Last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Monkees as a band by counting down our top 50 Monkees songs. Now, we’re celebrating The Monkees TV show by profiling each and every episode — exactly 50 years after it first premiered.
Tonight’s episode: “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” (Season 2, Episode 18)
Air date: January 22, 1968
As anyone who’s been keeping up with this column should have realized by now, the popular format for a Monkees episode is to take a location, trope, or theme and then have the Monkees romp all over it. When done poorly, this comes off as corny and predictable, but when done well, it can be surprisingly subversive, especially for a 1960s sitcom aimed at kids. In the case of “The Monstrous Monkee Mash,” the basic concept may seem unoriginal, but it ultimately gives way to some laugh-out-loud clever moments.
This is not The Monkees‘ first dip into the horror genre — “I Was a Teenage Monster” featured a Frankenstein parody — but “Monkee Mash” is more of a Monkees-meet-Dracula situation. With all of the Universal Monster derivations we’ve seen over the decades, modern viewers may not be particularly excited by this idea.
Crossovers, however, do have the potential to create new and interesting dynamics with familiar characters, and classic monsters like Dracula and the Wolfman have achieved a level of timelessness that’s made them beloved and immediately recognizable to contemporary audiences without being cringy, allowing this episode to hold up better than one about, say, Captain Kangaroo or sheikhs.
At its start, “Monkee Mash” presents a typical Monkees setup wherein Mike, Micky, and Peter have to help Davy with some girl trouble and escape from the bad guys. Lorelei isn’t just any girl, though. She’s a vampire who has chosen Davy for her uncle, Count Batula, to transform into a fellow creature of the night.
Fortunately, Davy gave his bandmates the phone number and address of where he was going, and when Mike makes a call to check up on him, all he hears is the Count laughing menacingly into the phone. Yeah, looks like it’s time to go save Davy again.
If you want some instant Monkees hi-jinks, there’s no easier way to get them than by locking the guys in a big house with some zany characters. It’s certainly worked on more than one occasion anyway. Ron Masak and Arlene Martel are delightful as Count Batula and his niece Lorelei, and you can’t help being enchanted by Martel’s killer ’60s vamp look, complete with minidress, thigh-high boots, dramatic cut-crease eye makeup and bump hairdo. No wonder Davy followed her into that scary castle without a second thought.
As silly as Lorelei and her uncle are, with their affected Transylvanian accents and dramatic personas, these standard-issue Monkees villains really keep the episode grounded, giving the boys more freedom to mess around.
When Mike, Davy, and Micky show up at the castle to get Davy, the Count singles out Peter for another monster experiment; he wants to switch Peter’s brain with Frankestein’s (or, for literary savants, Frankenstein’s monster). Eventually, Micky is taken as well to be made into a werewolf.
All the while, Davy is chained in the dungeon, guarded by the Wolfman — played by the Monkees’ friend and stand-in, David Pearl, though you wouldn’t know it from his mask. Fortunately for his friends, Mike is on the way. He puts on a mummy costume and tricks the Count into thinking he really is a monster by screaming “MUMMY!” and scaring the Wolfman. Don’t mess with Mike!
It’s worth noting how “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” breaks down the fourth wall even more than a typical episode. Meta jokes were an essential part of the Monkees‘ formula from the beginning, but in this case, the show actually ends up inverting its own plot.
The fourth wall breaks come more and more frequently, building to a genuinely surprising turn, wherein Davy and Micky have a fantasy sequence about what their lives will be like as monsters. The Count comes crashing into their daydream, and when Micky tries to kick him out of their fantasy and Davy explains how a Monkees episode is supposed to go, the Count says, “It seems this show is different,” and challenges them to take off their monster make-up.
Surprise! They can’t do it, and the Count is suddenly seated in a director’s chair next to a camera, telling them, “This is reality, and you are not in charge here. I am, and I control you anytime I want to simply by thinking about it.” That’s heavy, man!
There are some dated jokes here, though the references are specific enough that they actually come off as interesting time capsules. There’s a reoccurring gag that the werewolf needs to cut his hair or he won’t be let into Disneyland — ragging on Disney’s unwritten dress code against bearded and long-haired men. Also, the Count says that the last time he flipped the switch, “New York went out,” referring to the Northeast Blackout of 1965.
When the Count pulls the switch this time, however, the result is a romp! The Frankenstein monster awakes and begins chasing the Monkees around the castle to their jazzy B-side, “Goin’ Down.” The usual zaniness ensues, with one of the funnier moments being Lorelei and Frankenstein fighting over who gets to dance with a knight in a top hat.
Overall, “Monkee Mash” is a fun watch, thanks to a healthy balance of playing it straight and goofing off. Many of the jokes land well, with one of my favorites stemming from Peter’s interaction with an animatronic bat. Moreover, the Monkees’ tongue-in-cheek, exaggerated delivery tends to make otherwise unremarkable or unfunny lines entertaining.
As lighthearted as it seems on the surface, though, this very self-aware episode takes on new meaning when you take a look at what was going on behind the scenes. While The Monkees was never known for having complex plots, throughout season two, the show was devolving into an even looser barrage of riffing and wacky antics than it already was.
There is certainly a good deal of that happening here as the episode progresses, but you slowly begin to realize that the Monkees are not just poking fun at old monster movies, but at their own TV show.
The final scene features the four friends, having escaped the castle, talking about how everything is back to normal now, and there are no more monsters to worry about. Suddenly, the book they’re holding begins to float, and Peter screams that it must be the Invisible Man.
If this were an early season one episode, maybe this “here we go again” ending would have ended with everyone freaking out and running away. But instead, Mike and Micky calmly point out that the book is suspended on strings and demonstrate by cutting it down with a pair of scissors.
The closing scene subtly indicates where the Monkees were at this point in their careers as a made-for-TV band. After taking the reigns on their 1967 Headquarters album — released six months before this episode was filmed — they’d clearly established they were done playing the game, having cut some of the metaphorical strings dictating their movements. No longer would the powers that be control them, like Count Batula with his mind powers. They wouldn’t allow themselves to be transformed into the mindless, moneymaking monsters that their superiors wanted.
But when you’re done with the charade, where do you go from there? Breaking away is one thing, but deciding what to do with your newfound power and trying to maintain it is another. Throughout this final season, we see the Monkees expressing their freedom more on set, as they already had in the studio, trying different things, taking on new roles, improvising, breaking character, and infusing countercultural elements into the show.
With this in mind, “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” is more than just a fun pop culture crossover — it’s a commentary on the Monkees themselves, an indicator of how things were changing, and a harbinger of things to come.