Animation Cel-ebration
February 28, 2022 posted by Michael Lyons

Fangs for the Memories: The 55th Anniversary of Rankin/Bass’ “Mad Monster Party”

“Shared Universe.” This phrase is used quite a bit today in the movie industry. It’s become the norm between Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and other franchises.

But it’s nothing new. Universal studios knew a thing or two about a “Shared Universe” back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. This was the time of their classic monster masterpieces like Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) and The Wolf Man (1941), just to name a few.

Many of those horrific characters had “crossover” films, where they would appear together, such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and 1948’s comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. With this ingenious structure, audiences have always thought of the universe of these classic movie monsters as shared.

Promotional poster with illustration by Jack Davis

In 1967, Rankin/Bass, the animation studio closely associated with most classic TV Christmas specials, took the idea of this universe one step further with their full-length feature, Mad Monster Party (the official title of the movie includes a question mark at the end, Mad Monster Party?).

Celebrating its fifty-fifth anniversary this year, the film revolves around a meeting of the “Worldwide Organization of Monsters,” planned by Dr. Frankenstein, after he masters the secret of destruction and decides to retire. The monsters then come to the “Isle of Evil.” Among them are Count Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, and Mr. Hyde, Quasimodo, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

They all join the doctor, Frankenstein’s Monster, his Mate, and zombie butler Yetch (a caricature of Peter Lorre) at the castle. Also invited is Dr. Frankenstein’s nephew Felix, who is next in line as a successor to his uncle. This doesn’t sit well with assistant Francesca and the rest of the monsters, who concoct a devious plan to get rid of Felix.

Told in the glorious “Animagic” stop-motion animation style that Rankin/Bass does so well (animated in Japan by Tadahito Mochinaga), Mad Monster Party is a beautifully detailed film. As the monsters all receive their invites to the “party,” the opening credit sequence is a wonderful introduction with meticulous sets such as The Mummy’s tomb, an entire recreation of Paris for Quasimodo, and a London street for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The elaborate “Animagic” is also on display in a fight scene that breaks out among the monsters during the party when Frankenstein grapples with both Dracula and the Wolfman and removes Yetch’s head to use it as a bowling ball. Then, there’s the rock band, “Little Tibia and the Fibians,” a group of skeletons in oh-so-groovy ‘60s mop-top haircuts.

Each character, from those in starring roles to others who appear only briefly, are wondrous to watch. Designed by regular Rankin/Bass collaborator, legendary artist Jack Davis, best known for his caricatures and work for Mad magazine, they all capture the spirit of the monsters’ legacies while putting its comical spin on their look. Master fantasy illustrator/comics artist/painter Frank Frezetta provided the poster and promotional artwork. Mad magazine creator and satire genius Harvey Kurtzman co-write the screenplay.

Adding to the proceedings, Mad Monster Party boasts the voices of horror movie icon Boris Karloff as Dr. Frankenstein and comedienne Phyllis Diller as Frankenstein Monster’s Mate. Both are perfect caricatures of the well-known celebrities. As an added “in-joke,” the Mate refers to Frankenstein’s Monster as “Fang,” a nod to how Diller would refer to her husband in her stand-up routines.

Even with this star power, the real MVP of the voice cast is actor Allen Swift. He not only does a spot-on impersonation of James Stewart as Felix, but also provides the voices for most of the cast, including Frankenstein’s Monster, Count Dracula, the Wolfman, The Hunchback, The Invisible Man, Yetch, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Rounding out the cast is Grammy Award-winning singer Gale Garnett as Francesca.

Released on March 8th, 1967, Mad Monster Party was greeted warmly by critics, including Howard Thompson in The New York Times, who wrote: “As directed by Jules Bass and produced by Arthur Rankin Jr. with some gifted technicians, this party should make everybody chuckle, the tots and their escorts, and even monsters at heart.”

Rankin/Bass would return to this monstrous well, once again in 1972 with Mad Mad Monsters, a 2D animated, hour-long special, which had a similar plot, and aired on the ABC Saturday Superstar Movie.

Fifty-five years later, the popularity of Mad Monster Party has only grown. Its influence is seen in films such as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and the Hotel Transylvania franchise.

Author and historian Rick Goldschmidt penned a book, Rankin/Bass’ Mad Monster Party, all about making the film. Goldschmidt notes that the film has become essential, seasonal viewing for many. In his other book, The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass: A Portfolio, he writes: “Rankin/Bass never formally produced a holiday special for Halloween, but for fans, this film and the later Mad Mad Monsters filled the gap.”

