Monday, November 30, 2009


Boris Karloff Blogathon

Hey, what gives? The banner indicates that yesterday was the 7th and final day of the 2009 Boris Karloff Blogathon!

So it does. But here at SCARED SILLY: CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD HORROR-COMEDIES, we've decided to extend the blogathon by a day to bring you this special post.

Today we take a look at a movie that falls outside the parameters of SCARED SILLY’S criteria for inclusion in the upcoming book of the same name, as it was released the year after our cutoff date AND it is animated, not live-action.

Still, this film is such a huge part of the “monster kid” era and such a big influence on my love of horror-comedies in general that today I’ve decided to highlight…

Jack Davis

*** & ½ out of ****

I’m not going to write a full-fledged review here nor follow the ususal SCARED SILLY blog format, but rather I’ll give you a brief overview of this film and point you to some sources where you can learn more about this wonderful film.

To the uninitiated, think of “The Mad Monster Party” like this: the all-out mayhem of Universal monster rally films like “House of Frankenstein,” "House of Dracula" and “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” meets the engaging stop-motion animation (dubbed "Animagic") of Rankin-Bass Christmas specials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” meets the spooky trappings of the mixed-media animated “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Throw in wild Mad Magazine style humor and satirical jabs at then-current 1960s crazes like James Bond, Batman and the Beatles (I defy you not to hum along when the all-skeleton group Little Tibia & the Phibias sing "It's the Mummy") and you've got a horror-comedy classic!

The story: Dr. Frankenstein is ready to retire, and invites all the monsters to his castle to break this news (and possibly reveal his successor as ruler of all monsters), as well as his discovery of a new anti-matter potion.

The voice-over by Karloff as Dr. Frankenstein is the kindly old “Uncle Boris” persona that monster kids had come to know and love in the 1960s – at least through the majority of the movie (until circumstances force him to get his ire up that is).

Boris Karloff Mad Monster Party

Included on the guest-list are the most famous monsters from classic horror-movies: Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the monster’s Bride (here a caricature of comedienne Phyllis Diller), the Werewolf, the Hunchback of Notre Dame (who seems to have inspired Disney's later version), the Invisible Man, a sea creature (like the Gill Man from the “Creature from the Black Lagoon”), the Mummy, an Igor-like character called Yetch (whose appearance and voice are patterned after Peter Lorre), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and an army of zombie soldiers (the “White Zombie” kind of zombies, not the brain-eating George Romero zombies).

Also invited: Frankenstein’s nebbishy, nervous, allergy-prone nephew Felix Flanken.

Not invited, but sure to cause trouble is “It,” a giant gorilla of Kong-sized proportions.

There is a lot of scheming, back-biting and double-crossing going on here as Dracula thinks he deserves to be the next ruler of the monsters, while the Bride thinks the Monster should be next in line.

Of course, the doctor is considering keeping things in the family with Flanken, so that puts Felix’s life in jeopardy.

An interesting added-attraction of this movie is the character Francesca. The knockout redhead must surely be an inspiration for the Jessica Rabbit character from 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Voiced by popular singer Gale Garnett, she even gets to sing a sultry number, a rousing anthem and the film’s love song.

She also plays a part in the ending, which is yet another one (like "The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini") inspired by the ending of "Some Like it Hot."

In the New York City area, WOR Channel 9 used to run this film a lot (you can read a great blog posting about the movie and its NY airings here). In fact, for years it used to run it in a beat-up old print and whenever I came across it, I was sure to tune in. In later years the film was restored and ran on AMC (when that station’s initials still meant they showed American Movie Classics, not Any Moving Crap as appears to be its current state).

The best thing about the film is that it comes from a time when many animated films and TV shows were designed to appeal to both children and adults at the same time, with smart humor that didn't "talk down" to kids. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since two Mad Magazine alum were involved – writer Harvey Kurtzman helped pen the script and artist Jack Davis did character designs as well as the art for the movie poster. (NOTE ADDED MAY 12: In the wake of the passing of legendary artist Frank Frazetta, it appears I erred in giving Davis credit for this poster - it has been cited by numerous sources as actually being the work of Frazetta).

The film really captured my imagination and I’m sure it will capture yours, too.

I’d venture to guess this film captured Tim Burton’s imagination, too.

You can buy the original “Mad Monster Party“ on DVD here:

The film even spawned a sequel – actually a prequel called “Mad Mad Monsters” which ran on ABC’s Saturday Superstar Movie. Unlike its predecessor, it utilized hand-drawn cel animation instead of the stop-motion “Animagic” style, but it did retain some of Jack Davis’ wonderful character designs. The plot was almost identical, except this time all the monsters were invited to the castle to attend the wedding of the Monster and his Bride.

The Retro Junk site has an excellent article detailing both the original movie and the prequel which you can read here.

The excellent site has a nice review that also gives some background on the film's fine soundtrack.

My father's godson Jerry Only from horror-punk legends The Misfits is also a big fan, and their website has a nice write-up on the film here.

You can also learn more by visiting both the film’s official site and its unofficial site.

And you can enjoy the trailer right here:


Sunday, November 29, 2009


Boris Karloff Blogathon

Welcome to the (official) final day of the 2009 Boris Karloff Blogathon!

(I say “official” because I’m planning a bonus post for tomorrow)!

Over the past week, over 100 blogs around the world posted 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've been surveying some of "Uncle Boris"'s funniest features. Today we highlight…

Invisible Bikini poster

* & ½ out of ****

PLOT: Hiram Stokley (Boris Karloff) has recently joined the ranks of the deceased. A carnival showman who made millions in life by swindling others, he is visited in his mausoleum by his beautiful former assistant (and implied love interest) Cicely, who died 32 years earlier in a high-wire fall. Cicely (Susan Hart) tells Hiram that he needs to perform a good deed to get to heaven and have his youth restored, and that she’s been sent to help him. Hiram decides that his deed will be to ensure that his rightful heirs get his inheritance and that his crooked lawyer Reggie Ripper (Basil Rathbone) doesn’t keep it all for himself. Among his heirs are teenagers Chuck Phillips (Tommy Kirk) and Lili Morton (Deborah Walley) and the it’s-been-years-since-she-was-a-teenager Myrtle Forbush (Patsy Kelly). The will is to be read at midnight at Stokley’s mansion and just like a carnival raffle, you have to be present to win (your inheritance, that is). That is where Reggie’s diabolical plan comes in, as he has his right-hand scoundrel J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White) hire some disreputable miscreants (circus outcasts including a harem girl, an un-PC American Indian and a gorilla) to scare the heirs off the premises at the least, or kill them at worst. Little do they know that that the fake scares they have planned will be supplanted by real scares from the ghost in the invisible bikini! Also on hand are Myrtle’s teenage nephew Bobby and his busload of bikini babes and surfer dudes and the ubiquitous Eric von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and his Rat Pack gang of bikers. Can this colossal cast of cut-ups, cuties and kooks survive a night in a mansion with ghosts, gangs and the dulcet tones of Nancy Sinatra and the Bobby Fuller Four?

