The Rankin-Bass Halloween Special: Mad Monster Party

Rankin-Bass teamed up with Boris Karloff, MAD Magazine, Forry Ackerman, and Frank Frazetta for a Halloween special. What the hell?

Rankin Bass Mad Monster Party Halloween Special

Three years after producing 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer but before going on to make other warm-hearted and sincere animated holiday standards like Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman and the questionable Here Comes Peter Cottontail, Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass took a hard left turn into the dark, delightfully strange, and intensely geeky with Mad Monster Party.

Predating Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s Nightmare Before Christmas by over a quarter-century, the sinister duo’s stop-motion musical comedy celebration of classic Universal horror, which was released as a theatrical feature before becoming a semi-regular October TV standby, never quite cornered the Halloween specials market as planned. Somehow it was never able to lure audiences away from that damned Great Pumpkin. That may be in part because despite all the kid-friendly trappings and all those bright, uplifting musical numbers, Mad Monster Party’s unlikely creative team left the film aimed squarely at adolescent (and adult) film nerds.

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So let’s start with that pedigree. The “Mad” in the title was not exactly an accident. Since the ‘50s MAD Magazine’s take-no-prisoners subversive cultural satire made it essential reading for any unbalanced kid with a head on his shoulders (even if some of the sharper political jabs went over those heads). As unlikely a pairing as it seems given their usual m.o., Rankin/Bass tapped MAD founder, editor and cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman to write the screenplay, and a few of the magazine’s staff artists (including the legendary Jack Davis) to design the characters and sets.

Rankin/Bass may have been responsible for the animation style and some of the script’s rare gentle and tender moments, but at heart it would remain a MAD project. That right there explains an awful lot about the finished film, especially all the chopped liver and pickled herring jokes.

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Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine was just as essential reading at the time as MAD, and for much the same audience. It only made sense considering the story at play that Forry, undisputed King of the Geeks, would be brought in as well to do some uncredited work on the screenplay, adding a number of sly movie in-jokes, like the werewolf dressed in gypsy garb. They even hired Frank Frazetta, whose lush, hyperrealistic fantasy art had graced the covers of countless pulp novels, to design the poster.

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If you were a maladjusted 14-year-old at the time (or a maladjusted adult now) the behind-the-scenes team alone made Mad Monster Party the equivalent of a rock’n’roll supergroup. Minus Rankin and Bass themselves, of course.

Given it was a Halloween themed project, and Rankin/Bass had a knack for hiring name voice actors, there was little question Boris Karloff had to play the lead. There was simply no getting around it. I mean, the central character is Dr. Frankenstein—who the hell else is gonna play him, Soupy Sales? By that point in his career, Karloff was growing awfully weary of the low-rent horror cheapies he’d been making for far too long, and had no trouble at all satirizing what had been his bread and butter for over three decades. Plus he’d just done the Grinch the previous year and was anxious to do something else aimed at kids (even if Mad Monster Party was still at heart aimed at his core audience).

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As for the other voices, well, Elsa Lanchester was still alive at the time, but somehow it made much more sense to bring in Phyllis Diller to play the Bride of Frankenstein. The role even allowed her to work some of her standard act into the goings-on, including calling her husband “Fang.” Gale Garnett plays Francesca, Frankenstein’s unusually buxom assistant. Well, unusually buxom for a standard dumb kid’s movie anyway, until you remember the characters were designed by a bunch of MAD artists.

Apart from Ethel Ennis singing the title song in a clear parody of a James Bond opening, pretty much the only other actor involved was Allen Swift, who’d done voices for dozens of cartoons from Underdog to The Beatles, and had a knack for celebrity impressions. Swift provides most of the voices here, and it’s through him, in fact, that a number of Mad Monster Party’s more subtle and unexpected movie jokes arise.

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Okay, so Baron von Frankenstein (Karloff) lives on the barren and isolated Isle of Evil (“I Love Evil,” get it?) with his overdeveloped assistant and a lovestruck zombie named Yetch who lords over a small army of zombie monkeys in fezzes and bears a striking resemblance to Peter Lorre. Having just completed his life’s work by creating a liquid that can destroy matter, Frankenstein feels its time to retire as the head of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters, so calls a convention together  at his castle to name his successor.

