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DVD SAVANT

Mad Monster Party?


Mad Monster Party?
Anchor Bay
1967 / Color / 1:33 flat / 95 min. / Street Date July 23, 2002 / $19.98
Starring Boris Karloff, Allen Swift, Gale Garnett, Phyllis Diller (voices)
Animagic technician Tad Mochinaga
Puppet Designer Jack Davis
Original Music Maury Laws
Written by Leo Korobkin, Harvey Kurtzman, Forrest J Ackerman, story by Arthur Rankin Jr.
Produced by Joseph E. Levine, Arthur Rankin Jr.
Directed by Jules Bass

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Mad Monster Party? - the question mark is indeed used on the film title - is a perfectly fine kiddie picture with some interest for fans of '60s cult culture. It's by no means a classic, but it does have its charms. Born of Mad Magazine talent and having some odd connection to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, its odd production history, as discussed in the ample liner notes, raises some interesting questions.

Synopsis:

Baron von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) invites his allied monsters to his island lab, to announce his retirement and to appoint his successor, who will inherit his new, secret, 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 Allen Swift), and The Bride of Frankenstein (Phyllis Diller), who calls her monster husband, 'Fang'. Only the Baron's shapely assistant Francesca (Gale Garnett) knows that mild-mannered soda jerk Felix Flankin will be the new leader of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters, and she conspires with Dracula to take him out of the picture, against opposition from The Bride of Frankenstein. But Felix and Francesca fall in love, just as the monsters close in on both of them, and King Kong appears from the haunted lagoon ...

Mad Monster Party? should tickle kiddies - small kiddies - with its silly kindergarten humor and an eventful, but rather slow, story. The color is very nice, and the rudimentary stopmotion animation serviceable. The characterizations are interesting, with the basic design of the puppet versions of the standard monsters having been done by Jack Davis, the famous Mad Magazine artist. Helping with the script is Harvey Kurtzman, a founding Mad talent. His oversexed Francesca character bears a strong resemblance to classic Mad femme fatales - at one point she fends off the zombie character with a disdainful, "Go away, Creep!" - just like the oversexed Lois Lane character in Mad's original Superduperman takeoff. There are about three other witty jokes, the best one being another Francesca line about being 'picked up' by Felix - which mostly works because of the velvety delivery of voice talent Gale Garnett. She 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 ripoff of the famous conclusion to Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot.

The other characterizations vary. Boris Karloff charms with his readings, but doesn't figure much in the plot, and since the story has no ambitions to satirize the monster craze or old movie horror stars, the interest flags for adult horror fans. The puppets are mostly well-designed, many looking very much like Jack Davis caricatures - Francesca's busty, crimson-haired temptress, and the Werewolf (who never changes back into a man). The Phillis 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 looks 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 do basically nothing. 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 Greestreet, and the literally crater-faced Yetch is a a Peter Lorre takeoff, even to the point of frequently losing his head, as Lorre did in 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 me 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 that it's visually flat and literal. Nothing particularly magic or fanciful happens, in animation terms; you could shoot it 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 a long slog for adults, with innumerable mild blackout gags, and a number of padded scenes reportedly ordered by Joseph Levine. Modern kiddies will already have to be confirmed monster fans to stay with it. The Mad Monster Party? addicts, and cocktail music fans who enjoy jazzy '60s vocals, will be enchanted.  1


Anchor Bay's DVD of Mad Monster Party? is a picture-perfect presentation. The images look well-balanced when presented full frame, and although this was originally a theatrical presentation, I think almost everyone saw it on television when it was new.

The extensive foldout booklet that comes with the disc is written with a far too promotional awe in regard to the movie, using lots of words in ALL CAPS for emphasis. It does give tons of interesting information, while raising some interesting questions. First, what's Forrest J. Ackerman's name doing on the credit block on the disc jacket? His name doesn't appear in the film titles, and liner notes writer Rick Goldschmidt says that the Number One Monster Fan had no connection with the film. Did our Forry perhaps contribute the idea to Rankin/Bass? 1965 was the big year for Monster Mania, with big spreads on Ackerman appearing in national magazines.

When I first saw the Mad 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 though, it should be Universal Pictures. All the monsters licensed out for the enormously successful Aurora model kits are represented here, and the rights for things like the Jack Pierce makeup for the Monster were jealously guarded by the studio. 'The Creature' is a character wholly owned by Universal, yet there's no reference to a license in the credits. Perhaps there's some leeway for spoofs and satires that Rankin/Bass could exploit. Did Columbia pay to use Frankenstein in their Casino Royale of the same year? Even Toho had to license King Kong from RKO - this giant ape stands atop a mountain holding the heroine and swatting aeroplanes, so don't tell me he's a generic monkey.  2

More disturbing is the foldout booklet's touting of Rankin/Bass's great creative achievement, when the bulk of the work, and all the animation, appears to have been done by a nigh-anonymous Japanese firm, MOM Studios. Unless director Jules Bass was there in Japan with his shirtsleeves rolled up, supervising all aspects of the show, it seems unfair not to credit the Japanese animation directors more prominently. Did 'assistant director' Kizo Nagashima actually shoot the movie, or was Jules Bass a hands-on director?

This isn't to accuse Rankin/Bass of anything underhanded, as we all know that tons of 'American' animation is done by contract overseas, obviously to save money. Perhaps acknowledging the foreign makers as production sources, would have required import duties or something. The only real gripe is that, after realizing that all of the 'craft' of Mad Monster Party? took place in Japanese shops, the voluminous cheers for Rankin/Bass and their creative team get a bit hollow. It's like applauding designer clothing, that's actually engineered and produced by foreign sweatshops.  3


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Mad Monster Party? rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, production art and poster/still galleries
Packaging: AGI case
Reviewed: July 11, 2002


Footnotes:

1. The annual re-runs of Rankin/Bass' holiday specials has created a growing fan base amongst nostalgic adults. So a number of adults enjoy the film because of not just for its own sake, but because of its connection to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other TV specials.
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2. Ironically, Rankin/Bass ended up doing the King Kong animated kid's show, and co-producing King Kong Escapes with Toho.
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3. I could be all wrong on this, if all the models and sets and puppets were constructed in America and then sent overseas for filming. Perhaps the Rankin/Bass executive truly directed the whole picture in Japan after planning every detail in Hollywood. But it's usually lower-eschelon creatives who do the trench work in animation - and how could anyone direct stop-motion animators, without being right in there with them?
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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