“Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” (1949)

by A.J. Hakari

"Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff" poster

 

Bud and Lou faced many a monster in their time, so when the name of the actor playing one of them made its way into the title, that meant things were extra spooky, right? Alas, one shouldn’t get their hopes up for Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff pitting one of the greatest comedy duos of all time against the man who would be Grinch. Karloff is actually just one of an entire group of nogoodniks out to see our two heroes pushing daisies, making this comedic whodunit more along the lines of a who-wouldn’t-do-it. But outside of a misleading title and a story that casts a big name like Boris to the sidelines for so long, the movie still proves to be more madness than method. Not that Abbott and Costello were ever the masters of cinematic craftsmanship in the first place, but Meet the Killer comes across as a haphazardly-assembled production all the same, spoiling what might’ve been a devilishly delightful horror comedy by overcomplicating the plot and ignoring the talent that lies at its disposal.

Murder most foul has been committed at the Lost Caverns resort hotel. A famous criminal attorney has been found dead, the victim of a heinous crime. It just so happens that a number of his associates have converged upon the vacation getaway at the same time, although one poor sap bumbles his way into becoming the number one suspect: bellboy Freddie Phillips (Costello). Having quarreled with the deceased before his demise and discovered the body first, the cops are all but ready to declare him guilty, but house detective Casey Edwards (Abbott) knows better. He’s the only one who believes in Freddie’s innocence and decides to help him sift through all the possible culprits hanging around Lost Caverns. Could this be the handiwork of the hypnotic Swami Talpur (Karloff)? Could the black widow Angela Gordon (Lenore Aubert) added another victim to her collection? Everyone had a motive and the opportunity to do the dirty deed, but Freddie and Casey have little time before whoever sent the attorney to an early grave comes gunning for them next.

Made hot on the heels of Bud and Lou’s first encounter with the Universal Monster All-Stars, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff bears all the marks of a project rushed into production. The movie actually began life as a Bob Hope vehicle, before being reworked into a horror-tinged farce for the golden boys of ’40s comedy. Karloff himself wasn’t hired until mere days before shooting began, after which the marketing campaign shifted gears and played up his presence, even though his screen time doesn’t differ all that much from many other supporting characters. I’m not ragging on the flick for indulging in a bit of hucksterism, but with the plot as is resulting in such a messy state of affairs, the filmmakers would probably have been better off making old Boris the lead villain from the start. It just doesn’t make sense to have a whole ensemble of characters out to kill Freddie and Casey but still keep who bumped off the lawyer a mystery. The intent was to make every suspect look equally guilty, but the story’s whodunit elements are paid so little mind, the movie could’ve announced the murderer’s identity on the outset and lost absolutely nothing. Though — as the case usually is where Bud and Lou are concerned — the wacky hijinks take precedence, inconsistencies like this always find a way to pop up and interrupt any ongoing comedic flow.

Speaking of humor, Meet the Killer has its moments, but overall, it’s not one of Abbott and Costello’s most memorable endeavors. It does, however, present viewers with the rare opportunity to see the boys play more distinct characters than the norm, as opposed to taking on some generic occupation or another. Abbott in particular gets to do a little more than just serve as straight man, but as with the pair’s other horror comedies, Costello’s silly reactions to all the freaky stuff happening around him are the real stars of the film. Lou actually gets a couple standout set pieces here, the best of which has to be the scene where Karloff’s swami tries hypnotizing him into killing himself to no avail. The movie’s charm is enough so that even the most worn-out gags elicit a good-natured groan, although for the most part, the funny business here is no different than what you’d see in the duo’s most mediocre outings. The story also puts the focus almost entirely on Abbott and Costello, which is terrific after seeing them be the sidekicks in their own vehicles so many times. However, outside of Karloff and a scant few others, no other supporting players get around to making an impression, with a romantic subplot forgotten so soon after it’s addressed, you wonder why it needed to be included at all.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff is respectable, but it’s not very exciting. You laugh at the corny gags more out of recognition than due to them being legitimately funny, and the story is in too great of shambles for its suspenseful side to truly win you over. It’s not a complete foul-up by a long shot, but in terms of both fun and fear, Meet the Killer unfortunately comes up short.

 

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