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.
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
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
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'
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 -
Supplements: Trailer, production art and poster/still galleries
Packaging: AGI case
Reviewed: July 11, 2002
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.
2. Ironically, Rankin/Bass ended up doing the King Kong animated kid's
show, and co-producing King Kong Escapes with Toho.
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?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson