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(Part 1)

It all started nearly 70 years ago when Frankenstein 'met' the Wolf Man - the idea that you can take two unrelated cinematic themes and cross them like a fancy pigeon enthusiast with too much time on his hands. That original crossover actually started life as a joke that someone took seriously. Universal had made three sequels to their 1931 smash hit Frankenstein and, after Bride, Son and Ghost, they were running out of relatives/incarnations that would make for snappy titles.
      Someone - it may have been Curt Siodmak, screenwriter of the 1941 hit The Wolf Man - cracked a gag about how the next film should be 'Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man, I mean Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man'. And when the Powers That Be heard this, they realised that it might just work. As it happens, they struck lucky and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was one of the best of the series. There's a law of diminishing returns with sequels and this two-for-one deal revitalised the franchise before it gradually slid again with the ensuing two monsterfests, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, which threw the Count and a couple of hunchbacks into the mix. Incidentally, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was the favourite film of Spanish monster bloke Paul Naschy and the film which inspired his own long run of werewolf pictures.

      When the Frankenfranchise perked up again with its eighth and last incarnation, the idea of X meeting Y on screen was solidified as Universal's top comedians, Abbott and Costello, met Frankenstein (and Dracula and the Wolf Man and the Invisible Man). This horror-comedy mash-up was a tremendous success and led to a whole series of Abbott and Costello Meet... movies in the course of which they made the acquaintance of the Killer, the Mummy, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the Keystone Kops and Captain Kidd. This last was one of Charles Laughton’s less-celebrated motion pictures but is of passing historical/technical interest as one of the few films to have been shown on British TV in two-strip Technicolor (causing at least one of my friends to think his telly was broken).
      One of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein's oddities (well, it's not really the film's fault) is that some critics and journalists insist on referring to it as Meet Frankenstein, and listing it alphabetically under M in reference books where no-one can find it. This stems from a belief that any film has a 'correct title' which is what was onscreen when it was first shown theatrically in its country of origin (rather than whatever was on the script, or what's on the video sleeve, or what it's called in the trailer, or what everyone else calls it). The animated opening credits of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein construct the names of the stars out of bones (with skulls for the Os) and underneath there are similar cartoon bones making the phrase 'MEET FRANKENSTEIN'. There is no 'and' (though it's there in the trailers), hence the belief in some quarters that this is the film's two-word title.
      But that's quite clearly nonsense. The verb 'to meet', as in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, is indicative - it describes who/what Frankenstein is meeting. So it must surely also be indicative in the title of the Bud and Lou picture. If the title really was just 'Meet Frankenstein', the verb becomes imperative - an instruction to the reader or viewer, in the same sense as Meet Me in St Louis.
      In Britain, the film was retitled Abbott and Costello Meet the Ghosts, which seems curious at first: it's not like British audiences didn't know who Frankenstein was. Or did they? In fact, British cinemagoers weren’t overly familiar with Universal's Frankenstein Monster. Some combination of the BBFC's disapproval of horror films - the 'H' certificate had been applied to a 1943 re-release of Bride of Frankenstein - and the little matter of trying to win a war had kept all the later Frankenstein sequels off British screens. So on this side of the Atlantic, this 1948 A&C picture wasn't the last in an almost annual series of monsterfests but rather the first time anyone had seen these classic film characters on screen for several years. They may both have comic elements, but it's a heck of a jump to go from James Whale's dark comedy straight to Bud and Lou! (The BBFC listing for Abbott and Costello Meet the Ghosts, incidentally, just calls it... 'Meet the Ghosts'.)

      To be honest, these grammatical niceties became moot in the long term as filmmakers realised that what audiences wanted wasn't characters simply meeting. They wanted a punch-up. Hence the replacement of 'meets' with the catch-all 'vs', a concept popularised by Godzilla films, both in international marketing titles and the UK/US titles which sometimes replaced them at the whim of particular distributors. It was King Kong vs Godzilla in 1962 which established the idea of 'movie title as wrestling-bout billing'. Effects legend Willis 'Obie' O’Brien had long wanted to make a film in which King Kong battled a giant artificial human but King Kong vs Frankenstein - like most of Obie's post-Kong ideas - never got further than a few concept sketches. Instead, the rights to the story passed through various hands, changing the antagonist over time until Toho Studios eventually got hold of them and realised that they could use the concept to give a third outing to their giant giant lizard.
      King Kong vs Godzilla was intended as a comedy, a spoof of the previous brace of G-films which had proved so popular. But when the picture was released in the west, this fact seems to have slipped past the US distributor who edited and redubbed the film and marketed it as a straightforward monster movie. For many years fans bemoaned this particular entry in the series as a low point, featuring a cheesy costume and silly monster action. Only comparatively recently was research into the film’s original Japanese version able to show that we had all misjudged the picture. It's bit like a Japanese distributor releasing Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as a serious horror film, with Japanese monster fans subsequently thinking it was ruined by all the silly face-pulling and jumping around.

