Halloween Special: The Stop-Motion Madness of ‘Mad Monster Party’
I'm what you might call a pretty big fan of Christmas, and I've got no shortage of love for the holiday specials produced by Rankin-Bass, the production company known for their stop-motion "Ani-Magic" TV specials like Year Without a Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. What I didn't know until recently, however, was that they also made a full-length, theatrically released Halloween picture: 1967's Mad Monster Party.
It boasts the talents of a pair of legendary comics creators, screenwriter Harvey Kurtzman and character designer Jack Davis, both of whom are well-known for their work at EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In what has to be an inside joke, Kurtzman's name even appears on the screen when a singer belts out "mad, mad, mad" during the opening credits, and his sense of humor's all over the story, and Davis's designs would be influential on both Tim Burton (who aped Mad Monster Party's style for The Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas) and Sesame Street, whose Count Von Count looks almost exactly like MMP's Dracula.
Also, it is completely insane.I'd somehow never heard of this thing until ComicsAlliance contributor Chris Haley -- who loves it so much that he watches it every Halloween while eating a bowl of Count Chocula -- told me about it last year. I've been saving it up to watch as part of my annual Spooktoberfest celebrations, and while it's certainly the black sheep of the Rankin-Bass family, it's got a lot going for it that those beloved Christmas specials lack.
The story opens on Baron Boris von Frankenstein, played almost inevitably by classic horror icon Boris Karloff in one of his last roles. Working in his castle -- which for some reason is located in the Caribbean -- Frankenstein has finally completed his masterpiece of mad science, a substance that can destroy matter.
Putting aside the fact that I'm pretty sure the concept of explosions existed well before 1967, Boris decides this is a pretty good way to go out, and calls a meeting of the world's monsters (of whom he's the leader) to announce his retirement and name his successor.
Being familiar with the Christmas specials and the way they were all built around popular standards, I was sure this was going to lead to a scene where everyone rocked out to "Monster Mash," and while a cover of the song by the Misfits (sans Glenn Danzig, or sanzig) was used to promote the DVD, it doesn't actually show up in the film. Instead, we get introductions of all the Monster Party attendees. There's the usual suspects, of course -- Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- but there are also a few surprises, like Quasimodo and "The Monster's Mate," who is voiced by comedienne Phyllis Diller and looks so much like her that it was actually freaking me out a little:
More important to the plot, however -- and one of the major contributing factors of the movie's innane craziness -- is the introduction of the Baron's lovely assistant Francesca, a femme fatale who is...
Well, there's no getting around it. She's stacked.
It's actually a little disconcerting.
According to the Sum of All Human Knowledge, Francesca's look was inspired by Ginger from Gilligan's Island, but between the hair, the proportions and the stylin' late '60s fashion, she's essentially the Ani-Magic version of Mad Men's Christina Hendricks.
She even has the same dress.
Obviously, each monster -- and Francesca -- thinks that Boris is going to name him or her as his successor and give them the unstoppable ultimate destructive power of nitroglycerin, but the prestige of the Frankenstein name (and the admittedly sweet Euro-Caribbean castle) is going to go to the Baron's only living relative, Felix Flankin...
...a nerdy milquetoast with the voice of a dollar store Jimmy Stewart impersonator who thinks he's just going to a scientific conference.
Before long, the monsters start arriving at the castle, most notably Dracula, who takes the opportunity to totally scope out Francesca's cleavage:
See what I mean about Mad Monster Party inspiring Sesame Street? He's even got the monocle, and I hear that once those cameras stop rolling, Count Von Count only cares about phone numbers.
It's around this time that Boris explains his plan to Francesca, who decides that she'd make a much better leader for the world's monsters than a weak-willed pharmacist, and she hatches a plan: Seduce Dracula.
Thus, a musical number in which the Lord of the Vampires tapdances. Incidentally, if Francesca herself wasn't enough of a reminder by her very existence that Kurtzman, the creator of Little Annie Fanny, wrote this, here's an exchange between her and Dracula that immediately precedes the song:
"Now that we are alone, what will it be? A quick nip on the ear? A playful bite on the neck?"
"Count, I'm afraid you've been drinking."
"Not nearly enough. Not what I like to drink most of all."
It seems that while they'd perfected the art of slipping innuendo into kids' cartoons, doing so with subtlety was still a few decades off.
Despite striking a strategic alliance, the attempts to kill Felix meet with failure on an almost Looney Tunesian scale...
...leading the monsters to turn on Francesca, who takes the opportunity to make a classic Mad Scientist "I'll show them -- I'll show them all!" speech, which pretty much does prove that she's the best candidate for the position of Resident Frankenstein.
Throughout the whole thing, Felix remains oblivious, and when Francesca finally gets so frustrated that she confesses she hates him, Felix assumes that she's lost it and does what any well-meaning man in 1960 would do when confronted with a hysterical female:
His sudden show of aggression -- well-meaning as it was -- causes Francesca to fall in love with him, but he mistakes her advances for more hysteria and slaps her again, which causes her to fall even more in love with him.
The '60s were a strange time, folks.
Unfortunately for their burgeoning romance, Francesca gets kidnapped by a giant monster, and Baron Frankenstein gathers his zombie luftwaffe to rescue her.
And by "rescue," I mean "using his secret formula to blow up every single character in the movie except Francesca and Felix," making this the only movie made for children that I know of that both opened and closed with a mushroom cloud.
And that, aside from a twist ending I don't want to spoil for those of you who want to catch it yourselves before Halloween, is how it ends.
So is it great? Well, no. In fact, it's not even as good as you might expect from just the creators involved with it, but it is highly enjoyable and hardly deserves its status as the red-headed stepchild of the Rankin-Bass Holiday Specials. After all, as far as Halloween traditions go, it still beats the hell out of Saw.