REVIEW: Let me state this up-front: my star rating is really useless here. This really is a critic-proof movie, so how can I hope to accurately rate it? It’s certainly not “good” by any meaningful filmmaking standards (hence my stars), yet at the same time it is entertaining in spots. But more importantly it was made for a specific audience who ate up these types of films upon original release, and is a treat for those who follow campy cult classics today. In fact, the trailer mentions its campiness. This film (and the people who made it) knows exactly what it is, so there’s no point belaboring too many of its demerits.

It actually starts out suitably creepy with a red-riding hood clad young woman walking through a mist-shrouded graveyard as ominous music plays. And it should be creepy, seeing as the sequence was lifted from an earlier AIP horror film, “The Haunted Palace” (named after the Edgar Allan Poe story but based on an H.P. Lovecraft story "The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward").

The new footage starts when Cicely awakens Boris from his coffin. A nice touch in the mausoleum scene is a circus poster from years ago touting the “Girl in the Invisible Bikini’s” high wire act, and a newspaper also from years back reporting her death. The dialogue written for this scene is a bit odd – Cicely speaks in a forced ‘60s vernacular. To show you how disjointed the script is, her speech style in this scene isn’t repeated elsewhere in the movie. She spends most of the rest of the film mute or simply spouting out concise commands and suggestions to the humans who can’t see her.

Another oddity in the script is that Hiram’s heirs are not related to him, nor to each other. And the characters acknowledge that fact and discuss it with each other, but to no conclusion. There is the just barely implied notion that the heirs are people Hiram swindled and that somehow the inheritance is recompense, but there is no follow-up on this idea – it is never developed. Heck, it isn’t even clearly defined in the first place! Probably because the filmmakers realized they’d have to explain just exactly how Hiram could benefit from swindling teenagers.

It’s really just the flimsiest of plots, a clothes hanger of sorts upon which to hang every classic horror-comedy cliché and situation possible as well as every classic “beach party” movie cliché and situation possible. And don’t forget the requisite songs, of course!

With the disjointed nature of this film’s script established, bear in mind that this review may be disjointed as well, jumping between scenes with reckless abandon. Which is a nice way of saying I couldn’t remember the details in a linear fashion, and I defy anyone to do the same. So from here on out, random thoughts…

Karloff’s role was obviously conceived to capitalize on his status as King of the Boogeymen (1964’s “Bikini Beach” used Boris to similar effect used in a campy cameo), but it was written with his advanced age in mind. If this film had been made in the 1940s, there’d be no need for a young lithesome ghost to do the work for him – Karloff would have taken care of it himself. The screenplay offers the device of Karloff being able to both watch over the events and communicate with Cicely via crystal ball.

Boris Karloff Susan Hart

The haunted house trappings here are many. There are the unexpected flashes of lightning and startling accompanying crackles of thunder, secret passageways galore, spooky séances, things that move on their own steam, and a hand that appears from behind a framed picture to remove and replace objects. There’s also an underground “Chamber of Horrors” – a funhouse spook attraction with animated mannequins, scary statues, masks and a working buzzsaw. Last but not least (because this wouldn’t be a silly ‘60s movie without one) there’s a gorilla!

Of course, this also being a beach movie there’s an amazing amount of pulchritude on display here. And a swimming pool for the bikini and bathing trunk clad teens to dance around. And a female singer (Nancy Sinatra, then storming the charts with several songs) as well as a guitar-vocal group called the Bobby Fuller Four. Neither fare too well. Nancy’s songs are unmemorable – none of her big hits are here. She is given a character part as well, but it’s horribly underwritten and doesn’t make an impression. Likewise, the Bobby Fuller Four’s numbers range from passable dance guitar rock to disposable light pop – hardly hinting that this is the same band who gave the world the sound and fury of their big hit, “I Fought the Law.”

A mainstay of the Beach Party movies was the character Eric Von Zipper, leader of the biker gang the Rat Pack. The character was kind of a mash-up between the Bowery Boys’ Slip Mahoney (Leo Gorcey) and Sach Jones (Huntz Hall). He had the tough guy voice and take charge nature of Slip, with the penchant for illogical logic and goofy mugging that Sach often displayed. His famous catchphrase, “why me” was repeated from film to film. Von Zipper was portrayed by Harvey Lembeck, who played Corporal Rocco Barbella on The Phil Silvers Show (aka "Sgt. Bilko" aka "You’ll Never Get Rich"). Lembeck later took over the Mercury Theater’s acting workshop, specializing in improv comedy.

Patsy Kelly had been involved in comedy for several years before this film. She made many comedy shorts including a series for the Hal Roach Studios where she was teamed with comedienne Thelma Todd in a bid to create a female Laurel & Hardy, including the horror-comedy "The Tin Man." She also appeared in “Topper Returns” for Roach, and had a major part in a Ritz Brothers horror-comedy called “The Gorilla,” and borrows much of her screaming shtick from that film for her Myrtle Forbush character in “Invisible Bikini.”

Basil Rathbone was the screen’s foremost Sherlock Holmes but was no slouch in the horror department, either having appeared in "Tower of London," Son of Frankenstein,” and the horror-comedy classic, “The Comedy of Terrors.” He excels here as the slimy Ripper, probably the most consistently written character in the whole film.

Ripper’s henchman J. Sinister Hulk was played by comic veteran Jesse White, who appeared in countless movies and TV shows (check out his filmography here). Some highlights include being among the many talents in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” as well as appearing in “Matinee,” Joe Dante’s love letter to the king of Ballyhoo filmmaking, William Castle. Perhaps his most famous role was playing the Maytag repair man in commercials for over 20 years.

The rest of the cast was filled with actors known for playing teenagers in these sorts of movies. I’ll just mention the most successful here, and you can look up the rest. Tommy Kirk was already quite well-known to audiences for his many appearances in live-action Disney films (most notably "Old Yeller") as well as other beach movies.

I do have to single out Quinn O’Hara’s performance as Ripper’s daughter Sinestra. The stunning redhead shows a flair for comedy as well as curves. Her shtick is that she can’t see worth a wink without her glasses. When Sinestra tries to slip Bobby a drink he bails when he sees how the concoction melts a hole in the table! Sinestra then takes her glasses off and sings a sultry song to a suit of armor that she thinks is Bobby. This hysterical scene ends when Sinestra pours the drink down the armor, whose arms flail wildly as if to put out a fire!

As you can guess, the movie ultimately careens toward an all-out melee between all the characters and the fortune is found. Ripper is blown up by Cecily and instantly becomes an angel floating to heaven in a cutout animation anticipating Terry Gilliam animations yet to come on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” – and negating the whole plot about Boris earning his wings!

For the closing gag, Boris is redeemed and turned young again… but instead of returning to the same age as Cicely, he is turned into a young boy! Shrugging her shoulders, Cicely says, “Well you can’t have everything” in shades of “Some Like It Hot’s” closing gag. And then… everyone dances as the closing credits play!