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Dracula, the Monster, the Monster’s Mate, the Mummy, the Invisible Man (in a smoking jacket), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Werewolf (in the aforementioned gypsy outfit) and every other monster of note shows up, all of them hoping It doesn’t show up unexpectedly again, and all of them jockeying to take over the WWOM. They proceed to get drunk and rowdy. Several (mostly dreadful) musical numbers ensue, including one sung by Karloff himself, and another performed by a hippie skeleton garage rock band.

Then there’s Felix Flanken, Frankenstein’s nephew and only living heir, who knows nothing of his family’s monster-making history. Felix is young, clumsy, works in a drug store in Vermont for the overbearing and unibrowed Mr. Krankheit (itself a two-pronged joke) and is a chemistry hobbyist in his spare time. He also suffers from terrible allergies. He has no idea why he’s been invited to his uncle’s “resort,” but insists on going anyway. That Felix sounds suspiciously like Jimmy Stewart establishes his introduction at the drug store as a nod to It’s a Wonderful Life, and sets up any number of Jimmy Stewart film refs throughout.

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Plot aside (which gets pretty nasty as the conventioning monsters start trying to knock each other, and especially Felix, off in order to succeed Frankenstein), Mad Monster party is so thick with film references—in the voices, visuals, dialogue and situations—it’s pointless to try and list them here. Along with individual nods to pretty much every Universal horror film through the mid-’40s, there are references here to King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, Some Like It Hot, Alfred Hitchcock, Flight of the Phoenix, dozens more, often at the same time. There’s even a wink to Ernie Kovacs’ Auntie Gruesome sketch if you’re paying attention.

In a personal favorite, the captain of the ship sailing Felix to the Isle of Evil sounds like Charles Laughton. He also has a grotesquely deformed first mate, making it a nod to a Laughton double bill of Mutiny on the Bounty and his Hunchback of Notre Dame. Swift provides other characters with the voices of Bela Lugosi (obviously enough), but also Sidney Greenstreet, Fredric March, and Basil Rathbone. And when was the last time you heard anyone do a Fredric March impersonation?   

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In and amongst the great finger-popping late ‘60s jazz score and lots of food references, there are plenty of the expected groan-inducing dumb kids monster jokes here. Beneath the family-friendly mask however, there is an underlying wicked smirk, a torrent of sophisticated (well almost) jokes and references piling up on each other that you can see Mad Monster Party, thanks mostly to the involvement of the MAD crew, was a major influence on later culturally sophisticated (but still dumb and hilarious) animated shows like Animaniacs and Robot Chicken. There’s even a bit of mild S&M between Felix and Francesca and an unusually dark twist ending for a supposed lighthearted and sweet animated show for the youngsters.

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One interesting sidenote, due to certain copyright issues, Mad Monster Party was not allowed to call certain obvious characters by name, including  the Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf-Man, and King Kong. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Invisible Man, and Jekyll & Hyde were in the clear, as they were derived from literary sources. But we all know who the others are, so it doesn’t matter.

The prevailing visual tone here is grim and, well, monstrous. The sets are packed with morbid detail and the characters (apart from the Karloff, Francesca and Felix models) a menagerie of grotesques. It’s far more beautiful in its way than the doe-eyed nicey-nice crap of The Little Drummer Boy. And although the slapdash stop-motion work can seem crude and archaic in this misbegotten CGI world, the number of tiny gestures and quiet expressions, the amount of simple non-descript action that takes place (especially during some of the long nearly silent cuts) reveals just how much work went into this goofy thing. 

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Whether it exists today as a bit of warm and comforting nostalgia for aging geeks or as a drinking game to see who can catch that nod to The 39 Steps, it still remains sharp and funny and subversive, as well as the best damn thing Rankin-Bass ever did. I mean, maybe I’d have a little more respect for Rudolph’s Shiny New Year if it had included lines of dialogue like, “Into the air, Zombie Birdmen!”