“The full moon brings out the monster in you. / A strange tune seems to be playing for you. / Could you be someone’s invention, so unreal as you feel tonight? / Did you sell your soul to the devil at that monster party last night?”
Imagine an animated monster film more silly than genuinely frightening but still very creative and not without moments of subtle menace. Sound cool? Now imagine that the film is an obvious influence on Tim Burton and Pixar. Definitely cool, yeah? Now imagine it’s a musical with Phyllis Diller. Did I lose you? Don’t worry. It’s still cool.
I’m speaking, of course, of Mad Monster Party, (or Party?) that fabulous stop-motion foray into macabre kookiness. Rankin/Bass, best known for their numerous Christmas specials, created this in 1967 and released it in the spring. Consequently, it’s not exactly a Halloween special. But spring-schming, I’ve only ever watched it around Halloween. And it’s about 14 billion times more satisfying than that nihilistic family favorite, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Mad Magazine‘s Harvey Kurtzman brought the mad to the Monster Party script and Mad illustrator Jack Davis designed the characters (storyboarded by Don Duga, a Rankin/Bass regular for many years). Some say Forrest J. Ackerman contributed as well. While that remains disputed, I do think that Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland could have been an influence, especially through the cover art from Basil Gogos (a guy who, now that I think of it, deserves a tribute post of his own). But influenced or not, the design is effectively fun and creepy at once, and any reader of early Mad will know Davis excelled at that combination.
The story goes like this: Baron Frankenstein (Boris Karloff), a mad scientist who has discovered “the formula which can destroy all matter” (as well as the ability to make crows explode) decides to retire. He invites a host of villainous friends for a retirement party on his Caribbean island (because, I suppose, even mad scientists like to sit down to a plate of ackee and saltfish under a coconut tree after a hard day deciphering the mysteries of death). At the party—attended by Dracula, the Wolf Man, a mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, Phyllis Diller, Doctor Jekyll and many more—rumor circulates that the baron will name his successor. The baron’s nephew, Felix Flankin, is also invited, though he’s more clumsy than sinister. He dresses a bit like George Will and sounds like Jimmy Stewart. (I guess that adds up to Garrison Keillor?) Mayhem and malevolent Machiavellian machinations manifest as the mysterious monsters meet and maneuver. Or, less alliteratively, the bad guys (read: everyone but Felix but especially the Baron’s hot redhead assistant, Francesca) plot against each other (especially Felix) to get control of the Baron’s powerful secrets after it’s announced that Felix will be the Baron’s heir. And the ending? Let’s say it prefigures The Smiths line, “If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.”
As I mentioned, it’s a musical. At least, it has several songs (is there a song-to-dialogue ratio distinguishing a musical from a movie with music in it?) composed by Maury Laws and Jules Bass (who had also collaborated on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer a few years before). The best song by far is the opening James Bond-like theme and jazz singer Ethel Ennis’s smooth, confident sexiness. Also notable are “The Mummy,” in the style of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and “One Step Ahead” in which Boris Karloff sings. Kinda. Banjos are involved. Don’t miss it.
Rankin/Bass didn’t invent stop-motion animation; it’s nearly as old as film itself. But for the most part, it was a special effect or, at most, an animation technique for very short films, or comparatively simple work such as Gumby. With Rudolph, and even more so with Mad Monster Party, they propelled stop motion into a fully realized animation format for longer films with great stories, voice acting and full, complex visuals.
Those of us who grew up watching Rankin/Bass specials hold them in special esteem, even though they can be dated and a little hokey at times. Watching these stop-motion shows was a lot like seeing dolls and action figures come to life—I did mention Pixar earlier, I believe—and what kid wouldn’t find that magical? As an adult I still enjoy them, not just for nostalgia but because they’re genuinely fun and clever. And for me, Mad Monster Party was the best of the bunch.
Jason Henninger thinks Francesca looks like Christina Hendricks. He thinks of this quite a bit, in fact.