In the final analysis, this film plays like an episode of "The Monkees," but without that classic show’s genuine wit or fast pace (it is about an hour longer than a Monkees episode after all). Still, if you’re looking for an escape where you can leave your brain at the door and just enjoy the mindless fun, “The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” may be for you!


RIPPER (commenting on his daughter’s popularity): The men do seem to like her for some reason.

MYRTLE: I can think of three reasons: 38” 24” 36”

RAT PACK BIKER: Who are them three slobs, boss?

VON ZIPPER: I don’t know, but one of ‘em looks like Sherlock Holmes.


For my money, all the best sight gags went to the Von Zipper and Sinestra characters. Von Zipper is a hoot as he tries to figure out how to find a secret entrance in a wall, gets tangled up with a mummy, and especially when he pulls out Monstro’s hair trying to convince the Rat Pack that the gorilla is a fake. Sinestra’s fun scenes include the aforementioned knight’s armor gag, another scene where she pushes a statue off a cliff thinking it’s Bobby, and finally accidentally beaning Ripper in the head, knocking him out in a highly comical way.

Incidentally, one of "Invisible Bikini's" writers was Elwood Ullman, who wrote scripts and/or gags for several classic horror-comedies starring The Three Stooges, the Bowery Boys and others. My guess is most of the sight-gag content and scare takes here came from his pen.

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: George Barrows played Monstro the Gorilla. Barrows essayed several gorilla roles through the years including Gorgo on "The Addams Family;” Herbie on “The Beverly Hillbillies” and an unnamed gorilla on “The Jackie Gleason Show. “ He also played Anatole the Gorilla in the horror-comedy, “Hillbillies in a Haunted House” and Ro-Man, the title character from “Robot Monster,” one of the all-time great terrible movies. According to, for the movie "Konga" the "Monstro" suit was hired, but not Barrows, who owned the suit! Stuntman Paul Stockman instead wore the Monstro suit, which was returned from the "Konga" set in bad condition, much to Barrows's consternation.


“The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” is available as part of a double-feature DVD with “The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow” which you can read here:


Bad Movie Planet’s review gets into a lot of background on the making of this film; while B-Movie Central's review gets more into the cast of teenage characters.

Watch the trailer here:


Saturday, November 28, 2009


Boris Karloff Blogathon

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…

Comedy of Terrors poster

*** & 3/4 out of ****

NOTE: The following review has appeared previously as part of a larger essay on the films of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre which I wrote for the book MIDNIGHT MARQUEE ACTORS SERIES: VINCENT PRICE. The book is filled with entertaining and informative essays by several writers on Vincent Price’s career. It is highly recommended and you can order it by clicking here.

While the following has been slightly revised for the purposes of this Scared Silly project, it does not follow the format of the previous Scared Silly reviews I have posted.

The final film in the Vince Price/Peter Lorre/Boris Karloff oeuvre is “The Comedy of Terrors.” Unusually for an AIP Vincent Price feature, we’re actually treated to an original story not based on Poe, although it does contain a satirical homage as a drunken Vincent recites “The Raven” poem, albeit changing a few lines: “...dreamed of gently, gently rapping... rapping gently with a hammer on a ba-by’s skull.” This film begins right off the bat with a role reversal: Whereas Vincent was the reserved one in “The Raven” playing off Lorre’s clown, Lorre is now subdued and subject to Price’s antics. This even extends to Price’s character’s fondness for getting drunk, a character trait shared by Lorre’s characters in both The Black Cat sequence of “Tales of Terror” and “The Raven”. And drunk he is, hurling insult after insult at his pretty, young wife. When told he only berates her when he drinks, Price responds with glassy cool: “We escape the unendurable however we can!” Although assuming the drunken mantle previously held by Lorre, Price’s is a different sort of drunk. He is more eloquent, and while his barbs sting as much as Lorre’s, his are made with the fanciful vocabulary of an educated man, while Lorre’s drunks usually speak in the tongue of the Everyman. Price even admits he courted his wife to get a shot at her father’s undertaker business. Meanwhile, Price’s assistant Lorre holds a special place in his heart for the woman his boss so disdains.

One gets the notion that Price feels liberated after two films with Lorre where he remained restrained in his co-star’s presence, not to mention the tortured souls he played in the various Poe films. Price really cuts loose this time, delivering his lines with the most severe sarcasm and venom: “What I wouldn’t do to get her [his wife] down here as a customer!” he sneers as he peers into the coffin workshop. He also mugs and vamps much more than in previous entries, a style he would perfect a couple years later on the “Batman” TV show as the egg-centric and egg-citable Egghead. Once again, the film has a simple premise, but one which lends itself to great comic possibilities: faced with eviction, Price must raise funds, and since the undertaker business isn’t exactly knockin’ ’em dead, well, Vincent figures he and Peter better start doing the knocking (off) to get those customers in those coffins!

Price and Lorre receive game support once again. Boris Karloff is back as Price’s wife’s seemingly deaf, decrepit father. As he did in “The Raven,” Boris once again steals many scenes. Fellow character actor (and veteran of a few horror films, as well as the most famous of all Sherlock Holmes) Basil Rathbone tears the screen apart as a man who just can’t quite seem to stay dead. It is a tour de force performance that also illustrates how underrated a comedy talent Rathbone was. Joyce Jameson is robust as ever as Price’s wife and opera singer wanna-be. And last but not least, there’s a crazy cameo by wide-mouthed Joe E. Brown as a Cockney cemetery keeper who just can’t get over the fact that for a place filled with stiffs, there’s sure a lot going on!

Comedy of Terrors cast

The mechanisms of this film’s plot, more so than the others, force Price and Lorre to literally spend more time on screen teamed up in their endeavors. These scenes of the pair breaking and entering and attempting murder are among the most hilarious ever committed to film, and rate favorably with the best of Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello for sheer verbal and visual virtuosity. For example, a staircase of one of their prospective victims is lined with statues of busts on every step. Just as in a Laurel & Hardy film, we see the gag coming, but even though it’s been telegraphed, the site of Peter Lorre bumping into the first statue to topple each one in a domino effect still elicits laughter!

The laughable pompousness of Vincent’s gentle¬man drunk is beautifully underscored in the scene that follows, as Vincent attempts to explain his services to the widow:

“Allow me Madame in this moment of your most desolate bereavement to lift from your sorrow laden shoulders the burdensome tasks...”

“What?!” the confused widow answers, her head reeling.

“I’ll bury him for you,” shoots forth Price, all manner of proper speech suddenly shut down as if by remote control!

“The Comedy of Terrors” does lack one element that made The Black Cat segment of “Tales of Terror” and especially “The Raven” so special. It sticks to a linear though amusing plot, and for the most part seems played as scripted, with little or no evidence of improvisation, which is a real shame after becoming accustomed to Lorre’s delightful musings in the previous films. Still, Lorre is given some choice dialogue from time to time: “Why did I ever escape from prison—it was so peaceful there!” he laments.

