Sunday, October 18, 2020

Hubrisween 2020 :: M is for Mad Monster Party? (1967)

Our destination today is the Isle of Evil as we make our way from the beach, through a jungle, to a spooky old castle at its center -- specifically, the highest parapet, which houses the lab of Baron Von Frankenstein, where the mad doctor is currently putting the finishing touch on his latest creation.

Fiddling with a beaker full of some strange liquid, the Baron (Karloff) zaps it with an electrical charge, creating a new isotope. And as the liquid ominously glows, its creator decides to field test this concoction by dabbing a small amount onto his pet raven before releasing it out a window. Watching as it flutters to a distant tree, when it gently attempts to land this triggers the volatile chemical which violently detonates -- complete with a large mushroom cloud! Quoth the raven, nevermore, I guess.

With his experiment a rousing success, the Baron has now mastered both the power of creation (his Monster) and the power of complete destruction (this new explosive). And so, he wants to triumphantly announce and celebrate this breakthrough with his fellow monster brethren as soon as possible. And to that end, the Baron hastily sends out a batch of invitations for a party via bat couriers -- a party the maddest of mad scientists swears they’ll never forget!

And when his Monster, lying on it's slab, getting a recharge -- here, affectionately dubbed Fang, groans in agreement, a James Bondian theme cranks up, powered by the massive pipes of Ethel Ennis, as we’re introduced to the Baron's associates as those bats go postal and track them down all over the world:

From his sandy tomb in the deserts of Egypt comes the Mummy; in Paris, we find the Hunchback ringing his bells; a little further east in Transylvania, Count Dracula eagerly sharpens his teeth with a nail file in preparation; meantime, they find the Invisible Man in an abandoned house (-- with a bunch of empty liquor bottles lying around, which makes me wonder if this was an inside joke. The first of many inside jokes yet to come, I'd wager).

Elsewhere, out in the country, the Werewolf bays at the moon in excitement; moving next to the foggy streets of London, Dr Jekyll gets his invitation, drinks his potion, and transforms into Mr. Hyde; and then the last bat drops an invitation into a murky lagoon, almost black, where it sinks to the bottom and into the waiting flippers of the Gillman. All are excited, and all will attend the Baron’s bash.

Meanwhile, in an unnamed city, a bumbling pharmacist's assistant by the name of Felix Flankin (Swift), gets into trouble with his boss again. Allergic to nearly everything, apparently, Felix has a bad habit of accidentally destroying the store during his concussive sneezing fits. Also coming off as a bit of a hypochondriac, our boy Felix has his own special concoction for these allergy attacks; and after each episode, he quickly over-medicates himself -- so it’s no wonder the guy’s more than a little jittery.

Oddly enough, Felix also receives an invitation to the Baron’s party; "a gathering of notables" on the Isle of Evil (-- waitasecond. Isle of Evil? I love evil? Ahhhhhh, I see what you did there). And since it’s fairly obvious Felix isn’t the brightest bulb in the world, it's no surprise when he mistakes this gathering for a pharmacist’s convention at some posh Caribbean resort. Regardless, his beleaguered boss gladly gives this walking disaster-area a week off to attend; in fact, he insists Felix take the whole month off.

Back at Frankenstein’s Castle, the Monster’s Mate catches Fang lustfully watching the Baron’s shapely secretary, Francesca, and warns if his eyes ever wander on those twin torpedoes again, she’ll pluck ‘em out and keep them in a jar for a week -- just like she did the last time. Still, the Bride (Diller) loves the big brute -- so much so she sings him a song. (It’s a Rankin ‘n’ Bass animated feature. Duh-doi.)

Meantime, Francesca (Garnett) reports to the Baron that all the monsters have RSVP’d except for IT. But before we can find out who or what an IT is, the Baron says he wasn’t invited because IT was such a royal pain in the ass at the last social he’s been permanently banned from the island.

Now, Francesca also received notice that a Felix Flankin will also be attending, which makes the Baron very happy. And when a confused Francesca asks what kind of monster this stranger is, he admits Felix is a mere human; and how he disguised the real nature of the gathering so Felix wouldn’t be frightened off. You see, Felix is the Baron’s only living relative; the son of his sister -- the white sheep of the family, he says, who ran off to the United States with a traveling salesman. Apparently, the Baron plans to announce his retirement, name his nephew as his successor, and then turn all of his secrets of life and death over to Felix, making him the new leader of the monsters.

Totally livid over this revelation, feeling she is the rightful heir to the Baron’s legacy, not some mortal milksop, Francesca immediately starts to plot to bump this Felix Flanken off. But to pull this off properly, she’s gonna need some help. And luckily for her, a whole lot of help is currently on the way...

Back in 1955, Arthur Rankin Jr. was an art director for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) when he was first introduced to Jules Bass through a mutual friend at a mixer. Bass was a composer and lyricist for an advertising agency at the time; and together, they decided to form their own company, Videocraft International, to produce commercials for the rapidly expanding TV-market.

As the company moved into the 1960s, inspired by George Pal's Puppetoon shorts, Rankin and Bass decided to expand beyond commercials and make a holiday special in the same, stop-motion animated vein. The result was the wildly successful Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which captured over 50% of the nation's television screens during its prime-time premiere in 1964. And with that success, others soon came calling, hoping to cash in on that Rankin-Bass "Animagic."

One such person with a piqued interest was Joseph E. Levine, a mini-movie mogul based out of Boston, Mass, who made his bones importing and repackaging foreign films like Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956) and Hercules (1958) that were quickly devoured by the American market, who quickly signed the fledgling company to a three picture deal for his Embassy Pictures.

Following the all but forgotten The Daydreamer (1966), based on the tales of Hans Christian Anderson, and the equally elapsed Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967), the studio decided to return to a holiday theme, hoping to recapture some of Rudolph's magic. And picking the Halloween subject matter for that pivotal third project proved a no-brainer as the country was once more in the grips of yet another surge of Monster-Mania.

On the tube, The Addams Family and The Munsters were ratings winners, and The Gruesomes had just moved in next door to The Flintstones; and all those hair-brained drive-in monster-bashes from the 1950s were just starting to circulate on the tube, along with those old standards from Universal’s back catalog, which provided the basis for about 95% of the characters for the spooktacular romp, Mad Monster Party? (1967).

And to connect with those old fright flicks even more, the production scored a real bonus when Boris Karloff signed on to voice Baron Frankenstein, who was just coming off another holiday-themed smash, serving as the narrator for Chuck Jones’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). Also in the cast was comedian Phylis Diller as the Monster’s Mate, who was encouraged to work part of her nightclub act into her character to help flesh it out.

Actress and singer Gale Garnett added a luscious kick to the lovely Francesca. And the rest of the cast was basically rounded-out by one guy -- Allen Swift, who, on top of Felix, provided voices for all the other monsters. And it won’t take sharp ears to hear how the talented mimic imbued each creature and character with a famous actor’s voice: Jimmy Stewart, Sydney Greenstreet, Charles Laughton, Fredric March and Bela Lugosi are all lampooned by Swift.

And with a little help from a few more familiar names, who really put the MAD in Mad Monster Party?, this raucous and rambunctious entry in the Rankin-Bass universe was soon revved-up and ready to go as the action shifts to the docks of some unknown port city, where the S.S. Herring is about to cast off.

Lingering near the gangplank, the Captain is upset because they only have one paying passenger, a Dr. Jekyll, which confuses his first mate, who thought it was a Mr. Hyde. (Ba-dump-bump -- ching!) Captain Crabby then gets more bad news because the rest of his crew has apparently jumped ship, so the cargo (-- including the Mummy’s sarcophagus,) hasn’t even been loaded yet. Never fear! When the Hunchback shows up next, they quickly shanghai him into loading all the cargo, which he does, using only one arm, astounding the old salt.

And while he’s distracted by this, a bat flutters into view and changes into Count Dracula, who asks how much passage to the Isle of Evil will cost. Trying to fleece the well-dressed Count, the Captain's attempt to inflate the price backfires when the Lord of the Vampires proves such a tightwad he decides to just turn himself back into a bat and fly over on his own. Shocked and terrified by what he's just witnessed, the Captain then mistakes Felix for another monster and lets him on board for free -- if he promises not to kill him.

As the boat sets sail, the Werewolf barely makes it on board before they shove off. Meanwhile, below deck, the dimwitted Felix barely survives a few encounters with the assembled monsters -- saved mostly by his own ineptitude: He thinks Dr. Jekyll is just seasick after turning into the green-hued Mr. Hyde; and then, after losing his glasses, he mistakes the Werewolf for an old lady in a fur coat.

Still unable to find his glasses, he bumps into the Invisible Man next and apologizes for not seeing him. Later that night, while Felix sleeps, when the spook-rattled Captain refuses to stop at the haunted Isle of Evil, all the monsters bail-off and start swimming, flying, or paddling toward their final destination.

