Back in the 1960s that blandest of bland American cultural icons, Archie*, was brought to TV as an animation. From that show came a more fantasy-centered spinoff based on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and spun off from Sabrina came a weird show called the Groovie Goolies. It has two things in common with Archie spinoffs: it’s A) not very funny but B) waaaaaay funnier than Archie.
The Groovy Goolies are basically cute cartoon versions of a bunch of different monsters – ghosts, mummies, witches, gouls and what have you. They live in a castle called Horrible Hall, and play in a bubblegum rock band headed by Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster. However, these horror elements are all purely decorative. The characters and situations are all perfectly kid friendly, no scares to be seen – in fact, the monstrous main characters were frequently depicted as terrified by perfectly mundane situations.
There’s not really any way to give a synopsis of the show, since there isn’t really a plot. Structurally, the show is based on the much-loved contemporary American TV show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, with its mixture of sketches, music and rapid fire-jokes delivered through windows.
The result is a mixed bag. A lot of the jokes (both verbal and visual) don’t land. But there are so many of them delivered scatter-gun style, that at least a few of them will raise a smile just by sheer law of averages. The character designs are fun and while the songs aren’t brilliant by any means they’re surprisingly good for cheap TV animation. When I was young I watched a lot of cartoons from this era, repeated ad nauseum on Australian television. Thirty-odd years later, I still remember tunes from Groovie Goolies, long after I’ve forgotten everything from The Archies and Josie and the Pussycats.
(Okay, fine. I remember Sugar, Sugar, but that hardly counts)
On the negative side, the pacing is weird, there’s a lot of repetition, both in terms of recycling animation and jokes. Rewatching some episodes now, I feel like punching my screen every time Drac makes a pun on the word ‘bat’. Come on. It was funny once. I’m pretty sure I found it tiresome even when I was six.
The three main characters are Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolfman, or ‘Drac’, ‘Frankie’ and ‘Wolfie’. Drac (Larry Storch) was the brains of the outfit, such as they were. He played the organ in the Goolie band and spoke with a high, scratchy voice. Wolfie (Howard Morris) was a sort of hippie/surfer dude who plays this weird harp/guitar thing. And Frankie (also Howard Morris) was the big, dumb guy with a voice clearly based on Boris Karloff.
We often see these three characters together, of course, but the relationship between them changes frequently. Dracula is usually the boss, and one of the other two is the good guy. In House of Dracula and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, this was the Wolfman, who was the good guy by virtue of being Larry Talbot most of the time. In Monster Squad, the Wolfman was certainly reluctant to help Dracula, but didn’t really oppose him. The good guy role went to Frankenstein’s Monster by virtue of the fact that he’s the sympathetic Universal Monster. Here, though, none of the Big Three are baddies, so we don’t need one of them to be the goody. Here, we see them at their most harmonious – even if they do unintentionally drive Drac ‘batty’.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat that joke. Like I said, it’s funny once, and once only.
Let’s have a closer look at Frankie. Among the Goolies, Frankie is basically a big kid, prone to accidentally breaking things and saying ‘golly jeepers’. Though the most physically imposing of the three, he’s often shown wearing a child’s pajamas or (in one instance) a Little Red Riding Hood outfit. Occasionally, he wears a red superhero costume with a purple cape and becomes Super Ghoul. His big running gag is being struck by lightning and intoning ‘Thanks, I needed that’. Much like Herman Munster, Frankie has a pet dinosaur/dragon thing. Unlike Herman, Frankie is an animation so he can actually interact with his pet.
Physically, Frankie is presented in a similar way to the Monster in the late Universal days. That is, he’s big, strong, slow and basically indestructible. The unusual thing about Frankie – as film and TV representations of Frankenstein’s Monster go – is that he’s repeatedly depicted as having an entirely mechanical internal structure, more like a robot than the charnel-house reverent we all know and love. I suppose that this is intended to make him less frightening, but it has the weird side effect of making him vulnerable to magnets – or more accurately, vulnerable to physical comedy involving magnets.
I could try to go into this show a little deeper, but there’s not really a point. Even as an adult, it’s an oddly enjoyable show – so long as you don’t try to watch too much in one sitting. But it’s not a deep show. It’s fun but shallow entertainment, lacking even Scooby Doo’s unflinching moral opposition to smugglers.
But I guess I can say it’s a major signpost on the Universal Monsters’ road to becoming victims of their own success. They went from being scary in the ’30s to being funny-scary in the ’40s. In the ’50s and ’60s they sort of broke in two directions, maintaining their horrific nature with the Hammer Horror cycle, while becoming less frightening and more loveable on American television. By the Goolies era, the elements of 1930s cinematic horror have become so firmly entrenched in popular culture that they can be just completely taken out of their context, rejigged for a completely different artistic purpose, and yet still be perfectly recognisable and sensible in their new setting.
Groovy Goolies is not the only example of this trend. But I think it’s fair to say it represents a point in history where Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man have permeated our culture so completely that we actually needed separate versions of the characters for children and adults. These characters are so well known, you’ll learn about them almost by osmosis. Make sure your kids get the safe version first. Laugh at these goofy characters now, kids, because in the years to come, you’ll see them murder, mutilate, torture and maim. You’ll see your Wolfie running amok in London, eviscerating policemen. You’ll see Frankie brutally tearing decapitating women. And you’ll see Drac acting opposite Keanu Reeves. Laugh now, while you can, because when those things happen, you’ll wish you still had those stupid bat jokes.
* This article was written before the transmission of the TV series Riverdale. I’ve not seen the show, but I gather it has a different take on the Archie Mythos. Consequently, some of my criticisms of said Mythos may be out of date.