Mad Monsters and Parties

Little-known monster classics from the world of Rankin/Bass.
June 14, 2006
I'll bet that you remember the "animagic" RUDOLPH special that's aired annually since 1964, as well as many of the similar Christmas specials. There's a chance that you may remember the animated version of THE HOBBIT and THE LAST UNICORN. All of these have become Rankin/Bass classics. There's also a good chance that you're familiar with Tim Burton's NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and CORPSE BRIDE, but do you know what inspired Burton's animated vision? It's a little film called MAD MONSTER PARTY?, which was released in 1967.

By the 1950's, horror had become passe. Science fiction came into its own, and theatres were filled with images of giant bugs (THEM), aliens (WAR OF THE WORLDS) and other mutant creatures (INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS). The small-screen was reflecting the trend too, with "The Twilight Zone" topping the ratings and paving the way for "The Outer Limits," "Lost in Space," "Star Trek" and many others. But as the saying goes, history repeats itself. Thanks in no small part to TV airings, the classic monsters began making a comeback by the mid-60s. TV hopped on board with original programming and "The Munsters" and "Addams Family" hit the air. Model kits and other collectibles bearing the faces of monsters were in high demand, and at Halloween, you could bet that there'd be monster masks adorning the faces of many trick-or-treaters at your door.

This did not go unnoticed by stop-motion pioneers Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, who were enjoying success from their myriad of holiday TV specials, but were having less-than-stellar success with their theatrical films (WILLY MCBEAN AND HIS MAGIC MACHINE, THE DAYDREAMER, THE WACKY WORLD OF MOTHER GOOSE). It was decided that their next feature would include all of the classic monsters (as well as the newer CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON). Ken Korobkin wrote a script, "THE MONSTER MOVIE," which was later polished by Mad Magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman, and thus the title "MAD MONSTER PARTY" was born.

Long before Disney started enticing celebrities to do voice-work, Rankin/Bass pioneered this trend (beginning with Berl Ives's Snowman narration in RUDOLPH), so Boris Karloff was cast as Baron Von Frankenstein. Karloff had previously lent his vocal talents to THE DAYDREAMER for Rankin/Bass (as well as voicing the Grinch in Dr. Seuss's animated classic), but there was even more of an appeal since it was Karloff's flat-headed makeup that had long-since become the standard image of Frankenstein. Also recruited was comedienne Phyllis Diller, who lent her unmistakable voice and mug to The Monster's Mate (otherwise known as The Bride of Frankenstein). Although he had passed away a few years earlier, Hungarian cult horror icon Peter Lorre was the model for the Baron's henchman, Yetch. Scene-stealing Yetch is a lovably daffy character and a fitting tribute to legendary Lorre.

The story was fairly simple. The Baron, who had recently discovered a formula to destroy matter, holds a party to announce his retirement and name his nebbish (Jimmy Stewart-esque) nephew Felix Flanken as his successor. Of course, the monsters aren't too keen on the idea of nerdy Felix being the new man in charge, so they scheme to rub him out... but the Baron's masterpiece, sexy android Francesca, falls in love with Felix. Music, mayhem and giant-ape abductions ensue!

The film received little promotion from its distributor, and a small theatrical release. There's little wonder that it bombed. In those days, there was no home video and movies were far more apt to become quickly forgotten. Adding insult to injury, the soundtrack album (which is cited in the opening credits) was never issued on vinyl -- it'd be more than three decades before the album was finally released (on CD). With no video or LP releases, the only exposure the film received for more than a decade were sparse airings on TV. But the few who caught it during these airings remember it fondly and comprise the film's initial "cult" audience (including writer/director Tim Burton).

The "party" was long over five years later, but with Hammer still churning out successful horror films and the old Universal classics still pulling in strong ratings on television, Rankin/Bass decided to again tread familiar ground. They brought back most of the characters from MAD MONSTER PARTY?, as well as a few new ones, but this time, they opted for traditional cell animation rather than costly and time-consuming "animagic." The result was a 45 minute TV special that premiered in 1972 on the "ABC Saturday Superstar Movie" titled MAD, MAD, MAD MONSTERS.

The plot of the cartoon is virtually identical to the animagic feature, though MAD MONSTERS is generally considered a prequel to MONSTER PARTY. The Baron (modeled again after Karloff, who had passed away by this time) gives life to a sexy Monstress (bearing no similarity whatsoever to Phyllis Diller) who is to wed his Frankenstein, The Monster. For their nuptial celebration, the Baron invites all of the monsters and again, mayhem and giant-ape abductions ensue... but this time around, there's no music.

The similarities between the two films are unmistakable. Obviously, there's the party. Guests receive invitations in a very similar manner. In MONSTER PARTY, henchman Yetch lusted after the Baron's sexy creation Francesca; in MAD MONSTERS, it's hunchback Igor who lusts after The Monstress (who appears sexy until her face is finally revealed). MONSTER PARTY has crackly-voiced Diller spewing insults and one-liners; MAD MONSTERS has invisible woman Nagatha doing the same (it sounds like a Diller impersonation). Many other similarities in tone and story exist, and the casts of both films are nearly identical....
There's The Baron:


The Wolfman:

The Mummy:

The Monster (Frankenstein):

The Hunchback:

The Skeleton Band:

Dr. Jeckyll/Mr Hyde:

The Creature (from the Black Lagoon):

The Invisible Man:

The Giant Ape:

Both films continued to see the occasional airing during the '70s and '80s, and both were released on video numerous times since the late '70s (when MONSTER PARTY was first issued by the now long defunct Magnetic Video Corporation). It's best to avoid older releases of the MONSTER PARTY video, which were taken from a truly awful print of the film. A few years ago, Anchor Bay Entertainment acquired the rights to release MONSTER PARTY, and they lovingly restored it. Unfortunately, since the films were old by the time they hit home video, neither has ever been released with much fanfare, and they're often overlooked on video shelves. Currently, MAD MONSTERS isn't too hard to find on VHS, but it's yet to get the official DVD release that it deserves.

Although neither of Rankin/Bass's monster movies have received the recognition of "Rudolph," they're still beloved by the children who were lucky enough to see them, and by fans of the classic movie monsters.
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