“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.
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.”