Meantime, back at the castle, the Baron is inspecting his Zombie house staff, prepping them for the big shindig, and giving them some final instructions. Now, if Francesca is the Baron’s greatest creation, then Yetch is the worst (-- a zombified Peter Lorre with a penchant for losing his head, literally). 

Now, Yetch has a thing for Francesca, but this isn’t mutual. At all. Still, he constantly drops to his knees in her presence and waxes poetically over her beauty, usually earning him a punch to his unstable head.

Anyways, Yetch takes a few of those Zombies to the castle’s hangar, where several revenants man some pretty cool looking ultra-lite aero-planes with orders to patrol the island indefinitely in case IT shows up and tries to crash the party. (Our first real clue to IT’s true identity.)

With all the preparation set, as the Baron sets the mood by playing a spooky little ditty on a large pipe organ, Fang and his Bride, decked out in a tuxedo and evening gown respectively, enter and await the arrival of the other guests. Here, each mad monster is allowed to make a singular grand entrance down the large staircase and into the great hall. After they’ve all arrived, they gather for a toast; and when Dracula states this convention is off to a howling start, the Werewolf bays in agreement.

Then, while the monsters socialize and drink more cocktails, Yetch retreats into the kitchen to check on Chef Machiavellian’s preparations. We then get an extended scene that’s unfortunately not very funny, where the cook makes a metric ton of lame jokes about what’s on the menu tonight. It does, however, pick up a little much-needed steam when the main course tries to eat Yetch.

When the food is at last properly beaten into submission and ready to serve, the assembled monsters gather around the great dining table, eat, and await the Baron’s big announcement. But as the Baron starts his speech, Francesca clandestinely conspires to get Count Dracula’s help in eliminating Felix. Seeing Francesca is up to something, the Bride warns Fang they’ll have to keep an eye on her as the Baron reveals his new invention. And after impressing his audience with a practical demonstration, the old man then announces his impending retirement and how he will name his successor tomorrow night.

For the record: all the monsters secretly wish that they, personally, will be the new Chairman of the Monster Board but they’ll have to wait. And with that, the Baron excuses himself for the evening and turns the entertainment over to Little Tibia and the Fibulas (-- a skeletal rock-n-roll band with Beatle mop-top haircuts).

And as this blighted band cranks up the hard driving "Do the Mummy," the Bride grabs the actual Mummy and they start tearing it up on the dance floor (-- their dance was based on the moves of Killer Joe Piro, who used to haunt New York’s Peppermint Lounge in the 1960s).

And while the others quickly join them and start to boogie down, Francesca nabs Dracula so they can talk in private out on the balcony, where she tells him all about Felix Flankin; and if the vampire will help her get rid of this human interloper, Francesca promises to share the Baron’s secrets with him.

When the Count agrees to these terms, Francesca celebrates with a fabulously sultry song until she is crudely interrupted when they discover the Bride had been eavesdropping on them -- and she overheard everything. 

Here, Dracula almost puts the bite on this spy but Fang intercedes; and while he holds the Count at bay, the Bride and Francesca tear each other’s clothes off -- down to their underwear, and have one helluva bitch-slapping catfight.

And when this dust-up quickly spills over into the main hall, all the monsters are soon involved as the fracas quickly degenerates into a pie fight; and before you know it, we’re neck-deep in a drunken monster brawl and free for all! Gawd I love this movie.

Sometime later, after things have settled down, we take a slow tour of the castle and view the aftermath of the carnage as the monsters try to sleep off their hangovers. 

The next morning, Felix borrows a lifeboat and paddles ashore, where the Baron and Francesca greet him. And while the Baron takes him on a tour of the castle, Francesca meets up with Dracula again. 

Seems she’ll be taking Felix on a picnic later that afternoon, so they map out three spots for an ambush. But once again, Felix’s unwitting ineptitude saves him from successive attacks by the Mummy, the Werewolf, and finally, Dracula.

That evening, the Baron shows Felix his laboratory, where he finally reveals the boy’s birthright as the last of the Frankensteins. Felix, of course, is a little overwhelmed by all of this; but in a true Rankin-Bass moment, he’s quickly overrun with dozens of cute little critters that accompany an inspirational song crooned deftly by the Baron to help ease his concerns. 

But when this song ends, Felix still isn’t sure if he can handle the responsibility. Needing to think it over, he asks if there is anywhere on the island where he can fish because he does his best thinking while fishing. The Baron sends him to the moat.

Meanwhile, in Dracula’s room, as Francesca and the Count argue fault over those bungled assassination attempts, Fang and the Bride barge in and are shocked to find Francesca there. Smelling a double-cross, Francesca is quickly backed into a corner by the other three monsters but escapes through a trap door that dumps her into the Baron’s lab.

