Something peculiar happens -- or more accurately, doesn’t happen -- in 1944’s House of Frankenstein, the first “monster rally” from Universal Studios: at no point in the film do the monsters meet up with one another! Filmed under the working title The Devil’s Brood, the movie’s promotional materials promised the first-ever onscreen team-up of Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man and Dracula. But House of Frankenstein not only skimps on delivering the monstrous goods, it fails to give its monsters a single scene together.
Dracula is played here for the first time by John Carradine; theories vary as to why Bela Lugosi didn’t reprise the role, but his disastrous turn in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, where he was largely replaced by a stuntman, couldn’t have helped his relationship with the studio. On top of that, records indicate Lugosi was performing in a touring stage production of Arsenic And Old Lace in Newark when House of Frankenstein began filming, a rotten bit of timing for the unlucky actor. Bruised ego aside, the role would have hardly been worth the plane trip for Lugosi; the Count is introduced and dispatched before the 30 minute mark, completely segregating him from the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), neither of whom see any real action until the film’s final 15 minutes. Indeed, the big draws pop in and out of an episodic programmer plot that focuses on a pair of escaped criminals (Boris Karloff and J. Carrol Naish) in search of Dr. Frankenstein’s research materials for their own nefarious means. At a brisk 70 minutes and with its weird “no monster overlap” policy in place, it’s a pretty thin outing, though Universal’s team of journeymen creatives ensure that, aesthetically at least, the film is never a chore to experience.
1945’s House of Dracula repeats the formula as well as the failings, featuring parallel plots in which Dracula and Larry Talbot (Carradine and Chaney once again) seek cures to their respective curses from a well-meaning scientist. Once again, the monsters are kept out of each other’s hair, with Frankenstein’s Monster (Strange) relegated to another cameo at the end, resurrected just long enough for a burning lab to collapse onto him. On the plus side, we get to see a man turn into a vampire onscreen for the first time in a Universal film, sort of the bloodsucker equivalent of the Wolf Man’s famous transformation scenes. The Wolf Man gets a memorable moment as well, transforming inside a jail cell in front of astonished onlookers. But it was clear the monsters were losing their power by now. There was no trace of the hypnotic dream world of Tod Browning’s Dracula; none of the expressionist shadows of James Whale’s Frankenstein remained. Crowding them all onto one bill and trotting them out with all the nuance of a carnival sideshow only seemed to dilute the monsters further.
In 1948, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello cracked the formula for a successful monster rally: the monsters could share the screen, interact even, as long as the parade came with a built-in excuse to giggle. Embracing the inherent absurdity, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein turned the horror icons into straight men for the comedic duo, and it worked like gangbusters. In a series of classic scenes, the Universal Monsters (Chaney, Strange and a returning Lugosi) were allowed to keep their dignity, while Abbott and Costello delivered the panicked pratfalls and petrified punchlines. The film, Universal’s second-lowest budget release of 1948, was a huge hit, and it had the odd side effect of sending the two comedians into a tailspin of monster interactions (Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy, Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
Bud and Lou’s onscreen social schedule wasn’t the only casualty: the iconic Universal Monsters were now officially kid stuff, to be either lampooned or avoided going forward. In fact, an argument could be made that just about every iteration of the classic monsters from this point on were, in a way, spun out from Abbott and Costello’s use and abuse of the horror legends.
Hammer Studios ran screaming from the wreckage. Its lusty and busty offerings drastically reinvented the familiar characters one by one, self-consciously zigging where Universal had zagged. The results were enormously successful, but Hammer always kept its monsters out of each other’s respective sandboxes, and not just because Christopher Lee was playing most of them. While the British studio swam against the tide of parody, the rest of pop culture got on board with the silly. The Munsters reimagined the familiar characters as a sitcom family. Mad Monster Party was a Jack Davis Mad Magazine strip brought to stop-motion life. By the 1970s, the monsters had become both literal and metaphorical comfort food, as kids spent their Saturday mornings eating Count Chocula and Frankenberry cereal while watching eitherThe Groovie Ghoulies, a cartoon which turned Drac, Wolfie and Frank into a Monkees-esque pop band; or The Monster Squad, a live-action confection which featured the triumvirate as unlikely crime fighters.
In many ways, 1987’s The Monster Squad (no relation to the aforementioned TV show) feels like the final word on the subject. Full of affection for its beleaguered monsters and packed with charm to spare, the film is very much the spiritual successor to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, upgrading that film’s protagonists to a group of foul-mouthed, monster-crazy kids who find themselves reluctant heroes when Dracula and his very Universal-influenced crew of creatures descend upon their small town to kick off nothing less than the Apocalypse. Scares and laughs are had, PG-13 rating limits are pushed, and nards are kicked. Bud and Lou would have likely been pleased.
But is the film truly the final word on monster rallies, or just the apex? From The Evil Dead to Ghostbusters to The Monster Squad, the 1980s seems to be the last decade in which the scary and silly were really encouraged to co-exist. (Possible exception: Charles Band’s all-dwarf monster rally from 1997, The Creeps.) Hollywood keeps trying to reinvent the formula in a climate where genre fans will tolerate no such silliness. But from Van Helsing to Twilight to Being Human, the industry keeps proving that delivering a “serious” monster team-up is no guarantee it will be taken seriously. (That hasn’t deterred Monster Squad producer Rob Cohen from trying -- unsuccessfully, as of this writing -- to get a remake off the ground.) Making these monster mashes fly is a tricky balancing act, and the number of times it’s legitimately worked onscreen can be counted on one hand. Those few instances are special films indeed.