Rankin/Bass Retrospective: Mad Monster Party?
During the mid 1960’s, film monsters, which had fallen out of favor with the general public (outside of B-movies), began to make a resurgence in pop culture thanks to the likes of the Addams Family and the Munsters. Coming fresh off their success with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rankin/Bass sought out to make another stop-motion hit.
Mad Monster Party?
March 8, 1967
"Mad Monster Party" (or more accurately "Mad Monster Party?") opens with Baron Boris von Frankenstein (voiced by Boris Karloff, who played the Monster in Universal's 1933 Frankenstein) in his laboratory, having finally finished his ultimate creation, a formula that can cause the total destruction of matter. With his life's work complete, he sends word to all of his monster allies to come to his Isle of Evil: Dr. Jekyll, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, the Hunchback, the Mummy, the Creature, the Monster, and the Monster's Mate (voiced by and modeled after Phyllis Diller). There, he will choose one of them his successor as the new head of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters. However, amidst the ghouls and creatures being invited to this gathering is Felix Flanken (voiced by Allen Swift, who also voices nearly all the monsters), a wimpy asthmatic man who works in a pharmacy.
Unbeknownst to the monsters, Felix is Dr. Frankenstein's only living relative and his intended heir. When the monsters learn of this and of the destructive formula, they begins plotting to kill Felix. Felix's only comrade is his uncle's lab assistant Francesca, a red-headed woman who begins to fall for Felix after his bumbling nature saves her from danger. They aren't able to completely escape the relentless pursuit of the monsters, but before Felix can be taken out of the picture, an uninvited guest arrives to the gathering: a giant ape monster simply known as "It".
In a homage to King Kong (potentially inspired by the fact that Rankin/Bass was working on both the King Kong Show and King Kong Escapes during production of Mad Monster Party), the climax of the film is a biplane fight between Frankenstein's zombie helpers and "It". They're unable to stop "It" from storming the Isle of Evil, but not before Felix and Francesca escape on a raft. With Baron Frankenstein and all the monsters in "It"'s grasp, Frankenstein uses his formula, vaporizing everyone left on the island.
The Life of the Party
Boris von Frankenstein, as the name suggests, is voiced by Boris Karloff himself, the original actor for Universal Studios’s version of Frankenstein’s Monster and whom had previous been in the Rankin/Bass film “The Daydreamer”. This would be one of his final roles before his death in 1969, as well as the final role he performed that was connected to his most famous role.
Billed alongside him is Phyllis Diller, who, as the Monster’s Mate, essentially plays herself in both appearance and mannerisms.
The talented Allen Swift lends his talents as an impressionist to give the rest of the cast their own unique voices, such as Felix’s voice being based on Jimmy Stewart, the Invisible Man’s voiced based on Sydney Greenstreet, and so on. It's been said that his portrayal of Dracula in Mad Monster Party served as a direct inspiration for Sesame Street's Count von Count, who appeared only a few years later.
Rounding out the cast is Canadian singer Gale Garnett as Francesca.
Fans of the early Mad Magazine issues may recognize both the style of humor and the style of the characters. This is because the the script was written by founder of Mad Magazine Harvey Kurtzman, joined along with Mad artist Jack Davis, who also previously worked on monster comics for EC Comics as the designer. The stop-motion “Animagic” animation, like with other Rankin-Bass productions, was done in Japan by M.O.M. Productions.
During production, Arthur Rankin felt that “Mad Monster Party?” had too long a runtime, a sentiment that distributor Embassy Pictures disagreed with. In fact they felt the initial version was too short, leading to the addition of several scenes such as the airplane fight at the end and scenes involving Frankenstein’s personal chef. This pushed the runtime up to the standard 90 minute runtime of a feature animated film.
For music, Rankin/Bass got Maury Laws, a composer from North Carolina who was quickly becoming one of the studio’s go-to musicians. The main theme of the film was performed by singer Ethel Ennis.
Mad Monster Party was released on March 8th, 1967 to not too strong reviews and a low turn-out, most of the actual screenings being in Saturday afternoon matinees at small theaters. In its initial release, the film underperformed and was soon forgotten about, until it made its way to television. There, much like most of Rankin/Bass’s stop-motion catalog, it found an audience, and continues to be a cult classic to this day and continues to inspire more contemporary horror animators such as Tim Burton.