Monday, October 13, 2014

The Monkees Meet the Monsters

Demonic deals. Cursed, severed animal parts. Reanimated corpses. Unholy séances. Unwanted brain transplants. These things have long plagued humankind. Four particular young men were unlucky enough to have to deal with all of them. Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter may have been too busy singing to put anybody down (well, unless we’re talking about Don Kirshner, Bob Rafelson, LBJ, each other…aww hell, The Monkees loved putting people down). That didn’t stop an assortment of creeps, spooks, and kooks from putting them down.
In keeping with its postmodern take on entertainment, “The Monkees” often spoofed well-worn genres: spy pictures (“The Spy Who Came in From the Cool”, “Monkee Chow Mein”, “The Card Carrying Red Shoes”), heist pictures (“Monkees in a Ghost Town”, “The Picture Frame”), gangster pictures (“Monkees à la Carte”, “Alias Micky Dolenz”), sports pictures (“Monkees in the Ring”), beach movies (“Monkees at the Movies”), motorcycle movies (“The Wild Monkees”), pirate movies (“Hitting the High Seas”), westerns (“It’s a Nice Place to Visit”, “Monkees in Texas”), sci-fi (“The Monkees Watch Their Feet”, “Mijacogeo”), even documentaries (“Monkees on Tour”, ”Monkees in Paris”). However, “The Monkees” trampled no genre as regularly as horror.

After its 1930s golden era, the horror movie was somewhat dormant for the next two decades, censorship pushing it into self-parody in the forties and atomic-fears largely replacing it with invading Martian and giant bug movies in the fifties. In the sixties, strictures became less strict. The European horrors of Hammer Studios made real red (well, painty red) blood permissible in monster movies. In America, Roger Corman infused Edgar Allan Poe tales with the Hammer aesthetic (which The Monkees would one day spoof in their feature film Head, co-written by Corman collaborator Jack Nicholson). The success of those films followed viewings of the classic thirties horrors on late-night TV packages like “Shock!” and “Chiller!” Following them were supernatural new series ranging from the straight up scary (“The Twilight Zone”) to the tongue-in-fanged-cheek (“The Addams Family”, “The Munsters”). Before long shows of all genres, such as “Route 66” (“Lizards Leg and Owlets Wing”), “Gilligan's Island” (“Up at Bat”, “And Then There Were None”), “Batman” (“Marsha, Queen of Diamonds/Marshas Scheme of Diamonds”), and “Star Trek” (“Cats Paw”), were getting in on the haunting fun.
Count Gilligan in "Up at Bat".
As the sixties slithered on, horror exploded around the globe. Suddenly France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and everyone else were exporting their own vampires, ghouls, and maniacs. No one loved these movies more than the kids who spent the mass of their free time devouring the latest pop records when they weren
t watching werewolves devour victims. TV producers were as quick to pick up on the pop/horror connection as Bobby Boris Pickett and Sheb Wooley, and soon The Addams Family were pushing their monstrous butler into a career as a rocker in the  “Lurch, the Teenage Idol” episode and The Munsters were hosting an impromptu performance of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by L.A.’s  The Standells in the “Far Out Munsters” episode (both episodes aired within two months of each other). On the flip side, a new Saturday morning cartoon starring the originators of that particular song regularly pitted the most popular pop band in the world against a menagerie of monsters.
Many of the same kids who tuned in to watch The Beatles battle vampires, witches, and ghosts on Saturday mornings also planted themselves in front of their TV’s every Monday night at 7:30 PM (6:30 Central) to rock along with The Monkees’ anarchic antics. And so the producers naturally had The Monkees interacting with all manner of ghouls. With its crazy fantasy sequences, third-wall shattering, and cartoon escapades, “The Monkees” already had one pointy Beatle boot planted outside of reality. From there it was just a short hop to the totally fantastical terrain of ghosts and monsters. The boys wasted not a second taking their first trip there. Getting the most worn-out of all clichés out of the way in the second episode that aired, The Monkees gather at an allegedly haunted house to collect an eccentric millionaire’s legacy. “Monkee See, Monkee Die” is a take off on The Cat and the Canary complete with grim thunderstorms, hairy monster claws that reach out from nowhere, and a weird séance… though the most disturbing (and hilarious) bit is a writer who constantly assaults a horrified girl by asking her if she’s read any of his flop books (“Dining out in Greenland?” “No!” “Philadelphia: Where to Find It?” “No!”). Like The Cat and the Canary—or a Scooby Doo adventure— we learn that the creeps menacing The Monkees are none other than the millionaire’s relatives vying to get his inheritance. More in keeping with the far-out “Monkees”, we then find out that there really is a ghost in the old house…one whose quoting of Jacob Marley reveals he’s just as much of a postmodernist as Mike, Micky, Davy, and Peter.

Now that they’d tussled with a ghost (or at least been told to keep the spirit of Christmas by one), The Monkees were ready to meet a monster. Despite a potentially horrific title and the presence of Lon Chaney, Jr., (who draws more allusions to his role in Of Mice and Men than his one in The Wolf Man), “Monkees in a Ghost Town” was not that episode. Rather, it was episode 18, “I Was a Teenage Monster”, in which The Monkees first faced a mad scientist with designs on implanting their musical abilities into a cut-rate Frankenstein Monster (perhaps not coincidentally, the previous year this very same premise was used in the second episode of The Beatles Saturday morning cartoon). The Chaney appearance was a wasted opportunity to nudge the ribs of Monster Kids. “Teenage Monster” made up for that by bringing in some faces that should have been familiar to kids who liked scary stuff. Mad Dr. Mendoza was none other than the great John Hoyt, who’d previously played a lovable mad creator in Attack of the Puppet People and shocked us all as (spoiler alert) the many-armed Martian in “The Twilight Zone’s” “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” Monster Richard Kiel was another “Twilight Zone” alumnus in the more legitimately terrifying role of the Kanamit in “To Serve Man” (Bryan Foulher, who played hunchback assistant Groot, was another “Zone” traveler, though in the decidedly benign “Walking Distance”).

