Revisiting Mad Monster Party? (1967)

When you say the words Rankin/Bass to people of a certain age (ahem), images will immediately be conjured up in the mind: of a big-eyed Rudolph the reindeer and his shiny red nose; of Hermey, the elf who wants to become a dentist; of prospector Yukon Cornelius and his quest for silver and gold; of the terrifying yet oddly adorable abominable snowmonster Bumble; of the Island of Misfit Toys and the Charlie-in-the-Box; of the affable Frosty the Snowman singing like Burl Ives.

What I’m saying is, Rankin/Bass’s stop-motion animation specials are practically synonymous with Christmas for large swaths of my generation and those that came slightly before and after. When I was a kid, it wasn’t really Christmas until you at least watched Rudolph and Frosty, and it was an added bonus if you happened to catch Rudolph’s Shiny New Year or The Year Without a Santa Claus (HEAT MISER!!!) playing on one of the networks around the holiday season.

But one Rankin/Bass special that I don’t think I ever saw on television, even though it would have been right in my wheelhouse as a child, was their feature-length stop-motion opus, Mad Monster Party?, released in 1967. The strange thing about it is that although you’d think it would have been ripe for syndicated rotation right around Halloween, the thing was actually first released to theaters by Embassy Pictures in March of that year for some unfathomable reason, even though the story revolved around all the classic movie monsters from the golden era, and features a voice performance by Boris Karloff, in his final film association with the Frankenstein story that had made him a horror icon. I suppose the reason it didn’t get much later play on network TV was because of its runtime of ninety minutes, which of course probably would have had to have been extended to two hours with commercial breaks. The film has become a cult classic nowadays, but it still flies way under the radar when people are discussing beloved Halloween specials, which is a real shame, because it’s actually a lot of fun.

Like most if not all of the Rankin/Bass productions, the script and character design was undertaken in the United States, while the actual painstaking work of the frame-by-frame animation was done by MOM Productions in Tokyo, Japan. The screenplay is credited to Mad Magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman, and the movie does have a very Mad Magazine sensibility, with a groovy 1960s vibe and references to big cultural touchstones of that era that may be somewhat lost on audiences nowadays. The character design was also done by a Mad Magazine alum, Jack Davis, whose distinctive big-headed and skinny-legged caricatures are given the 3D treatment here.

To give a little context as to why Rankin/Bass chose this particular time period for this material, it’s important to realize that the classic monsters from Universal’s 1930s cycle were enjoying something of a resurgence in the 1960s, though filtered through a more comedy-oriented lens, as evidenced by the success of The Addams Family and The Munsters on TV, and the presence of Count Chocula, Frankenberry, Boo Berry, and Fruit Brute on cereal shelves. Mad Monster Party? is definitely a dark comedy, though something of a dated one, and is also a musical because of course it was; although most of the music is just kind of there and unfortunately seems shoehorned in, the title track (sung by jazz vocalist Ethel Ennis) is outstanding, with a real James-Bond-theme air to it that should make it a staple of any self-respecting goth or hipster’s Halloween playlist. Seriously, it’s a great fucking song.

At the beginning of Mad Monster Party?, we’re introduced to Baron Boris von Frankenstein (voiced, naturally, by the man, the myth, the legend himself, Boris Karloff, and visually modeled after the actor as well). He’s just completed his greatest and most fiendish invention, a substance that’s capable of disintegrating all matter it comes in contact with (I mean, aside from the glass vial it’s kept in, apparently). He demonstrates its effectiveness by wiping a bit of it on a raven’s foot and releasing the bird out a window; the raven flies over to a nearby tree and the whole kit and kaboodle explodes and then disappears, which…not cool blowing up ravens, puppet Boris, even if you are evil. Anyway.

Boris is so excited about his triumph that he immediately sends out invites to all the other monsters so that he can show them his discovery, and also announce that he’ll be retiring as the head of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters. He writes the invitations in invisible ink and attaches them to bats, and the bats go out and deliver the messages to Count Dracula, the Mummy, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Werewolf, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and the Creature (as in, of the Black Lagoon, though of course Universal owned the rights to that name so they had to get vague with it). Notably absent is the Phantom of the Opera, though I guess technically he’s not really a monster, so I’ll allow it.

Already residing in the castle are Frankenstein’s Monster and the Monster’s Mate (again, Universal held the rights to the Bride of Frankenstein character), who is modeled after and voiced by iconic comedian Phyllis Diller. She even calls the Frankenstein’s Monster “Fang” on several occasions, which if you’re not old, was what she used to call her husband in her stand-up routine back in the day. There’s also Boris’s hot, redheaded, and very stacked secretary Francesca (voiced by Gale Garnett), who he built and refers to as his masterpiece; his Igor-like assistant Yetch, who looks and talks like Peter Lorre; and a whole gaggle of zombie servants (though they look more like ghoul-type zombies; this was the year before Romero-style zombies shambled onto the scene, remember). Oh, and there’s also a chef who’s a walking Italian stereotype and whose name is Mafia Macchiavelli. All the male characters who talk (other than Boris), by the way, are voiced by impressionist Allen Swift, who makes the Invisible Man sound like Sydney Greenstreet (from Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon), and also does an impression of Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame; he was also Mr. Elsa Lanchester) for the minor character of the boat captain who takes the monsters to Boris’s Isle of Evil.

Francesca is tasked with arranging the party once the guests arrive. She’s curious as to why another monster, only called “It” for reasons which will become clearer later on, wasn’t invited, but Boris says he was a “crushing bore” at the last get-together, i.e. he crushed several wild boars on the island with his bare hands. Har de har.