The plot’s stakes are raised when Vincent decides he’ll kill two birds with one stone: By killing the wealthy landlord, the fee he’ll attain from his estate will help pay off his debt, and the landlord himself will be off his back! Ah, but this landlord is Basil Rathbone—the man who won’t stay “dead!” He’s also the man who won’t let Shakespeare die, as he spends the rest of the film not only spouting olde William’s soliloquies, but brandishing a sword as well! It is just what the doctor ordered, as a film with funny but murderous undertakers would be a horror film and not a comedy if the victims were all serious. Lorre startles Rathbone, who seemingly succumbs on the bed, but Lorre is much more afraid of the sword-wielding fanatic, and falls out the window—landing right on top of Price! As if this visual wasn’t enough of a nod to Laurel & Hardy, Price punctuates the scene with an em¬phatic exclamation: “A fine mess you’ve made of things again!”

The film becomes a test of wills, as Price insists on burying Rathbone while Rathbone insists on resurrecting himself over and over again, apparently a recurring condition which Rathbone’s manservant is quick to point out to the ambivalent doctor. Price and Lorre then get to shift gears from Laurel & Hardy to Abbott & Costello, with Lorre in the Costello role and Price assuring him, à la Bud Abbott, that there is nothing to be afraid of. This also effectively changes the tone of the film, as what started out as a black comedy becomes pure burlesque. It all leads up to perhaps the longest death scene in movie history, as Rathbone, down for the count, keeps re-emerging to spout one last line of Shakespeare... and then some!

This isn’t the last showdown, as it appears Price kills his wife, and then Lorre. But appearances can be deceiving—they end up more alive than Rathbone on a bad night!

It’s Karloff, however, who gets the last laugh and simultaneously plunges the film back into black comedy. All throughout the picture, Vincent has threatened to feed Karloff the vial of poison he keeps in his pocket, calling it his “medicine.” Karloff, seeing Vincent crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, figures he could use a good drink: “Drunk again, eh? What you need is a dose of your own medicine. You keep it in your waistcoat, don’t you?” Vincent unwittingly gulps down the toxic fluid, as Karloff offers, “...that ought to take care of you nicely!” Several minutes later, Rathbone sneezes—punctuation as afterthought!

“The Comedy of Terrors” is a nice, amusing finale to the Price/Lorre trilogy. Price and Lorre should be commended for treading on ground where so many geniuses tread before. They prove that they are just as qualified to play on that field. If you reacquaint yourself with their films, you may agree—Price and Lorre, though short-lived, were one of the funniest comedy teams of all!

“The Comedy of Terrors” has been released twice on DVD - once in a stand-alone edition and once as part of a double-feature DVD with "The Raven.” Unfortunately, it appears that those DVD's are out of print and only available at expensive prices from collectors. However, you can rent or buy a digital download of the movie from Amazon here:

Best of all, you can watch it for FREE at Hulu by clicking here.

Watch the trailer here:


Friday, November 27, 2009

THE RAVEN (1963)

Boris Karloff Blogathon

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…

Smaller Raven poster

**** out of ****

NOTE: The following review has appeared previously as part of a larger essay on the films of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre which I wrote for the book MIDNIGHT MARQUEE ACTORS SERIES: VINCENT PRICE. The book is filled with entertaining and informative essays by several writers on Vincent Price’s career. It is highly recommended and you can order it by clicking here.

Please also note that while the following has been slightly revised for the purposes of this Scared Silly project, it doesn't follow the format of the previous Scared Silly reviews I have posted.

In 1962, AIP Studios released an anthology film called “Tales of Terror.” It featured three stories (very) loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe tales, all featuring Vincent Price. While the first and last tales were played straight, the middle story, based (extremely) loosely on “The Black Cat” co-starred Peter Lorre and was a riotous comic lark. In the story, Price plays a famous wine connoisseur challenged by a local drunk to a wine tasting duel.

Lorre’s is a lovable drunk, except at home, where he shows a nastier side. When the unemployed slacker demands money from his wife so he can go back out and drink some more, she claims they have no money to spare. But Lorre is convinced she’s got it stashed away.

“What about your sewing money?” Lorre asks.

“We need it for food,” she replies.

“Food? That’s exactly what I need it for—I drink my food!”

Exchanges such as this illustrate Lorre’s ability to be extremely funny while simultaneously having more than a hint of pathos about him. To be sure, this was a time in Lorre’s personal life when things were not going well — including substance, alcohol and diet abuse, so both his physical health and mental demeanor were affected. Don’t get me wrong — Lorre’s dialogue, whether scripted or ad-libbed, is delivered hysterically. However, you just can’t help but feel that he’s a pathetic character. It is this element that made Lorre so perfect for the type of lovable yet troubled sods that populated Richard Matheson’s comedic screenplays. In a way, these characters are a more lighthearted mirror image of the ones Vincent Price played in Matheson’s “serious” Poe films (which were the embodiment of the noble, perhaps romantic yet ultimately tortured soul with a skeleton or two in his closet and a dark spot in his heart). These conflicting emotions are also at the heart of Poe himself, so the spirit of Poe is there, if not always the content.

As it turns out, the Black Cat sequence proved to be the most popular of the three Tales of Terror. With that knowledge in hand, Matheson decided to dive head-first into comedy for the next Poe film, “The Raven,” and once again had the team of Price and Lorre at his disposal. Adding to the frivolity this time around were a young Jack Nicholson, a vampy Hazel Court, and one of the all-time horror greats, the inimitable Boris Karloff.

“The Raven’s” opening is rather serious and melodramatic, hardly hinting at the high jinks to come, as a dour Price laments the absence of his beloved Lenore. The tone shifts gears as Price opens the window to let the raven in. Believing the bird to be a “dark-winged messenger from beyond,” Price asks, “Shall I ever hold again that radiant beauty who the angels call Lenore?”

The solemnity is shattered by the bird’s unexpected reply, courtesy of Lorre’s voice-over: “How the hell should I know? What am I, a fortune teller?” Yes, folks, we’ve officially been launched into comedy—horror style, via Price and Lorre! This leads to a riotous scene where Lorre barrages Price with a series of insults and demands that would make Don Rickles proud as he implores Price, who we soon learn is a sorcerer, to change him back to his human form. Even in the midst of Price’s attempts to do just that, Lorre badgers him with sarcastic banter that is so fast and furious, it could very well take a whole book to record and analyze. Not to mention Lorre’s in-between stage, wherein his transformation’s only halfway complete, he helplessly—and-hilariously flaps the wings that remain on his human body!

One criticism that has been leveled at The Raven is that it contains only the barest of plots. But let’s face it, how many films featuring classic comedy teams were heavily plotted? They, like the television sitcoms which followed in their wake, existed on the simplest of premises, and The Raven is no exception: Lorre wants revenge on Karloff for turning him into a bird (which he claims would never have happened, ”If I was only sober, which I admit doesn’t happen often”); while Price is trying to win back his wife, whom Karloff stole (Lenore wasn’t dead after all!). Likewise, Karloff maintains a grudge against Price’s family, as Vincent’s father was always his chief rival in the brotherhood of sorcerers.

