After Rudolph, Rankin/Bass Got Spooky With Weirdly Delightful Results

Photo: StudioCanal

In 1967, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass surveyed the breadth of their kingdom and sighed. With their stop-motion treatment of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer three years earlier, the co-producers had effectively conquered the Christmas season and laid claim to its televised-special throne. In search of new challenges, they branched out into a couple of a little-seen feature projects involving time travel and the boyhood years of Hans Christian Andersen, but their talents remained most hotly in demand for small-screen work.

They tried their damnedest to blaze an uncharted path, first with a pilot crafted around ventriloquist Edgar Bergen that never saw the light of day, then with another marginally less-unpopular starring vehicle in service of everyone’s favorite ursine firefighter, Smokey the Bear. Still, the network requests for more holiday specials continued to roll in. They’d eventually return to draw from their dependable Yuletide well over (the Miser Bros!) and over (Kubla Kraus!) until they’d pumped Christ’s birthday dry. Before that, however, they set their sights on Halloween. Like a couple of reverse Jack Skellingtons, they sought to exchange their whimsy for the macabre.

In hopes of creating something both novel in terms of tone and content, yet recognizable as a Rankin/Bass production, they gathered their trusty stable of regular collaborators while lining up a few shots of fresh blood. Tadahito Mochinaga of Tokyo’s MOM animation house brought to life Rankin and Bass’s early designs for the technique christened “Animagic,” and the duo farmed out the legwork to their Japanese colleague one last time before taking their business to his countrymen at rival outfits Toei and TCJ. The usual gang of idiots from Mad Magazine could make skeletons out of nothing but funny bones, so Rankin and Bass tapped scribe Harvey Kurtzman to co-write the script and cartoonist Jack Davis to sketch their characters. On congenial terms with Embassy Pictures, they wrangled a budget that could attract some name-brand vocal talent and ensure a proper theatrical release for what would come to be called Mad Monster Party. (For the pedants out there: the title was written with an inscrutable question mark in the film’s opening credits, but not on the poster.)

The confluence of new personnel behind the scenes and in the recording booth, Rankin/Bass’s migration from their saccharine wintertime wonderland to an accursed moonlit night, and the freedom to work a little bit bluer than usual resulted in a star-studded spooky-groovy house party with an open invitation. Baron Boris Von Frankenstein (voiced by Boris Karloff, his mere presence in the cast an in-joke unto itself) has unlocked the secret to atomic devastation, and decides to cap off his career with a big retirement soiree at which he’ll name his successor as master of all evil. He compiles a guest list from the Universal lineup of ghouls already cemented in the annals of cinema history, succeeding where the executives behind the boneheaded “Dark Universe” gambit failed.

Chameleonic voice actor Allen Swift handled all of the attending RSVPs, with one notable exception. He gave his pipes a workout as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man, a country werewolf, Dr. Jekyll and his cranial roommate Mr. Hyde, the inimitable Count Dracula, Quasimodo the hunchback, a restless mummy, and Frankenstein’s diabolical creation. Swift did not assay the role of the monster’s white-haired girlfriend, voiced by Phyllis Diller and done up to look like Phyllis Diller because she is Phyllis Diller. Credited as “the Monster’s Mate,” she dishes out characteristically ribald one-liners keeping with her celebrity profile. To wit, when she notices her man eyeing the Baron’s buxom redheaded assistant Francesca (voiced by singer Gale Garnett), she threatens, “Do you remember the last time you had a roving eye? I kept it in a jar for a week!” Kiddie viewers will assume she means his eyeball, while parents know what she’s getting at.

She’s far from the only familiar voice nudging the grown-ups’ ribs, it’s just that the rest of them come from Swift’s eclectic repertoire. As Yetch, the sniveling Igor knockoff assisting Baron Frankenstein, he affects the nasal wheezing of henchman par excellence Peter Lorre, and in the role of Frankenstein’s friendly yokel of a nephew, he’s doing Jimmy Stewart. He’s a one-man casting department, bringing in Sydney Greenstreet for the Invisible Man and Charles Laughton for a ship’s captain unwittingly stashing the mummy in his cargo hold. House band Little Tibia and Fibians wear matching Mod-appropriate bob haircuts atop their bleached skulls, recalling the Yardbirds and their Swinging London ilk.

They all come together for a monster-mash cocktail bash, where fan favorites fictive and non- can commingle across lines of intellectual property or reality. There’s a semblance of a plot in here somewhere, as the guests conspire to wrest Frankenstein’s mantle from one another, but the script prioritizes the pleasure of hanging out with good company over the default of conflict. Rankin and Bass located the spirit of Halloween in its anything-goes jumble of pop iconography, proving that it can be plenty fun to throw together a stew of allusions and watch how they interact with one another. The same impulse that sparked the concept of fanfiction and connected cinematic universe first brought us this anarchic romp, joining disparate personae to nosh, flirt, and mostly trade groaner wisecracks.

Hyuk-hyuk-hyuk Borscht Belt comedy supplies the medium that bonds these disparate figures together. With an assist from their Mad hired help, Rankin and Bass united their incongruous images by situating them within a shared atmosphere of camp. Dracula’s quick with a popsicle-stick-caliber vampire pun, whether he’s putting the moves on a potential victim by telling her “you’ve always been my type: O-negative!” or sneaking in a timely name-check with the warning of “now, friends, you’ll discover who was the original Batman!” A modern viewer gets flashes of What We Do in the Shadows when Baron Frankenstein rationalizes snubbing one persona non grata from his get-together: “It was a crushing bore. Just walking around, crushing boars right in its hands!” You can laugh at the jokes or you can laugh along with them; from the lovably corny “KABOOM!” graphic to Dracula’s impromptu tap routine, the film has a healthy sense of irony about itself.

That’s the secret ingredient in the cauldron that makes this witch’s brew so heady. Rankin and Bass extended their idiosyncratic outlook on the world at large to this darker dimension, suggesting that the basic concept of being scared should be goofy, even hokey. It hardly makes any overtures toward inspiring actual fear, instead adopting the “scary movie” aesthetic for a far-out farce. Under-acknowledged and eclipsed in notability by the likes of Santa Claus and Jack Frost, Mad Monster Party supplies a fizzy alternative to the Halloween diet of slashers and psycho-thrillers. For those of us past trick-or-treating age, the practical uses of the holiday have been slimmed down to playing dress-up, getting boozy, and cutting loose with friends. Rankin and Bass understood that a Halloween movie does not necessarily have to qualify as a horror movie, just as an occasion for weirdos with a morbid sense of amusement to revel in their element. For goths, nostalgia nerds, anyone who scowls at the mushy togetherness that sets in around late December, Halloween is Christmas.

After Rudolph, Rankin/Bass Got Scary With Delightful Results