Francesca also notices that Boris is inviting someone named Felix Flanken, a person she isn’t familiar with. The audience has already been introduced to Felix (who is voiced, again, by Allen Swift, this time doing a Jimmy Stewart impression): he’s a very young, nebbishy pharmacist with bad eyesight, copious allergies, and terrible hand-eye coordination. Boris explains that Felix is his nephew and his only living relative, and that after he retires, he wants Felix to take over as the head of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters (henceforth WOM) and be privy to all of Boris’s secret experiments.

Francesca isn’t too happy about this development, though, as she believes she should be Boris’s successor, so she immediately starts thinking about how she’s going to eliminate the competition. Meanwhile, all the monsters are onboard a ship heading for the island, and though Felix is on the ship too, there are a bunch of funny happenstances and misunderstandings that prevent him from realizing he’s traveling with a coterie of monsters. Clueless Felix just believes he’s going on a relaxing beach vacation at his uncle’s Caribbean island resort.

One by one, the monsters either fly, swim, or take lifeboats to the Isle of Evil, because they’re aware that the ship captain won’t dock at the island because he’s scared of the place. Felix isn’t aware of this, though, so he stays on the ship, resulting in all the monsters getting to the island much earlier than Felix does. Boris welcomes his associates and they all sit down to dinner, after which Boris tells them about his matter-disintegrating serum, and also that he’ll be stepping down as the leader of WOM and will be naming his successor later on. He doesn’t tell them who will be taking his place, however, which causes all the monsters to begin scheming and forming factions to ensure that they will be the ones to get all of Boris’s sweet, evil-promoting secrets.

Francesca in particular throws in her lot with Dracula (who of course is voiced by Allen Swift again, this time doing a riff on Bela Lugosi; and fun fact: the look of Dracula here was a direct inspiration for Count von Count on Sesame Street), telling him that she knows who Boris is naming to succeed him. The pair work together, though each are planning to double-cross the other; also complicating matters is the team of the Frankenstein’s Monster and the Monster’s Mate, who keep spying on Dracula and Francesca because they think they should run the shit.

Once Felix arrives, the monster machinations ramp up, since they see that Felix is really not well suited for evil, and Francesca even solicits Dracula to kill him, but the vampire can’t quite manage it, and Felix remains oblivious pretty much the entire time. Somewhat ironically, Felix doesn’t really seem to want to be his uncle’s successor, though he’s unfailingly polite about it; he’s just too good-hearted and doesn’t know anything about running a monster organization, and besides, he already has a job as a pharmacist.

During the middle of the movie, there are mostly just a bunch of musical numbers and monster fisticuffs as various coalitions of monsters jockey for position and try to take out Felix. As I mentioned, the songs are mostly kind of repetitive and bland, and seem to have been inserted just to pad out the runtime; the one exception (other than the awesome theme song, that is) is Francesca’s big number, “Never Was a Love Like Mine,” sung by Gale Garnett, which is loungy and pretty rad.

Toward the end, Felix has finally twigged onto the danger he’s in, and by this time, he and Francesca have fallen madly in love. In order to possibly save their skins, Francesca sends out a messenger bat to “It,” the previously uninvited guest, who when he arrives proves to be a giant ape (essentially King Kong, but just called It to skirt copyright). Just like in King Kong, the gorilla develops feelings for the busty Francesca and gets grabby with her, but Boris, in a final act of goodness to save his nephew and Francesca, allows himself to be taken by It instead, and he then uses his matter-disintegrating serum to blow up everything on the island, including himself, It, and all the other monsters. I have to admit, I didn’t expect such a dark ending, but I guess if you introduce something like a fluid that destroys all matter at the beginning of the movie, you have to use it at the end; it’s like Chekhov’s annihilation juice.

Felix and Francesca escape in a little boat, though a distraught Francesca tells Felix she can’t marry him because she’s not human, but a robot. He just shrugs and tells her no one is perfect (this last bit is a reference to the 1959 film Some Like It Hot), and then it’s implied that he might actually be a robot too, indicating that Boris had also created him at some point and sent him out into the world for whatever reason.

The great strength of Mad Monster Party? is in its art design; the puppets and the sets all look fantastic (I especially like the look of the Invisible Man and the Mummy), and there’s so much attention to detail in the background that it’s entertaining enough just looking at everything and marveling at all the work that was put into it. Most of the voice work is also stellar, though some of the jokes fall sort of flat, and many of the somewhat obscure film references will likely be lost on younger viewers. The songs, other than the couple I mentioned, probably weren’t necessary, as they don’t really have much to do with what’s going on in the plot and go on a tad too long with minimal lyrical interest. The initial cut of the film, or so I read, was much shorter, but the distributor encouraged the filmmakers to lengthen it; apparently Rankin wasn’t happy with this, because he thought the movie was better at a shorter runtime, but he did it. So the movie does drag in places, and there’s a lot of filler, but the characters are so cute and the concept so cool that I didn’t really mind much.

While I can see why this didn’t achieve the exalted cult status of Rankin/Bass’s shorter Christmas-themed TV productions, it’s still a hoot if you’re into the Universal monsters and want something old-school and family-friendly to watch over the Halloween season (so, all year long in my case). I would also recommend it if you’re a fan of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, as Burton named Mad Monster Party? as a direct inspiration for his 1993 holiday classic.

There was, incidentally, a “sequel” (of sorts) called Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters that came out in 1972, though it was just traditional cel animation, not stop-motion. And since Boris Karloff had unfortunately died in 1969, the voice of the Baron was provided by Bob McFadden, though Allen Swift reprised most of his roles from the first film, and added a few new ones. I don’t recall ever seeing it, but maybe I’ll give it a look for a future post and video.

Until next time, keep it creepy (and mad and monstrous), my friends.

One thought on “Revisiting Mad Monster Party? (1967)

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