The Killer’s swami is sinister… and played by Boris Karloff, giving the film major horror cred. While both films feature macabre jockeying of murder victims, the Laurel & Hardy film never features a truly “spooky” setting, while “Meet the Killer” devotes its third act to the shadowy “Lost Cavern” sequence complete with mechanical yet still menacing glowing-eyed owl and marauding bear, as well as a mysterious hooded figure.
Abbott, Costello and Karloff are most of the show here, but there are a couple of supporting players of note. Roland Winters was the last actor to portray Charlie Chan in the original movie series begun by 20th Century Fox and carried on by Monogram. Winters started playing Chan two years before “Meet the Killer” and the series ended with “The Sky Dragon” in 1949. “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer” was Roland’s very next film after the Chan series ended, and he must have felt on familiar ground with “Killer’s” script being very reminiscent of the stock Chan “roomful of suspects with motives” formula.
Another co-star who must have had déjà vu was dark-haired femme fatale Lenore Aubert, who made such an impression as Dracula’s right-hand ghoul… er… gal in “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.” Apparently she made an impression on Bud and Lou, too who personally requested her for “Killer.” She has a great scene where she dictates a “confession” note to Costello, and asks him to sign it as “the witness,” to further frame him.
When all is said and done, “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” is really a 2&1/2 star movie but I’ve elevated it by a quarter star due to Abbott’s character actor turn, the interplay between sinister Boris and clueless Costello, a few choice comedy scenes, the spooky third act, and the general energy in some of the more farcical scenes. It is one of the blackest of the horror-comedies, and not for all tastes, but good for several laughs if you ignore the plot’s many lapses in logic.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
STRICKLAND (at wit’s end with Costello’s clumsiness): “I’ll have your job for this!”
COSTELLO: “Aren’t you a little old for it?”
ABBOTT (discounting Costello’s claim of a vanishing body): “Dead men don’t walk!”
COSTELLO: “This one did!”
INSPECTOR (explaining a blood stain on the carpet): “It could mean that Milford has been murdered; on the other hand it might be a red herring.”
COSTELLO: “Oh no, that’s not herring – that looks more like borscht!”
BEST GAGS: There are a couple of truly inspired set-pieces in this film. In the first, Abbott is convinced that Lenore Aubert has poisoned Costello, and runs in and out of the room pouring every kind of alcoholic beverage possible down Costello’s throat in hopes of diluting it before he succumbs… leaving Costello alive but quite pickled!
In the second, Abbott & Costello set up a bridge game with the corpses as a subterfuge to throw a hotel clerk off the trail. Additionally, Costello is in drag during this sequence. This scene actually foreshadows three movies: it’s use of propped-up corpses masquerading as live folks is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s “The Trouble with Harry” and the 1980s comedy, “Weekend at Bernie’s.” It also foreshadows the relationship between Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot” as Abernathy the clerk is infatuated with the disguised Costello. “Things have been awfully dead around here tonight,” exclaims Abernathy, hoping for some smoochy time. “Much deader than you think!,” replies Costello.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: James Flavin plays the Inspector, a role similar to one he played in another noted horror-comedy, “Francis in the Haunted House.” Some of Costello’s interplay with the Inspector is reminiscent of his run-ins with detective William Bendix in the team’s classic “Who Done It,” although the Inspector is much smarter than Costello, while Bendix was just about on the same level.
BUY THE FILM:
“Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” has been released twice on DVD - once in a 2-disc collection with 7 other A&C movies, and once in a massive collection containing every film A&C made for Universal Studios. You can order both here:
As previously mentioned, you’ll want to hunt down a copy of the indispensable book, Abbott & Costello in Hollywood by Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo. Additionally, you can read reviews at the Film Palace blog and this brand-new review from Lightning Bug’s Lair, also created for the 2009 Karloff Blogathon.
I couldn’t find a trailer for this one, but here is fan-made montage of the scene where Karloff hypnotizes Costello:
Abbott & Costello Meet The Killer ... In About 30 Seconds
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BE SURE TO COME BACK TOMORROW FOR MY REVIEW OF “ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE!”