The movie’s one-sheet by Frank Frazetta

A rare original lobby card – featuring the townspeople

15 Comments

  • The film never explains how Dracula is able to be out and about in broad daylight in the sunshine. Perhaps the nature of the island suspends all the usual restrictions on those who visit it. That said, there are surreal and amazing moments in this film that definitely make it worth watching. The voice work of Karloff and Phyllis Diller, especially, is not to be missed, along with the visuals and the clever songs.

    The final gag, for which the entire movie is essentially a setup, is priceless and spot-on. For the first-time viewer especially, it provides a fitting conclusion and one last good laugh.

    A memorable and brilliant piece of film-making all around. I’m glad it is finally finding its audience.

  • MAD MONSTER PARTY is one of my favorite animated movies. I highly recommend Rick Goldschmidt’s book on the making of the movie.

  • YEP I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND IT ON BLU RAY IN THE DISCOUNT BIN AT MY LOCAL WAL MART.I DONT FEEL LIKE ITS HALLOWEEN UNTIL I WATCH IT.

  • Superb post, Mike! One of my favorite lines in Mad Monster Party comes when Felix and Franceska are running from the monsters and she can’t go on any longer. Something like:

    “Keep going without me, Felix. Just leave me something to read.”

    • Thanks Greg!

  • I’d always found it a tad amusing that Dracula seems to bear more of a resemblance to Howard Cosell than Bela Lugosi )to me, anyway)! Channel 9 (WOR-TV) used to air Mad Monster Party every Halloween when I was a kid and it is still essential viewing every Oct. 31st!

  • Killer Joe Piro, a dance teacher featured on What’s My Line seems to have been involved. I suspect it’s during the Hunchback, Mummy and Phillys Diller dance sequence. For “The Mummy ” song by the skeleton crew.

  • One my all time favorites! Bought the one-sheet many years ago before it was discovered that it was Frank Frazetta that did the art. This is a MeTV showing that would require a Svengoolie/Toon in with Me crossover! “Fangs” for the salute, Michael!

    • Thank you, Timothy!

  • How did the cast of “Mad Men” miss the chance to pay tribute to this cinematic milestone? Too square, I guess. It would have been a natural: Jon Hamm as the Monster, Elisabeth Moss as his Mate (I bet she can do a killer Phyllis Diller), Christina Hendricks could have been the model for Francesca (or the other way around), Vincent Kartheiser either as Felix Flanken or Yetch, Robert Morse as Dr. Frankenstein, John Slattery as Dr. Jekyll, that hairy guy who worked in the art department as the Werewolf, the British guy as Dracula. I guess January Jones could have been the Mummy.

    At any rate, “Mad Monster Party?” is a Halloween staple in this house.

  • Incidentally, can’t you just see 10-year-old Tim Burton watching this at the kiddie matinee and even then getting the initial inspiration for what would become “Nightmare Before Christmas” a half century later?

  • Superb post! Brought back fond memories of 9-year old me taking the bus with my older brother to watch it in a theater the next town over.

    Gale Garnett has quite the acting resume in addition to her singing career (“We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” was her Grammy winning song) appearing in various movies and television shows ranging from dubbing Princess Dala’s voice in the 1963 ‘Pink Panther’ as well as Aunt Lexy in ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ (“Christ is risen for sure if Toula found a husband!”).

    • Thank you!

  • Noticing the print ads say matinees only. That’s how I saw it, in our old-school single-screen neighborhood house. Likewise “Willie McBean and His Magic Machine”. I didn’t know “Daydreamer” existed until it cropped up Thanksgiving weekend on a local station. You kids under 50 don’t know what it was like in those days, when it was mighty slim pickings for animated features — even Disney reissues were spaced out wider.

    Oddly, I have no memories if “Mad Monster Party?” being on television. Distracted by puberty, I guess.

    Also: Strictly speaking, this is not the Universal Monsters universe. You’ll note they’re all public domain characters, or artfully generic versions (a werewolf instead of the Wolfman, a creature not specifically from the Black Lagoon, a random mummy, and an unnamed giant ape). Unofficially riding Universal’s (and MGM’s and RKO’s) coattails was standard practice for horror movie makers.

  • I wonder how many kids watching this realized that “Isle of Evil” was actually a pun (“I Love Evil”).

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