Angry over Dracula's betrayal, Francesca swears vengeance on everyone. And to accomplish this, she begins by writing an invitation to the mysterious IT, releases the bat courier, and then starts ransacking the lab, looking for the Baron’s explosive formula. Meantime, the other conspirators decide they must eliminate Francesca before she can reveal their treachery to the Baron.

Following her down the trapdoor, they spill into the lab and attack, but Francesca manages to escape by jumping out the window and lands safely in the moat -- well, she’s safe until the crocodiles get her. But as the aquatic reptiles close in for the kill, from out of nowhere, Felix pulls her to safety. To calm the hysterical woman, Felix has to slap Francesca to snap her out of it. At first dumbstruck by Felix's actions, Francesca then immediately swoons for him. Wow. (Anyone else find this turn of events a tad disturbing?)

Anyhoo, as the newly minted couple embrace and kiss, we cut to waves crashing, lightning flashes, and then a palm tree falls over (-- which caused Root Beer to rocket out of my nose on first viewing. I mean, all we’re missing here, folks, is a rocket launch or a train going into a tunnel if you know what I mean, and I think you do).

Elsewhere, Dracula is ready to cut his losses and clear out, but the Bride convinces him to stay as they concoct a new plan to rally the other monsters against the Baron for appointing a mere mortal as their new leader. Back on the beach, after Felix saves her from a man-eating plant, when Francesca tells her new boyfriend how much danger he’s in and why, Felix says not to worry because he’s decided to turn down the Baron’s offer anyway. 

But it's too late for that, she warns; the other kooks and spooks won't listen to reason anymore. And on top of that, she’s done something rather rash and insists they must evacuate immediately, revealing there’s a boat hidden in a cove on the other side of the island, which they can use to escape. Meanwhile, an impromptu monster caucus unanimously votes to overthrow the Baron and eliminate Francesca and Felix. 

Heading into the jungle to find them, the Werewolf and Yetch catch up to them first and manage to steal Francesca away from Felix, leaving the other monsters to surround our hero and close in for the kill. Luckily, with all that werewolf dander floating around, Felix picks that time to have another allergy attack and pulls out his vial of medicine.

Mistaking this for the Baron’s explosive, the monsters quickly back off. And as Felix pushes this bluff, he demands to be taken to Francesca but his attackers immediately turn tail and flee -- not because of Felix’s threat, mind you. No. Seems IT has finally arrived and just surfaced right behind him. Thus, Felix turns and comes face to face with a fifty-foot ape, meaning IT was [name withheld over copyright issues] the whole time. At this massive sight, Felix faints dead away.

Stepping over our hero and heading inland, IT quickly destroys the castle, and then turns Francesca into Fay Wray. The Baron, meanwhile, finds Felix, orders him into the escape boat, and promises that he’ll save Francesca and take care of that dastardly ape and those turncoat traitors once and for all.

Commandeering one of his aero-planes, the Baron pilots it toward IT, who has taken root on the tallest peak of the island. The giant has Francesca in one hand and all the other monsters clasped in the other; and as the Baron buzzes the creature relentlessly, the ape puts Francesca down so he can swat at the plane, allowing her to escape and meet up with Felix.

After several more swipes, IT finally snags the Baron’s plane and crushes it. Now in the clutches of the great ape, the Baron watches as the two young lovers shove off and get a safe distance away. He then pulls out his explosive, chastises his fellow monsters for their pettiness and drops the vial, allowing it to fall to the ground, where it detonates on impact.

From the boat, Francesca and Felix watch as the island is totally obliterated in the resulting explosion. When the smoke clears, the two lovers head toward civilization -- after one last joke and punchline.

Long rumored to have been scripted by an uncredited Forrest J. Ackerman -- and with all those horrible puns, this is an easy assumption to make, in truth, Rankin and Bass had the better idea of turning to another famous magazine and comic book writer, Harvey Kurtzman, to punch-up and add a little anarchy to Len Korobkin's original script. And better yet, the animation duo also conscripted artist Jack Davis for all the character designs.

Both Kurtzman and Davis had made a name for themselves in the macabre with those delightful EC Horror Comics -- Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Shock SuspenseStories, until Dr. Wertham and his No-Fun Crusade torpedoed those pulps. Undaunted, Kurtzman turned his creative juices on a new venture, MAD Magazine, with longtime collaborator, William Gaines. Davis soon followed. And working together once again on Mad Monster Party?, all the monster characters are brilliantly realized and looked like they crawled right off of Davis’ drawing board.

