Saturday, October 22, 2016

Monster Team-up Reflection #32: Rankin/Bass' Mad Monster Party?

Jules Rankin and Arthur Bass blessed our childhoods with stop-motion wonderment. With Rankin/Bass' televised Christmas programs being so popular, it was only natural for the studio to branch out with a theatrical release, the result being the 1967 Halloween-ish salute called "The Mad Monster Party?" (Yes, the question mark, for whatever cryptic reason, is an official part of the kooky title.)

Directed by Bass, who co-produced with Rankin and Joseph E. Levine, from a screenplay by Harvey Kurtzman (best known for his Mad Magazine and Playboy cartoons), the story presents Baron Boris Von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) living on the Isle of Evil, set to retire upon the completion of a matter-destroying formula. He desires his nerdy nephew, Felix Franken (Allen Swift), to become his successor and rounds up the world's most famous monsters to make the big announcement. 

The gathering (or "party", if you will) includes the Frankenstein Monster; his Bride (Phyllis Diller, standing in for Elsa Lancaster); the Creature from the Black Lagoon; the Lugosi-ish Dracula; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; the Mummy; Quasimodo/Hunchback of Notre Dame; the Sydney Greenstreet-ish Invisible Man; the Werewolf/Wolfman; the Peter Lorre-ish Yetch (Swift); and his ghoulish, zombie-clone bellhops. There's also a specimen unseen for most of the film, referred to as "It", who holds (SPOILER) a startling resemblance to a particular inhabitant of a little place called Skull Island. (It makes one wonder, therefore, if Rankin/Bass hadn't at some point pitched stop-motion puppetry to Toho, when it came to their "King Kong Escapes" collaboration.)

The Baron's secretary, a fetching redhead named Francesca (Gale Garnett, who made "We'll Sing in the Sunshine" such a bit hit), takes issue with Felix assuming command and enlists Drac (and inadvertently the other monsters) to thwart the Baron's plans. However, in an unexpected turn, Francesca falls for the hapless nephew, which leads to an explosive yet "happily ever after" climax. 

Not only is "Monster Party" a bubbly character tour de force, it's characterized by beloved personalities and their distinct vocalizations, headlined of course, by Karloff (think of his portrayal in "Frankenstein 1970", but made more congenial); and Diller, essentially playing herself as a lovable, wise-cracking caricature. Incidentally, the Frankenstein Monster, a lumbering but cute variation of Jack Pierce's design, is named Fang, after Diller's referenced boyfriend in her stand-up routines. (Indeed, the pop-cultural vibe couldn't have been more hip at the time, or arguably, even at present for those in the know.)

The aforementioned Swift, perhaps best known to cartoon fans as Simon Bar Sinister and Riff-Raff on "The Underdog Show", supplies not only Felix's voice, but Yetch's, with all the trademark Lorre intonations. 

Felix, however, is Swift's own concoction, smacking of a congested James Stewart, combined with Jerry Lewis' "Nutty Professor'"s, Julius Kelp. Felix is clumsy but amiable, making him similar to other '60s comedic heroes, not only Lewis', but those featured in such Don Knotts fare as "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" and "The Reluctant Astronaut". Felix also holds the distinction of being different, stumbling his way through life, even more so than the monsters (who hold an inherent camaraderie), making his circumstance the film's recurring concern. 

Like other Rankin/Bass productions, "Monster Party" succeeds as an endearing musical, thanks to Maury Laws' catchy compositions, with Diller rising to the occasion on "You're Different" and Garnett belting out the wonderful "Our Time to Shine", in what becomes a terrific dance sequence with Drac. Also, there's an uproarious scene where the the Mummy, Bride and Quasimodo dance to the Edwardian-haired skeleton band, Little Tibia and the Fibias, who perform the groovy "It's the Mummy". 

Though considered a box-office flop in '67, "Monster Party" began its steady cult rise throughout the early '70s when it aired on UHF stations. Children and adults, who appreciated the likes of Rankin/Bass' Rudolph and Frosty shows, embraced the film and looked forward to repeat viewings. Also, Drac's monocle look clearly inspired "Sesame Street'"s Count, which many children of the time were quick to acknowledge, thus enforcing the film's earliest, pop-cultural influence.   

In '73, "The Saturday Superstar Movie" series premiered a cell-animated follow-up to the film. Though it never went beyond one entry, fans of the '67 film respect its connection and perhaps the fact that it exudes the same cheerful charm of "The Groovie Goolies" and such live-action counterparts of the era as "Monster Squad" and "Hilarious House of Frightenstein".

In the later decades, with the advent of VHS and special-edition disc releases, "Monster Party" has grown even larger in popularity, prompting companies to produce resin/vinyl figures and latex masks of the characters. (The movie also appears to have influenced Tim Burton/Henry Selick's stop-motion favorite, "Nightmare Before Christmas", which in its own right may have helped usher in the "Monster Party" collectibles.)

As an enduring monster-rally epic, "Monster Party" has arguably matched the acclaim of "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and even more serious fare like "House of Frankenstein" and "House of Dracula". "Hotel Transylvania" also owes much debt to it. 

The filmmakers' love for monsters and their varying mythologies, as well as its underlying celebration of being unique in a world of blah normality, is more than enough reason why this charming team-up has stood the test of time and is destined to delight audiences far into the future: in other words, a classic if ever there was one.

1 comment:

  1. Listening to Bobby Pickett's "Monster Mash" this Halloween season, I couldn't help but think that the Rankin/Bass film owes some debt to it. The film's set-up is, in essence, the song. With some retooling (with either tune or film), Pickett's classic could have fit into the story without any trouble.