      King Kong vs Godzilla was followed by Mothra vs Godzilla, which combined the Big G with the lepidopteran star of Toho’s 1961 film. In the west, where distributors were unsure that a fuzzy giant insect with big eyes would be deemed scary enough, the film was retitled Godzilla vs the Thing with a poster showing (or rather, not showing) a hidden creature with tentacles, just like nothing in the movie has. Nevertheless, a precedent was established of Godzilla vs (Insert Monster Name Here). And so the series progressed with a whole sequence of Vs pictures. After a while, concepts started to be reused, if not exactly remade, so we find Godzilla variously vs Monster Zero, the Sea Monster, Gigan, Megalon, Mechagodzilla, the Bionic Monster (swiftly changed to 'the Cosmic Monster' for legal reasons!), Hedorah, the Smog Monster, Biollante, King Ghidorah, Mothra (again), Mechagodzilla (again), Space Godzilla and Destroyer. For 2000’s Godzilla vs Megaguirus and the subsequent third outing against Mechagodzilla, Toho abandoned 'vs' and went for 'X', implying (I think) that the two monsters were crossing each other. Or something.
      Some of these films pitted Godzilla against established monsters from earlier films but none of them had enjoyed title status like Kong or Mothra had, and some of them were completely new adversaries with no name recognition at all. It really was just Godzilla vs A Monster We’ve Just Made Up because Toho and its distributors had realised that this was what the punters wanted. They weren't bothered about the antagonist having a back story, let alone its own franchise on a collision course with Godzilla. They just wanted monster action. Some of the 1970s Godzilla films did indeed seem like extended wrestling bouts with the occasional talkie plot bit between fights - not so different from Mexican lucha films (which often used simple descriptive X vs Y titles in the form of Santo vs This or Blue Demon vs That). When a film is effectively - or in the Mexican case, almost literally - an 80-minute wrestling match, you might as well bill it as such.
      Meanwhile Daiei’s rival to Godzilla - the radioactive, rocket-powered flying superturtle Gamera - had his own list of opponents. Whereas Toho varied its title structure, mixing 'vs' with other ideas (The Return of...; The Terror of...) 1965's  Gamera was followed in short order by Gamera vs Barugon, then vs Gyaos, Viras, Guiron, Jiger, Zigra, Orud Unkur Tom Cobri and all. Over in the west, however, such extensive franchising was largely unknown, certainly within the SF/fantasy genres, although less so elsewhere. For example, the 1940s run of Dick Tracy films included Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc (predating King Kong vs Godzilla by 20 years!), Dick Tracy vs Cueball and, by way of a change, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome.

      For the most part, western face-offs pitched generic concepts against each other: Earth vs the Spider for example, or Earth vs the Flying Saucers. Trouble with night monsters? Who ya gonna call? That’s right: the US Navy, hence the enjoyably-alliterative The Navy vs the Night Monsters. When western films did deal with specifics, they tended to get silly, resulting in such almost self-parodic nonsense as Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla or that infamous brace of horror-westerns Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter and Billy the Kid vs Dracula.

      That's what people really wanted. Horror icons. Ideally horror icons clashing with each other. And if Universal weren't planning to match them up (outside of 1313 Mockingbird Lane) and Hammer certainly weren't - I’ve never read anything suggesting even the possibility of Christopher Lee's Count meeting Peter Cushing's Baron - then someone else would have to do it. After all, the monsters themselves were public domain. In the early 1970s, it seemed like Dracula vs Frankenstein films pitting the two icons monstruo-a-monstruo were very much like buses: you wait ages for one and then three come along at once.
      First was Paul Naschy’s Dracula vs Frankenstein, in which a bunch of aliens attempt to conquer Earth using classic monsters, including Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy and Naschy's signature werewolf character Waldemar Daninsky. Utterly daft and shot in less than a week, this was really double-roled Naschy fulfilling his ambition to play a Karloff-style Frankenstein Monster. There was also Al Adamson’s Dracula vs Frankenstein featuring a very ill-looking J Carroll Naish in a wheelchair as Dr F, plus an even sicker-looking Lon Chaney Jr as 'Groton the mad zombie'. A cameo-packed cast included Forry Ackerman, Angelo Rossito and Russ Tamblyn, the lab equipment was from The Bride of Frankenstein and the UK VHS release (as Return of Dracula) featured the wildest and least relevant picture ever, full of invading armies and swooping fighter jets!
      Finally there was Jess Franco's Dracula vs Frankenstein aka Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein, with Franco regular Howard Vernon as the Count and a Frankenstein monster which skirted the limits of Universal's copyright, plus a very poorly Dennis Price (as Dr F) and a werewolf too. The film gained a degree of notoriety in the early 1990s when it was shown late-night on ITV, possibly the only Franco film ever to receive a UK terrestrial broadcast. Like many horror fans I sat up late to watch what promised to be seriously bonkers and like many fans I was completely unprepared for how bonkers it was. That was the only time I have ever heard a continuity announcer sound genuinely confused and embarrassed. Perhaps someone with an off-air recording could confirm this but I’m sure the poor bloke doing Central's late-night continuity said, over the end credits, 'Well, erm, I suppose some of you might have enjoyed that'.

      Come back next month for a look at how Vs/Meets films have been reinvented in recent years.

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.