Once the unlikely duo decide to confront Karloff, an inspired bit of tomfoolery follows as Price encourages Lorre to dress warmly for their trip and offers him his choice of hat and cloak. For someone who has no wardrobe, Lorre sure is picky, and delivers his objections in quite a genteel fashion! There is such spontaneity and sparkle to this scene that it is hard to imagine it could ever have been scripted. It is likely that this was one of the famous Lorre ad-lib scenes, and it is also the sequence wherein Price’s persona starts loosening up a bit, as he tries to keep pace with Lorre’s clever improvisational inventions. Price allows himself to be overtaken by the comedy bug as his manservant becomes possessed and attacks him. Knocked out in a slapstick fight, he allows his eyes to roll back into his head. Once he’s made that turn, Price alternates from the character’s earlier serious leanings to one capable of quips and visual humor of his own.

Boris Karloff Vincent Price

Shades of Lorre’s Black Cat character emerge as his son, played by Nicholson, arrives to drive them (via horse and carriage, of course) to Karloff’s castle. Even before he becomes possessed himself, Nicholson is a lousy driver, resulting in more classic Lorre insults and exaggerated faces.

Arriving at Karloff’s castle, a wonderful set piece follows as the seemingly gracious Karloff treats his “guests” to dinner. Karloff’s beautifully understated performance, suggesting a kindly old, cultured gentleman, is nothing short of brilliant comedy itself. It is easy to see how the characters may be deceived by him, even as we the audience sense it’s an act from the start. But we’re not the only ones who see right through him: The irascible Lorre is suspicious as well! This inevitably leads to more Lorre gyrations, as he challenges Karloff on the spot. The fit of mayhem that unfolds, as Lorre attempts to awe the room with the magic he’s conjured, will make your sides burst. Incredibly, even at his advanced weight, Lorre was able to pull off not only facial but bodily distortions as well, with all the manic energy of rubber-limbed Jim Carrey! For his troubles, he ends up hocus pocusing himself right into thin air. We later learn it’s all a ruse—a literal smokescreen thrown for his cover, as we discover he’s really a rat who has sold Vincent out. The way the character is written makes you wonder if Matheson purposely injected personality traits which he knew Lorre would run off with, given his performance in The Black Cat segment of “Tales of Terror.” Namely, that of the crafty, conniving coward—a cousin to Daffy Duck, Bob Hope and George Costanza. Only pickled!

A recurring aspect of the Price/Lorre teamings is the contrast between them. Not only their height and weight differences, but the way they carry themselves and speak as well. In "The Raven" there are some wonderful verbal exchanges between them, that highlight not only their comedy chops, but really point out what fine, underrated actors they were. Witness Lorre deflating Price’s ponderous pontifications as if with a single pin prick:

“Instead of facing life, I turned my back on it. I know now why my father resisted Scarabus—because he knew that one cannot fight evil by hiding from it. Men like Scarabus thrive on the apathy of others—he thrived on mine, and that offends me. By avoiding contact with the brotherhood I’ve given him freedom to commit his atrocities unopposed,” laments Price.

“You sure have!” Lorre leaps in, in no uncertain terms. It is the perfect punctuation, reminiscent of the classic scene in Disney’s Pinocchio, wherein the blue fairy tries to explain why the little puppet’s woes have been mounting: “Perhaps you haven’t been telling the truth, Pinocchio!” Official conscience Jiminy Cricket, staring at the tree trunk that used to be Pinocchio’s nose, can only exclaim, “Perhaps?!?!”

The difference here is that Price rolls with the comedy punches, and with the same candor as Lorre, answers back: “I’m sorry!” But not as sorry as Lorre—who is soon turned back into a raven by Karloff!

Lorre’s earlier magic tricks were but a teaser for the comic delights yet to come: a magical duel to the death between Vincent and Boris! It is in this segment that Vincent’s goofy side shines once more, and the aging Karloff proves more than game for this test of not only their character’s powers, but for the actors’ abilities to make us laugh as well. In a modern day film, the actors might let the special effects wizards do all the work for them. But Price and Karloff come from a tradition of stage acting, and in Karloff’s case, the silent screen, so the special effects are only half the battle. They are accompanied by wild gesticulations and facial tics that involve the audience and invite them to take sides, while simultaneously entertaining with their clever wit and invention.

Having vanquished Karloff, the film ends in Price’s study, where Lorre is pushing his luck. Shooting off his wise mouth and offering his services (unsolicited, of course) as Price’s right-hand magician, he once again pleads to be restored to human form. Price says he’ll take it under advise¬ment, but can only tolerate so much of Lorre’s banter. With a wave of his hand, he commands, “Shut your beak!”

It is a fitting ending for what still remains a first-class romp to this day. It is a testament to the actors, writers and directors that material such as this, attacked by the principals with such understanding and passion, survives as an undated farce sure to entertain generations to come.

“The Raven” has been released twice on DVD - once in a stand-alone edition and once as part of a double-feature DVD with “The Comedy of Terrors.” Unfortunately, it appears that those DVD's are out of print and only available at expensive prices from collectors. However, you can rent or buy a digital download of the movie from Amazon by clicking here, and best of all, you can watch it for FREE at Hulu by clicking here.

The trailer shows that the studio really wasn’t sure whether to sell this as a horror film or the all-out horror-comedy it is. You can watch it here:


Thursday, November 26, 2009


Boris Karloff Blogathon

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…

Bud Abbott Lou Costello Boris Karloff

RATING: ** out of ****

PLOT: A monster has been terrorizing London committing hideous murders. Simultaneously, American policemen Bud and Lou are in England participating in a special exchange program to see how our neighbors across the pond handle law enforcement. By day Vicky Edwards leads a very vocal women’s suffrage movement, confronting men for equal rights. By night, she dances for those very same men in a music hall! An American newspaperman covering the movement falls for Vicky, which angers her guardian, Dr. Henry Jekyll. Dr. Jekyll has been conducting experiments on what he considers the animalistic rage that resides inside every man. Bud and Lou discover that Dr. Jekyll is really the monster, and after a series of mishaps and misunderstandings work with London’s finest to put Jekyll/Hyde’s rampage to an end.

REVIEW: After recently revisiting “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” for the first time since his childhood, a friend remarked that it was one of the few films from his youth that still holds up.

Bud and Lou’s 1953 horror-comedy entry, “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” was one of my favorites as a child. Watching it again for this Scared Silly project, I’m disappointed to report that it doesn’t hold up. I suppose the best that can be said for this film is that it runs a swift 76 minutes – but that is less attributed to solid pacing than to the fact that there’s not much to the script.

