Paul Castiglia has been writing and editing comic books and pop-culture articles for 20 years, most notably overseeing the Archie Americana paperback series of classic Archie Comics reprints. His past forays into horror-comedy include providing a chapter for the book MIDNIGHT MARQUEE ACTOR SERIES: VINCENT PRICE covering Price’s comedic horror films with Peter Lorre, and writing the comic book based on the animated series Archie's Weird Mysteries. He has also edited the upcoming Archie Comics Haunted House trade paperback collection of spooky stories.
Paul's blog, Scared Silly, will post its first review at midnight tonight, kicking-off his adventure writing about classic horror comedies for his upcoming book, Scared Silly: Classic Hollywood Horror-Comedies.
Here's my interview with Paul to wet your appetite.
How does a writer and editor for Archie comics wind up doing a book on classic horror-comedies?
Simple, I’ve always been a fan of the horror-comedy genre, and I’ve always wanted to read a book that provided an overview of the entire genre. Since none existed, I figured the only way I’d be able to own a book like that would be to write it myself!
It really goes back to my childhood. I was a child in the 1970s, when movies and TV shows from past decades were routinely rerun. I grew up watching the classic comedians on TV, particularly Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello; and I grew up watching a lot of cartoons. Both of those pastimes fed into my love of comic books.
Originally I was scared of films like “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (heck, when I was real little I was also scared of Herman Munster!), but ultimately the comic relief alleviated the scares and somewhere along the line I developed a particular fondness for the “spooky” comedies.
This fondness served me well when it came time to write the “Archie’s Weird Mysteries” comic book series (based on the TV cartoon of the same name) and a chapter in a book about Vincent Price films covering the horror-comedies where he was teamed with Peter Lorre.
Psychologists will tell you that the difference between a laugh and a scream is slight. In fact, sometimes people laugh when they should be screaming. “Nervous laughter,” they call it. Both are a form of release, and when combined they make a formidable pair: what better way to relieve the tension of just being scared than with a laugh right on top of the scare?
In the end, it goes back to the basis of all stories – the idea that being a hero means conquering a problem. If you can laugh at your fears, you are that much closer to conquering them.
What's the first horror-comedy?
That’s a subject for debate. There were several stage plays in the 1920s like “The Cat & the Canary,” “The Bat” and “The Gorilla,” but one could claim that even Shakespeare’s “Tempest” has some elements of a horror-comedy. And who knows what else in the (ancient) history of theater? It gets spottier in films because some of those plays were made into movies, but they straddled that line between drama and comedy.
I’m hoping to uncover the definitive answer as I prepare this book, but I can tell you that the silent film efforts of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang (aka The Little Rascals) certainly offered up a template for the comedians who followed, and that template didn’t change much, if at all.
How are you conducting your research for the book?
First I should note that this is not intended to be a scholarly work on the subject. There were so many performers, writers, directors and studios churning these films out that I decided to eschew going that route – I think it would take years to exhaustively research the backstories on each of these films. As it is, this book may take me one to three years to write in the form I intend it: as a lighthearted overview of the genre in the vein of a coffee table book. Something anyone can enjoy, whether a long-time movie aficionado or the casual fan who thinks “Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein” is grand and just wants to learn about similar films.
So what we’re left with are my critical assessments on the films, written in a way that is conversational and (I hope) fun for the reader. I will give each film a star rating up to four stars, provide a synopsis, credits, and my review. I plan to liven things up with icons that will represent the various horror-comedy conventions – red herrings, last will & testaments, spooky servants, gorillas, etc. In each film’s entry, you’ll find the corresponding icons. Beyond that, I will highlight standout gags and dialogue, noted cast members, and other fun tidbits.
The blog version of the book will have the added attraction of video clips and informational links.
Having said all that, my main research will be consulting the many classic comedy books in my library as well as experts I know in the field, and most of all, watching the films themselves.
You are covering many of the better known comedy duos and trios, like Abbott and Costello, Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy; tell us about the lesser known ones you will be discussing in your book.
