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Possibly timed to accompany Universal's classic monster romp Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to Blu-ray, Mad Monster Party? (the question mark is indeed used on the film title) is a lightly amusing kiddie picture with interest for fans of '60s cult culture. By no means a classic, it does have its charms. Born of Mad Magazine talent and perhaps inspired by the mid-sixties popularity of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, its odd production history raises some interesting questions.
The story conflates seven or eight classic-era movie monsters into its silly plotline. Baron von Frankenstein (voice: Boris Karloff) invites his monster creations to his island lab to announce his retirement and to appoint his successor, who will also inherit his secret new destructive formula. They all show up: Dracula, The Werewolf, The 'Creature', Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, The Mummy, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Invisible Man (all voiced by Allen Swift), and The Bride of Frankenstein (voice: the late Phyllis Diller), who calls her monster husband, 'Fang'. Only the Baron's shapely assistant Francesca (voice: singer Gale Garnett) knows that mild-mannered soda jerk Felix Flankin will be the new leader of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters. Francesca conspires with Dracula to take Felix out of the picture, against opposition from The Bride. But Felix and Francesca fall in love just as the monsters close in, and King Kong rises from the haunted lagoon...
Mad Monster Party? should tickle kiddies -- make that small kiddies -- with its silly kindergarten humor and its eventful yet rather slow storyline. The color design is workable and the rudimentary stop-motion animation serviceable. The characterizations are interesting, with the puppet versions of Universal Studio's standard monsters designed by Jack Davis, the famous Mad Magazine artist. Helping with the script is Harvey Kurtzman, a founding Mad magazine talent. His oversexed Francesca character bears a strong resemblance to classic Mad femme fatales. At one point Francesca fends off the zombie character with a disdainful, "Go away, Creep!" -- just as had the oversexed Lois Lane character in Mad's original Superduperman takeoff. There are at least three more truly witty jokes, the best one being another Francesca line about being 'picked up' by Felix - which works mostly because of the velvety delivery of voice talent Gale Garnett. The singer had a hit record with an old pop ballad called We'll Sing in the Sunshine, and her voice is extremely pleasant and nuanced.
Any movie fan will recognize the rather disturbing Tales of Hoffman ending as a mild and harmless rip-off of the famous conclusion to Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot.
The other characterizations vary. Boris Karloff charms with his vocal readings, but doesn't figure much into the plot, and since the story has no ambition to satirize the monster craze or old movie horror stars, the interest flags for adult horror fans. The puppets are mostly well designed, caricatures in the Jack Davis style. Francesca is a busty, crimson-haired temptress, and the furry Werewolf never changes back into a man. The Phyllis Diller caricature has a lot of business that exploits her persona quite accurately. There's far too much, however, of her signature laugh and her sagging burlesque line delivery.
None of the monsters are at all frightening, of course, although the Mummy does look a little weird. He gets the best scene, doing a pretty darn good frug with The Bride, to the music of a band of skeleton ghouls. Dracula is well animated, especially his facial expressions, and he has some amusing reactions. The rest of the monsters are there mostly for decoration. Dr. Jekyll changes into Mr. Hyde about eight times for no good reason, The Hunchback carries a heavy box, The fish-like Creature spits out some water, and that's it. Several characters are based on celebrity voice impersonations. Felix speaks a variation of Jimmy Stewart, the Invisible Man is Sidney Greenstreet, and the literally crater-faced Yetch is a Peter Lorre takeoff, even to the point of frequently losing his head, as Lorre did in Roger Corman's Tales of Terror.
The score is peppy and active, which helps, but the songs are rather forgettable. Francesca's love ballad to Felix (who reminds of the animated character in the old Brylcreem ads) isn't bad, especially the graphic visual effect which signals their budding romance.
That's an atypical moment. What keeps this animated film from becoming a classic is its overall flat visuals and literal approach. Nothing particularly magic or fanciful happens, in animation terms; one could shoot the script like an episode of Gilligan's Island, without a great deal of special effects (well, Kong would be a problem). At 95 minutes, it's somewhat overlong for adults. Modern kiddies will stay with it if they are confirmed monster fans. The Rankin/Bass animation addicts will be enchanted. 1
When I first saw the title, I assumed the show had something to do with Mad magazine, especially given the pun-driven humor and the familiar Francesca character. If anybody were going to give Rankin/Bass legal grief, it should be Universal Pictures. All the monsters licensed out for the enormously successful Aurora model kits are represented here. The studio jealously guarded the rights for the Jack Pierce makeup for the Monster. 'The Creature' is a character created and wholly owned by Universal. No reference to Universal appears in the credits, but it seems safe to assume that a license was required. This isn't a brief spoof or satirical use, such as when Columbia used the Frankenstein Monster in their Casino Royale of the same year. Even Toho had to license King Kong from RKO. This movie's giant ape stands atop a mountain holding the heroine and swatting airplanes, so don't tell me he's a generic monkey. 2
Lionsgate's Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack of Mad Monster Party? is a reasonable transfer of this amusing children's favorite from 'back in the day'. The source element has some stress marks and white flecks around reel ends but is otherwise intact. Colors are bit dark and values aren't always steady, yet the presentation overall is attractive. The flat aspect ratio may be off if the movie indeed did receive a theatrical release, but it quickly became a TV item, which is where most of its viewers saw it. And the price on this two-disc set is certainly right.
The Blu-ray disc comes with a selection of extras. A making-of featurette includes input from the original producers and shots of Jack Davis' original designs. A 2002 Anchor Bay DVD of the show had included a lengthy insert booklet that seemed to downplay the input of the Japanese artists that actually animated the movie at a company called MOM. This featurette doesn't distribute individual credit, but it gives the impression that the animation was more than simply work for hire. We're told that the little character figurines cost $5,000 each, but not whether they were made in America or by the Japanese animation studio. Another featurette shows us some animators at work using similar stop-motion puppets, for a basic primer on the technique. A third attraction examines the film's music. Kiddies might enjoy two sing-alongs as well. A trailer finishes out the extras. The DVD copy is said to duplicate all the extras on the Blu-ray disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mad Monster Party? Blu-ray rates:
1. The annual re-runs of Rankin/Bass' holiday specials have created a growing fan base amongst nostalgic adults. A number of adults enjoy this film for its connection to TV specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which became a hit mainly because the networks were changing over to color transmission, and needed new color product.
2. Ironically, Rankin/Bass ended up doing an animated King Kong cartoon show, and co-produced with Toho the authentic Japanese Kaiju adventure King Kong Escapes.
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T'was Ever Thus.