Season one’s forays into the monstrous ended with that seven-foot tall hulk in the Beatle wig whacking a Gretsch and bellowing “Goo-rah!” When the show came back even wilder in its second season, the horror fantasies doubled. The weakest of these was the first. Despite the always fun presence of Ruth Buzzi, episode 43 showed the inspiration running low. “A Coffin Too Frequent” basically recycled the séance plot of “Monkee See, Monkee Die” right down to the non-supernatural rip-off scheme and the supernatural last-minute twist that isn’t nearly as scary as the severe part in Davy’s hair.

Much better are the three episodes that aired in succession from January 22 through February 5, 1968 (for some reason, NBC never coincided a horror episode with Halloween: “Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth” aired on October 31, 1966, and “Monkees Marooned” was the pick for October 30, 1967. For what its worth, Micky does get to try out his werewolf impersonation in Gift Horse). The first of these was actually teased by Dr. Mendoza’s vacant-eyed “beautiful daughter” way back in “I Was a Teenage Monster”, though she got a lot of the details wrong. The vampire turns Micky, not Davy, into a werewolf (plus, “actress” Bonnie Dewberry was not asked to return despite saying she’d appear in the sequel. However, she once again amazes with her inabilities in “Monkees in Texas”, even ending up as the butt of some jokes because of her catatonia). 
Just as “I Was a Teenage Monster” drew inspiration from James Whale’s Frankenstein, “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” cribs the plot of its sequel Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In that classic horror-comedy, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula schemes to place Lou Costello’s malleable brain into Glenn Strange’s Monster. In “The Monstrous Monkee Mash”, Ron Masak’s Count wants to use the brain of the equally simple Peter Tork (“Peter Tork” the character, not Peter Tork the real smart person, of course). Taking Dewberry’s spot as the cute woman of the week, Arlene Martel has a lot stronger chops and chomps as The Count’s niece Lorelei. She and her uncle one-up Lugosi by turning all The Monkees into famous monsters of filmland. Fuzzy-haired Micky becomes The Wolf Man. Uptight Mike gets wrapped up as The Mummy. Heartthrob Davy’s powers to mesmerize ladies are put to use when he becomes “Count Dracula reborn!” “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” is both a deliriously fun opportunity to see our boys merge with Universal’s greatest monsters and a crazy continuation of the loosening up of the show’s format that began with the landmark “The Monkees on the Wheel” on December 11. The laugh track has now vanished, as has Mike’s wool hat. More than ever The Monkees seem like they’re working without a script, or at least, not paying that much attention to it. The guys behind the cameras are goofier too, as seen in Micky’s multiple “scare take” outtakes left in the episode to disorienting effect. One reason for this unprecedented nuttiness is everyone was really starting to enjoy herbal supplements on set. Micky and Mike’s stoned attempt to get through a joke about saving the Texas Prairie Chicken ended up getting cut from “Monstrous Monkee Mash” and stitched to the end of “On the Wheel” (incidentally, though on topic, Micky can also be seen doing his Bela Lugosi impersonation in this episode).

The Monkees ‘ pot puffing overheats in episode 51, in which consummate character actor and scenery-chewer extraordinaire Hans Conried drops character to grumble “BLEEP, I hate these  kids” (I always enjoyed thinking that BLEEP masked a “Fuck,” but I guess it could have been “Goddamn” or something). All Monkees sport red eyes in “The Monkee’s Paw” (particularly Davy and Peter), and it has nothing to do with the cursed paw that robs Micky of his voice. Unlike the W.W. Jacobs horror tale that inspired this episode, there is no zombie, and “The Monkee’s Paw” isn’t as explicitly horrific as the other episodes mentioned. “The Devil and Peter Tork” is another story. As the title suggestions, it is an homage to Stephen Vincent Benét’s famous short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster. Instead of Daniel trading his soul to the biggest monster of all in exchange for a stretch of good luck, Peter simply wants to play the harp. “The Devil and Peter Tork” feels like a bit of a step backward after the wildness of “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” and “The Monkee’s Paw”. In fact, it is a literal step back. As you may have sussed from the returns of the laugh track, Mike’s hat, and Micky’s bad flat-ironed hairdo, “The Devil and Peter Tork” was filmed much earlier in the season. NBC claimed it held the episode back because of its use of the song “Salesman”, which references drug dealers. In truth, the network didn’t like Micky ribbing it over his censored attempts to say “Hell” on the air. Although “The Devil and Peter Tork” is traditional compared to “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” and “The Monkee’s Paw”, there is one sequence that really feels improvised, and it is the one that makes this the most poignant “Monkees” episode. Mike stumbles through his defense of Peter at the climactic trial scene by explaining that demonic Mr. Zero (the always excellent Monte Landis, an unofficial new cast member in season two) didn’t actually give Peter anything at all because Pete’s innate love of music was all he needed to play the harp. It sounds corny, and maybe it is, but Mike’s way of trying to find the right words to express his very simple statement smack with a realism rarely seen on “The Monkees”, especially when the guys were running from ghosts and vampires and Frankensteins. This time it took a monster to bring “The Monkees” down to earth, and it’s kind of beautiful.

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