The old saying “to the victor go the spoils” isn’t always accurate when it comes to movie stars. Wheeler & Woolsey were the 2nd highest grossing comedy team of the 1930s (behind Laurel & Hardy but ahead of The Marx Brothers) but are only known to movie buffs today. Hugh Herbert also enjoyed great popularity both as a featured clown and a second banana. He made several notable horror-comedies teamed with such terrific performers as Allen Jenkins, Broderick Crawford and Dudley Dickerson. The Ritz Brothers seemed to enjoy great regional success – all my aunts and uncles, upon learning of my fondness for classic comedians would ask if I knew the Ritz’s and would receive a blank stare in response. Apparently the theaters in Passaic, New Jersey ran their films a lot!
Then there are teams that are famous for being unique… or infamous for not being unique! Olsen & Johnson were ahead of their time – their style of corny one-liners mixed with absurd, sometimes surreal sight gags and blackouts delivered lightning-fast with an “anything goes” attitude influenced so much comedy that came later, from “Laugh-in” to “Monty Python.” Wally Brown and Alan Carney were two ex-vaudevillians under contract to RKO and when Abbott & Costello exploded in the early 1940s, RKO quickly paired Brown & Carney hoping to duplicate the success of Universal’s Bud & Lou juggernaut.
Brown & Carney were no Abbott & Costello, but ironically they delivered a key film in the horror-comedy genre that was in many ways a precursor to Bud & Lou’s famous meeting with the Universal Monsters… and it even co-starred Bela Lugosi. And then there’s Mitchell & Petrillo…featuring Sammy Petrillo, the notorious Jerry Lewis impersonator! But hey, they co-starred with Bela Lugosi, too.
One of my favorite comedy teams is Olsen and Johnson. How do they figure into Hollywood's horror-comedies?
They did a small bit in their film “All Over Town” where they were frightened by disembodied voices, and the Frankenstein Monster made a cameo in the filmed adaptation of their Broadway smash, “Hellzapoppin,” but they tackled the genre head-on in their acclaimed “Ghost Catchers.” This film was done for Universal and came right after the team’s most well-known films, “Hellzapoppin’” and “Crazy Town.”
That pair of films managed to capture the outrageous unpredictability of their stage revues, and “Ghost Catchers” followed suit by turning the trappings of horror-comedies upside down and mercilessly skewering them. An example of the Olsen & Johnson approach: reasoning that a ghost from the early 1900s must be a square, the duo decides to hire a swing band and swing dancers to “hip” him out of the haunted house!
Besides Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, what other horror-comedies stand out in your mind as good examples of the genre?
Truth be told, I enjoy just about all of them to some extent, even the ones that pull out the same clichés over and over. That’s why I’m writing the book! Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang/The Little Rascals, The 3 Stooges, Abbott & Costello, Bob Hope and The East Side Kids/Bowery Boys really excelled in spooky settings. Audiences loved seeing their favorite funny folks being scared silly no matter how repetitious the films could get.
Sometimes these classic clowns would spice up the material by adding some new business or innovation but even when they didn’t, they managed to make the entries entertaining regardless of how many times they visited the material before. Let’s face it – it doesn’t get much funnier than seeing Stan Laurel, Curly Howard or Lou Costello scared!
Having said that, what really gets me going are those films that offer a little something extra. For example, the Hugh Herbert/Allen Jenkins film, “Sh! The Octopus” doesn’t take place at a haunted house but at a haunted lighthouse instead… and features a genuinely shocking and surprising unmasking of the culprit.
Brown & Carney’s “Zombies on Broadway” is not just a goofy horror-comedy – it actually borrows actors, settings and scenarios from the serious Val Lewton thriller “I Walked with a Zombie,” making it an unofficial sequel to that classic. It also plays the zombie menace straight, a formula that would work in spades when Abbott & Costello met Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster. And I’ve already talked about Olsen & Johnson’s “Ghost Catchers.”
Even the Bowery Boys, whose many forays into the genre follow similar trajectories, surprised a time or two. “Spook Busters” climaxes with a slow-motion fist-fight brought on by ether while “Ghost Chasers” features a real, friendly ghost named Edgar who befriends Huntz Hall’s good-natured Sach character
One film that I will inevitably fall under fire for championing is “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.” This one features Duke Mitchell & Sammy Petrillo. Their claim to fame was that Petrillo did a spot-on replication of Jerry Lewis’ act, while Duke was a dark-haired crooner like Jerry’s partner Dean Martin. It’s not a great film – in many ways it’s a bad film – but I love it because of the audaciousness of Petrillo’s performance as well as its (probably unintentional) send-up of the many mad scientist/gorilla on the loose movies that came before.