After a quick introduction of the twin terrors that have been visited upon England – namely the murders of Jekyll/Hyde and the bumbling police work of Bud and Lou – the film introduces its very odd suffrage subplot. Of course, there is some real historical backdrop to the movement in both England and America – you can read about the British movement here. What’s odd about its inclusion in this movie is that it actually sets women’s rights back in a completely sexist way. For example, a rally where Vicky makes a rousing speech that ends in a brawl – with her female followers physically fighting the men that have shown up to heckle them! As if that wasn’t shocking enough, we learn soon enough that Vicky is a can-can dancer, entertaining some of the same boorish men in a music hall. It’s hard not to think of the scenario as mirroring a demeaning burlesque show or strip club. Is the handling of this storyline meant to be grand satire of a Swiftian nature or merely a sign of the times in which it was written? Is it merely the result of some ill-conceived scripting by writers who aren’t considering the big picture? No matter what the answer, it just comes off as crass.

In addition to the suffrage unpleasantness, this one also pulls out that old creepy standby of vintage movies, and I don’t mean creepy in a horror movie kind of way: I mean creepy as in an older man, often a family friend or boss or as in this case, a guardian who is infatuated with a much, much younger woman. Karloff brings a lot of slime to his character when he reveals his objections to Vicky marrying the newspaperman. There are three types of Karloff antagonists. There is the misguided but somehow still lovable soul, the nefarious villain who is bad but not totally corrupt, and the completely reprehensible monster. Karloff’s Poelzig from “The Black Cat” fits the rephrensible monster mold as a Satan-worshipping fiend who murders his rival’s wife, kidnaps his child and marries her when she grows up! His Dr. Jekyll also fits this category – his romantic designs on Vicky when he’s supposed to be her surrogate father are just unnerving and repulsive.

So this is supposed to be a horror-COMEDY, right? There isn’t too much good news on that front, either. There are more pratfalls, slapstick and physical gags on display here than usual in an Abbott & Costello picture. It is almost completely devoid of the verbal humor at which they excelled. There are a few comic set-pieces that are pleasant and good for some chuckles, but no laugh-out-loud scenes as in “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.”

In fact, the script is so unsure of itself that it attempts to mine the good will that “Meet Frankenstein” generated, starting with its liberal use of musical passages from Frank Skinner’s score to that classic. When Costello finds himself in a wax museum he encounters life-size, life-like (mechanically animated) figures of his old friends Frankenstein and Dracula. When a decapitated wax head from a guillotine scene ends up in Costello’s hand, he throws it and it lands on a cat, who promptly scoots across the room, making it look like the head is moving of its own accord. When Costello grabs the arm of a wax bobbie hoping he’ll help catch the monster, the arm comes off in Costello’s hand, leading to more frightened screams from Costello. Alas, these are hollow echoes of past horror-comedy triumphs at best. And it’s probably the film’s highlight!

Bud Abbott Lou Costello Boris Karloff

Much of the humor in the film is derived from the old chestnut of nobody believing that Costello “saw what said he saw when he saw it.” The constant transformations of Jekyll into Hyde and back to Jekyll again provide the impetus in this film for nobody believing Costello. He manages to lock Mr. Hyde in a cell but when Abbott and the other authorities arrive, Hyde has transformed back into Mr. Jekyll so no one believes him!

Another highlight finds Costello being transformed into a mouse. It takes quite some time before Abbott notices… and when he does its while the duo are in a pub. Of course, when they tell the head constable about the transformation the constable has a hard time believing them since they just came out of a pub. Undeterred, Bud and Lou sneak back into Jekyll’s lab (a revolving bookcase leads to its entrance, of course), determined to prove their theory, with Abbott grabbing a bottle of wine marked “mousey,” thinking that’s what transformed Lou. In a scene reminiscent of the one in “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” where Bud force-feeds Lou alcohol to dilute the poison he (mistakenly) thinks Lou has drunk, Bud has Lou drink the “mousey,” but all that does is make Costello drunk – he doesn’t turn back into a mouse. In fact, before too long his alcohol-impaired mind is imagining Abbott as a mouse!

Like the wax museum scene, there are some laughs here but nothing as grand as seen in “Hold That Ghost” or “Meet Frankenstein” or even “Meet the Killer.” Following this scene, the film just clangs and clatters along, with Lou getting accidentally transformed into a Hyde monster after sitting on a hypodermic needle. The third act’s rooftop scene where characters dodge each other around the outside of a staircase as well as tangling with chimney sweeps has some energy, but leads to an anticlimactic scene of Jekyll falling to his death. Somehow the film manages to end on a high-note with Abbott bringing the transformed Costello into the Inspector. Costello promptly bites four bobbies and the inspector, who all turn into Mr. Hydes.

Karloff is intense as Jekyll, but it’s obvious that a stunt man in makeup is doing his scenes as Mr. Hyde (as is the case when Costello is transformed). This Hyde also is less the calculating fiend of other interpretations of the Robert Louis Stevenson story. Indeed, he is more like a marauding werewolf! Interestingly, unlike most adaptations of the Jekyll/Hyde mythos, it is the Jekyll persona that shows pure malevolence, while Hyde is more a mindless beast.

As for the supporting cast, the newspaperman might as well put on zombie makeup (pre-Romero of course), because bland Craig Stevens is dull as dirt here, sleepwalking through his part. Helen Westcott as female lead Vicky gives an uneven performance as well – sometimes lively, sometimes overly sedate. Reginald Denny, veteran of many movies including a recurring role in the Bulldog Drummond series (and later several appearances on TV’s “Batman” and the film derived from it) is solid as usual as the inspector.

My two star rating is probably a half star too much, and is only granted due to the presence of the title leads. Bottom line: with two bona-fide horror-comedy classics (“Hold that Ghost” and “Meet Frankenstein”), and additional above-average entries in the genre (“Meet the Killer,” “Meet the Invisible Man,” Meet the Mummy”), you’d do best to skip this one unless you’re an Abbott & Costello completest.


COSTELLO: “There’s someone in this house who shouldn’t be here… and it’s me!”

COSTELLO: “How do you like that Dr. Jekyll – he turned me into a mouse, that rat!”

BEST GAGS: The aforementioned wax monsters coming to life scene, Costello turning into a mouse, a scene where Costello ends up hanging on a laundry line and the closing gag with the transformed Costello's bite turning the inspector and some bobbies into Hyde monsters.

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Two folks of note: Clyde Cook, a veteran of several silent comedy shorts and features, and a mainstay of the Bulldog Drummond detective series plays a drunk in the bar here.

Henry Cordon also has a bit here, as he did in "Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion." In that one, he was one of Khalid's henchmen, chasing Bud and Lou thru the marketplace. In addition to onscreen acting, he had a formidible voice-over career. He went on to narrate “Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy,” a TV series which repackaged Lloyd’s comedy shorts and he also handled many of the singing scenes in episodes of "The Flintstones" and ultimately took over the role of Fred Flinstone altogether (particularly in cereal commercials) after Alan Reed passed away. Here he plays an actor.