In order to keep production costs down, the producers did an end-run on any royalty claims by not using the proper titles like King Kong or Creature from the Black Lagoon unless the characters were in the public domain, which was the case for Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde. Taking these horror icons and giving them a hip, mondo-'60s twist, Davis' designs are truly hilarious. And I think my favorite has to be the Invisible Man -- realized as nothing but a pot-bellied smoking jacket, an ascot, sunglasses, and a fez free-floating around, talking like a less than sober Sydney Greenstreet, which had me laughing to no end.

Sure, Kurtzman and Korobkin's script does drag in spots, but this can mostly be blamed on several hurriedly slapped together scenes that were inserted to expand the project to feature length, in accordance with Levine's demands, including the initial scenes with the aero-planes and the entire kitchen sequence, which was, let's face it, pretty rotten and sticks out rather sorely.

Another contributing factor to the success of Mad Monster Party? that cannot be overlooked is the music. Knocked together by Bass and composer Maury Laws, the instrumentals sound like a capricious mash-up of Vic Mizzy's scatter-brained horns, Arthur Lyman's Polynesian drums, and Xavier Cugat's scorching xylophones and are catchy as all hell. For the main title theme, noted jazz-singer Ethel Ennis added another joke by caricaturing the newly minted James Bond theme for Goldfinger (1964) that was belted out by Shirlie Bassey.

And while Karloff’s musical interlude is a sheer delight, Gale Garnett steals the show with the boisterous number "Our Time to Shine" and the sultry, but powerful, ballad "Never Was a Love Like Mine." Garnett, an Emmy-Award winning folk-singer, had scored a huge hit with "We'll Sing in the Sunshine" in 1964 and would shortly tune-in and drop-out, if you know what I mean, with the band Gentle Reign.

On top of everything else it does right, what I really do love about Mad Monster Party? is, once again, the attention to detail the creators have and their obvious love for the subject matter. And whether it’s a sight gag like a band-aid on the front of the Mummy, Dracula's lack of a reflection while brushing his hair, the Werewolf dressed up like Bela Lugosi's gypsy from The Wolf Man (1941), or a skeletal rock group whose music sounds like they're strangling a cat, all their efforts had me laughing throughout.

Brief moments like the Baron feeding his pets also brings smiles, like when he puts a fly into a jar with a toad but it's the toad that gets eaten. Then, he comes upon his doghouse, puts out some scraps, but Spot turns out to be the Blob, who oozes out and starts eating. He then dips his hands into a bucket labeled: human-fresh and feeds the scraps to his giant Venus Fly-Trap.

It was a fateful encounter at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1958 when Arthur Rankin saw Tadahito “Tad” Mochinaga’s animated short, Little Black Sambo (1956), which launched over a decade of collaborations with Mochinga’s Tokyo-based MOM Productions, who would handle all of Rankin-Bass’s stop-motion animated TV specials and features, beginning with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

And while Bass was credited as director and Mochinga as cinematographer of Mad Monster Party?, mention should probably be made of artist Dan Duga, whose exhaustive storyboarding really set the tone of the feature. Word also must be mentioned for the massive, wonderful sets the 8-inch animated marionettes frolic around in. I caught my eyes easily wandering away from the action to study what they stuck in the corners and it’s truly amazing.

Thus, Mad Monster Party? is a visual delight. It’s a big can of corn everywhere else, sure, but I have a feeling you will enjoy this film as much as I did. And it's too bad this once nearly forgotten gem isn't standard Halloween viewing like it's Rankin-Bass animated Christmas counterparts.

Yeah, seems Levine wasn't thrilled with the lackluster results of their first two collaborations, leading to a limited, matinee only release for Mad Monster Party? before the film was yanked from circulation. This also scuttled plans for an official soundtrack release back in ‘67. Fortunately, time has been kind and both the feature and the soundtrack are readily available and I cannot recommend them highly enough, Boils and Ghouls.

Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's 13 films down with 13 yet to go. Up next, They came and got me, Barbara. AGAIN!

Mad Monster Party? (1967) Rankin/Bass Productions :: AVCO Embassy Pictures / EP: Joseph E. Levine / P: Arthur Rankin Jr., Jules Bass / AP: Larry Roemer / D: Jules Bass / W: Arthur Rankin Jr., Harvey Kurtzman, Len Korobkin / C: Tad Mochinaga / M: Maury Laws / S: Boris Karloff, Gale Garnett, Phyllis Diller, Allen Swift

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