I love Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but do you think it might have put a nail in the coffin of Universal's chief horror franchises?
I believe that’s become a commonly held misconception and an unwarranted one. First, we need to consider that the popularity of the Universal monsters never faded – it just shifted to another audience and another avenue. Once the Shock Theater package of classic Universal horrors hit TV in 1957, these icons found whole new audiences… and a larger share of children than they probably ever had on the big screen. Of course, this was still nine years after “A&C Meet Frankenstein.” So if Bud and Lou didn’t halt the monster’s theatrical onslaught, what did?
Well, in my opinion, if you remove “A&C Meet Frankenstein” from the equation – pretend it never existed – then you still have the same inevitable outcome. Because the movie audience was moving on. They wanted something new, something they hadn’t seen before. For older viewers, Hammer delivered horror in a more sophisticated vein – with more psychological underpinnings (the better to cause post-viewing nightmares) and with lurid color (the better to show blood) and nubile young starlets (the better to show plunging necklines). For teens, nothing skeeved out a guy’s date more than an icky insect made more so by being giganticized due to atomic radiation. So those films served a definite purpose as gals clung to their guys’ arms at the drive-in. The classic monsters became anachronisms. Only Ed Wood and a few other z-budget filmmakers were treading the same ground as Universal by the mid-50s.
For really little children, I think “A&C Meet Frankenstein” was the rite of passage before graduating to the scarier monsters. At least through the 1970s (my experience with kids born from the ‘80s on is that they’re none too scared of the Universal gang – they’ve already seen all sorts of spooky stuff in Star Wars and Spielberg films, and those don’t look all “old” and black and white to them). If you were to ask most monsterkids, I believe many of them would cite it as being the “bridge” film, their “safe” introduction to the monsters because of the reassurance that Abbott & Costello’s comic relief brought to the mix.
Tell us about the monsterkid in you growing up.
I was a latecomer to the monsters – I was more of a superheroes and goofy animated animals (like Bullwinkle and Top Cat) kind of a kid. I started showing some interest in high school, then a bit more in college and finally full-blown after-college. At least in terms of the legitimate monsters – the Universal Monsters, Hammer, Vincent Price. But before then I was always a fan of the silly monsters. I grew up on the Munsters, Addams Family, Milton the Monster, Groovie Goolies and the original live-action Saturday morning Ghostbusters show with Larry Storch and Forrest Tucker. And all the Abbott & Costello “Meet” monster films, of course.
Do you have any other horror-comedy projects in the works?
I recently researched and edited a paperback compilation of spooky Archie Comics stories of recent vintage. It is tentatively titled “Archie Comics Haunted House” (subject to change) and should be available sometime in 2010.
I’m also developing a graphic novel with my friends Tom Hall (Robot 13) and Chris Allan (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) called “Benny on the Backlot.” It’s the story of a boy who stumbles upon a defunct “poverty row” movie studio (that’s z-grade budget for anyone unfamiliar with the term – the cheapest of the cheap) only to make an unexpected discovery. Folks who love anything Monogram or PRC ever did, not to mention the atomic age cheapos like “The Killer Shrews” and the “Giant Gila Monster” should love this. It takes place in that same early 1960s period as Joe Dante’s tribute to William Castle, “Matinee” and will have similar dynamics.
What's the one question you'd love to be asked and what's your answer?
Q: Which movie monster do you care for the most?
A: This one is tricky because both The Frankenstein Monster and The Wolf Man are very sympathetic. But in the end, The Frankenstein Monster wins for me, because no matter how sorry I feel for Larry Talbot, his hairy alter-ego really needs a chill pill!
What are you doing this Halloween?
Launching my blog! I’ll post my first review (of “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein,” naturally) at Midnight. And I’ll be giving out comic books (including “Archie’s Weird Mysteries”) to trick or treaters throughout the day!