BUY THE FILM: “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” 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. The massive collection includes a commentary track about the film. You can order either collection here:


John McElwee on his always delightful Greenbriar Picture Shows blog ponders whether Bud & Lou, having been invigorated and enlivened by performing to live audiences on TV’s “Colgate Comedy Hour” and their own show could really muster much enthusiasm for the warmed-over leftovers the “Hyde” script supplied (especially in light of much more savory twists and turns when they met Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man and even Karloff as a phony mystic). I'd have to say I agree with that theory.

Also, 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.

You can see the trailer for “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” here:


Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Boris Karloff Blogathon

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…

Bud Abbott Lou Costello Boris Karloff

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.

Bud Abbott Lou Costello Boris Karloff

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.


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.


“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:


Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Boris Karloff Blogathon

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…

Boris Karloff Peter Lorre Slapsie Maxie Rosenblum

**& 1/2 out of ****

PLOT: Winnie, a lively divorcee whose every step is dogged by her antsy, meddling ex-husband Bill buys a rustic inn from dotty Professor Billings (Boris Karloff)… and allows him and his servants to continue living on the premises. Which is a good thing, because the professor’s got a lot of bodies stashed in the basement, not to mention a “mad scientist” lab that would do Dr. Frankenstein proud. The professor is hard at work trying to perfect an army of indestructible supermen to fight the Axis powers (this being a film set and released during World War 2). Unfortunately, it appears all the traveling salesmen the professor experiments on end up as lifeless as a rose garden in winter. Meanwhile, after several unusual occurrences – a cupboard mysteriously falls on Winnie, a blood-curdling scream attributed to a ghost is heard, and the housekeeper roams the halls in the middle of the night spouting gibberish – Bill is convinced it’s all a racket to have Winnie sell back the place at a loss. When Bill wanders into the basement and discovers one of the stiffs, he calls in the town sheriff (and mayor, lawyer, justice of the peace, phony hair tonic hawker, etc.) Dr. Lorentz (Peter Lorre). But once Lorentz gets wise to Billings’ plans, he smells a potential financial windfall and wants in. Complications arise when a dim-witted, hard-headed peddler (“Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom) won’t respond to the experiments; a hotel guest turns out to be more than he seems; and a kamikaze bomber with his sights set on the nearby munitions plant invades the place. It all leads to a surprise ending that softens the edge of the black comedy that preceded it, while maintaining its wackiness and loopy charm.

REVIEW: “The Boogie Man Will Get You” is a classic example of a film with a wayward script and unevenly matched performers that somehow gets by on the sheer good will of its lead performers, in this case Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, with game support from “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom. They are the reasons this film gets an “above average” review from me rather than “average,” but it was a close call.

When you know the backstory of the film, it’s easy to see how it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The film is clearly inspired by the 1939 play “Arsenic & Old Lace.” The play was a farce involving little old ladies putting poor lonely souls out of their misery, with one straight-laced nephew trying to put the morbid pieces together, another nephew convinced he is Teddy Roosevelt while yet another nephew, butchered by plastic surgery to look like Boris Karloff, arrives unexpectedly with nefarious notions of his own. Karloff was a hit in the original Broadway version of this play, but the rights to a movie version were snapped up by Warner Brothers. The film adaptation didn’t hit screens until 1944, but since Columbia Pictures had Karloff under a five-picture contract, perhaps they thought they’d cash in on the play’s popularity and make a pre-emptive strike at the same time, beating Warner Brothers to the cinema with their own Arsenic-like lark. Like a photocopy of a photocopy, however, “Boogie Man” is Arsenic-light – highly diluted!

When I say diluted I mean it. The “horror” elements here are slight at best. It retains some horror-comedy trappings (a futuristic lab, secret passageways, bodies piling up… and the mere presence of Karloff and Lorre) but no real sense of terror as there are no dark shadows or “boo”-type scares as in many other horror-comedies. It is black comedy shot in bright lighting, very much the other side of the coin when compared to the film version of “Arsenic & Old Lace.”

What’s more the pity is that when Warner Brothers got around to filming “Arsenic & Old Lace” they were able to use some of the original Broadway players in the cast… except Boris, who was committed to touring with a road-show version of the play! So in place of Boris delightfully scheming with slimy Peter Lorre, the movie version of “Arsenic” serves up Raymond Massey playing off Lorre instead. Meanwhile “The Boogie Man Will Get You” offers a hint of what the “Arsenic” film could have been if Boris had been available, supplying as it does another teaming with Lorre (their second after “You’ll Find Out”), although Boris is playing a much more gentle character in “Boogie Man” than the truly vicious and unrepentant Jonathan Brewster of “Arsenic.”

In fact, it is a quite kindly Boris we find running the inn in “Boogie Man” – a foreshadow of his image as ambassador to all “monster kids” during the 1960s monster resurgence, not to mention a cousin to the “Baron Boris von Frankenstein” character he voiced in the stop-motion animation classic, "Mad Monster Party.” His character has more in common with Aunts Martha and Abby Brewster from “Arsenic” – like the altruistic aunts, he’s on a mission of mercy – he chooses door-to-door salesman for his experiments since “they never have any friends, poor fellows!” He’s completely convinced that his actions are justified and that he is not a murderer. In fact, he objects to violence in general, let alone murder! Case in point: a scene where Karloff and Lorre are contemplating experimenting on Bill. Lorre says they don’t need an anesthetic – rather they can just hit him over the head. In a brilliant line that works beautifully in a black comedy, Boris objects, saying that would be violent (never mind the collection of corpses in the wine closet)!

Peter Lorre counters cuddly Karloff with his usual sly performance as a master conman. Lorre is a master at portraying endearing scoundrels, and his Dr. Lorentz is no exception. The fact that one man in town is in control of so many things – being the mayor, sheriff, justice of the peace, etc. – yet also hawks phony hair tonic – clues the audience in that this world they’ve entered is an off-kilter one indeed, and there is no more reason to consider Lorre a legitimate town official than there is to consider him sane. He proves as much when he totally overlooks the moral and ethical issues inherent in Karloff’s experiments. On the surface it appears his desire to profit from any riches the successful execution of the experiments may provide are his driving motivation, but to look the other way also signals that he’s got as many screws loose as Karloff. “And to think I accused you – that I was under the impression that your experiment was harebrained,” Lorre assures Karloff.

Around the time the third act begins we are introduced to the powder puff salesman… which is a joke in itself, as this peddler is played by “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom, a hulking former boxer-turned-comic actor who specialized in punch-drunk characters (think Lenny from “Of Mice & Men”). There are some performers from classic comedies who are acquired tastes, rendering the ability of a person to enjoy a given film commensurate with their tolerance of said performers. Rosenbloom falls into that category along with Hugh Herbert, Shemp Howard (with whom Rosenbloom co-starred in another horror-comedy called “Crazy Knights”) and others. For me, I enjoy Rosenbloom when he’s being used correctly (in a way that makes sense to the plot) and in measured doses. I’m happy to report that is the case in “Boogie Man.” In fact, Rosenbloom’s scenes provide a few of the film’s highlights. He is ticklish on top of his head, so Boris can’t place his contraption’s helmet on him. He has sinus problems, so he can’t be knocked out by sniffing the anesthetic (this leads to two hilarious instances where he convinces others – first Karloff and Lorre and then the divorced couple – to take a sniff to see if the stuff is strong enough, effectively rendering them all unconscious)!

So the great to be had here comes courtesy of Boris, Peter & Maxie. Any time Karloff and Lorre are on the screen without the other performers the film is a delight. When Rosenbloom joins the daffy duo a rib-tickling trio is formed. These actors have an easy rapport with one another and it shows onscreen. Consequently, these are the scenes to which you’ll want to fast-forward should you decide to watch the film.

Karloff, Lorre & Rosenblum in Boogie Man Will Get You

The dialogue in the Karloff/Lorre and Karloff/Lorre/Rosenbloom scenes seems better as well. Elsewhere the film’s dialogue causes the film to wear its stage origins like a badge – there is entirely too much exposition, and much of it is overwritten. Even the seasoned performers trip over some of it. Its dialogue that’s best suited to the stage, further backing up the notion that this film was written as a direct knockoff of Arsenic.

Despite the schizophrenic nature of the script, there is some choice dialogue given to Karloff, especially this passage that foreshadows fellow boogeyman Bela Lugosi’s famous speeches from “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brookyln Gorilla” (where he goes on about apes, evolution and embryonic metamorphosis) and “Bride of the Monster” (where Bela waxes rhapsodic about the race of atomic supermen that he wants to create):

“I who am revolutionizing evolution, circumambulating it at one fell swoop. Creating by inductive rays and biochemistry the ultimate specimen of human perfection. Eternally young, immune from disease – the super superman himself.”

There is a supporting cast who toils to diminishing returns with the roles the script hands them. The housekeeper Amelia (Maude Eburn) and groundskeeper Ebenezer (George McKay) come across as an off-kilter Ma & Pa Kettle, by way of the Addams Family. They are suitably bizarre, although not as endearing as the above description sounds. Rather they alternate between amusing and annoying, but thankfully delivered in small doses. Brampton, a guest who claims to be a choreographer (played by Don Beddoe, veteran of comedy films with The Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello plus the horror-comedies “Beware Spooks” with Joe E. Brown and “The Spook Speaks” with Buster Keaton) is flamboyant and genteel, played in exclamation points like a grand actor (and as we’ll find out, he is indeed acting). And of course what would a horror-comedy be without the requisite bit parts (here a couple of policemen and a trooper) deftly handled by character actors.

Unfortunately the film suffers from the romantic leads, the aforementioned divorced couple whose screen time nearly equals that of Karloff and Lugosi. Their constant bickering is meant to remind audiences of the snappy banter to be found in the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra (who would go on to direct “Arsenic & Old Lace”) but it just comes off as annoying at best and wearying at worst. The fault really lies at the feet of a miscast Larry Parks playing Bill. Not hateful enough to outright despise but such a nagging worry wart as to be obnoxious, you wonder why Karloff and Lorre don’t start and end their experiments by altering Bill’s noggin. As Winnie, Miss Jeff Donnell is actually okay, but she’s lessened by being paired with Parks. Dragged down by having to spar with him, trading witless dialogue with a witless character.

So some bad dialogue more suited to the stage and an uneven supporting cast are clear demerits here, but more than anything the script is what keeps this from being better than it could (and should) be. In particular, what little of a plot there is falls completely off the rails once the fascist suicide bomber arrives on the scene, demanding to be taken to the nearby munitions plant. Even for a loopy black comedy, this is an outlandish, absurd turn that nearly causes the film to collapse completely.

Thankfully, the script makes a bit of a recovery at the end to send the audience out on a happier, if still slightly bewildered note.


Normally I don’t like giving away the endings of the films as I’d prefer my readers to experience the endings for themselves, but after describing the pitfalls of this plot, I feel it is my duty to describe how this plummeting feline finally found its footing.

Faced with the prospect of being blown to smithereens by the mad bomber, Boris and Lorre knock out Rosenbloom for one final attempt at creating a “superman.” Once again, the experiment doesn’t work – Maxie’s lifeless body falls out of the machine.

Just then, some ghostly figures appear to frighten the bomber who is quickly dispatched. The “ghosts” turn out to be all the salesmen Boris previously “experimented” on, still covered in the sheets Boris placed over them when storing them in the wine closet.

Apparently, they weren’t dead after all… and neither is Slapsie Maxie, who soon rises to join the party. Lorre declares, “They must have been in a state of suspended animation. We invented a method to preserve life!”

Meanwhile, Brampton reveals that he’s not a choreographer after all, but actually works for the beureau of historic landmarks… and offers a sum for the inn many times over the price Winnie paid.

The police on the scene are having none of this – they threaten to put everyone in the building into an asylum, but Lorre, offering the final punchline says not to worry – he’s the chairman of the asylum’s board of directors!


KARLOFF (after Bill asks him to confirm if a blood-curdling scream came from a ghost): “The pros and cons of survival after death are so confusing I prefer not to think about it.”

KARLOFF: “Doctor, you’re giving me just what I needed!”

LORRE: “Yes, a jab in the lassitude!”

BEST GAGS: This film is very dialogue and character-driven, without a lot of sight gags or slapstick. What there is of such tomfoolery comes primarily from the “Slapsie” Maxie scenes where he displays his ticklishness and accidentally knocks out others with the anesthesia that was meant for him

Other than that, the scenes in the lab provide overall comical visuals as opposed to any one standout sight gag. For example, it doesn’t take long to realize something completely wacked-out is going on in Boris’s basement. We see him conducting an experiment – a man sits in a contraption that looks like a cockpit, Boris flips a switch and all manner of electricity dances through the air as in a vintage Frankenstein film. When the light show is over and Boris opens the cockpit door, the man falls lifeless to the floor! “Cold as a mackerel,” the disappointed Karloff sighs. He removes a wrench from the man’s pocket, theorizing that it probably deflected his machine’s rays.

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: The trooper is played by James C. Morton, who appeared in many small but memorable parts in several Laurel & Hardy shorts and features and Three Stooges shorts (including the classic horror-comedy, “We Want Our Mummy”), as well as some W.C. Fields features and the classic Our Gang/Little Rascals short “Mike Fright” as the radio station manager.

BUY THE FILM: This film is part of a four-film DVD collection that also includes the Karloff horror classics “Before I Hang,” “The Black Room” and “The Man They Could Not Hang.” You can order the set here:

FURTHER READING: A couple of good blog reviews of this movie appear on the Mystery File and Spinning Image blogs.

I couldn’t find a trailer for this one, but here is an exemplary scene of Karloff and Lorre plotting to do away with Bill, and their attempt at the same: