Mad Monster Party (1967)

Aw man, it’s the final Flavor of 2012. This year I saved a family classic for the finale, Rankin & Bass’ Mad Monster Party. The actual title is Mad Monster Party?, but I get uncomfortable putting end punctuation in the middle of a sentence.

Quick update on Hurricane Frankensandy: this storm was in fact way severe. In our neighborhood alone – which was virtually untouched – there were collapsed building facades, cars crushed by trees, downed signs, and a fire at a nearby ConEd substation. That’s nothing compared to the insane flooding that basically submerged lower Manhattan and huge chunks of Brooklyn for twelve hours. More than 300,000 are without power in the City right now and may remain that way for days or even weeks. My office building is closed until further notice. I like to make jokes but last I heard, seven New Yorkers were killed in the storm. That is nothing to laugh about. I absolutely would never dream of making light of the tragic loss of life, the thousands of displaced residents living in emergency shelters, or the billions in property damage. Those are terrible things and they are deadly serious.

But still, fuck the weatherman.

IT’S AL…KALINE!

The story: Baron Boris von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff!) has finally succeeded in crafting his greatest scientific achievement: a glowing potion that blows stuff up. It being the 60s, he can’t use Facebook to alert his monster colleagues to his accomplishment. The solution? Well a Mad Monster Party, of course. The Baron also intends to use the occasion to announce his successor as chief of the global monstering community. Surely no drama could result from such a mundane declaration.

Yeah, still selling cereal and doing children’s television. The money’s so-so, but at my age you can’t put a price on health insurance.

Biggest letdown: Having heard so many glowing recommendations for Mad Monster Party, I was surprised to find it so bland. The movie basically does for Halloween what Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer did for Christmas, except I didn’t grow up with MMP, so I don’t automatically get all squishy when I see it. Rudolph is vastly superior in terms of audience engagement and overall quality, though Mad Monster Party is a much larger undertaking.

The stop-motion animation in MMP would have been magical for its day and it’s still positively delightful. I can’t say enough about how charming it is as a piece of nostalgia. But it’s very rarely laugh-out-loud funny, at least not for grown-ups. It may succeed strictly as a children’s movie, I can’t be sure. There are, after all, plenty of corny, slapstick gags and goofy dance sequences, but who the fuck knows what kids like these days. Mine likes chewing on the rug. Certainly there isn’t much in the way of story or character development in Mad Monster Party. It often plays like a lengthy episode of Scooby Doo, Where are You?, except without much mystery or excitement.  See how jarring that question mark is?

Hyde and geek.

Dad alert: there are one or two moments in MMP you might not want to show your kids. For example, there’s a joke, fairly common for the time period, where the Baron’s va-va-voom assistant, Francesca, starts crying. Her male companion doesn’t know how to comfort her, so he just slaps the shit out of her. Her feminine hysterics cured, she leaps into his arms and rewards him with a kiss. Children’s entertainment can look a little fucked up a few decades later.

You gonna slap that? I would totally slap that.

Why you should watch: Despite its bare bones plot and one-dimensional characters, Mad Monster Party really is quite endearing, with a cheeky, imaginative heart I could see myself getting lost in had I seen it for the first time as a child. I found the big musical numbers largely forgettable, but the orchestral jazz score reminded me of Henry Mancini, which is no small compliment. And whatever’s going on in the soundtrack is really just icing on the visual cake, which is truly remarkable. As I said, I’m not sure this movie still works for modern audiences – kids or adults – especially if they’re coming to it for the first time. The lifelike kinetics of movies like Frankenweenie and Coraline might make MMP seem quaint or even amateurish. But watch a character in Mad Monster Party pour a drink or blow soap bubbles, then try to imagine how hard it would be to create that illusion by hand, one frame at a time. Produced several years after Rudolph, just as stop-motion was reaching the peak of its popularity, MMP also boasted cutting edge optical effects to go along with its painstaking animations. The results were nothing short of incredible.

Mad Monster Party is also interesting from a historical perspective, since so many recent movies owe so much to it. Ever see The Monster Squad? (Personal favorite of mine. Do I own the two-disc collector’s edition? Fuck yes I do.) Monster Squad‘s primary conceit – that the Universal Pictures monsters have banded together to do something nefarious to the world – comes straight from MMP. The only difference is The Monster Squad, thanks either to expensive licensing or excellent legal counsel, was unafraid to use the names and likenesses of Universal properties that weren’t in the public domain. Mad Monster Party wasn’t even allowed to use the Bride of Frankenstein’s name or her signature hairdo, instead calling Phyllis Diller’s character the Monster’s Mate and styling the character model after the actress herself. (I completely forgot to mention Phyllis Diller. She’s in this. It’s not her best work but damn that lady was a class act.)

Finally, we get to meet Fang! (Look it up.)

What about Monsters, Inc., the hugely successful Pixar movie that’s about to get a hugely successful sequel called Monsters University? At one point Felix, the Baron’s nephew, is debating whether he’ll accept his uncle’s offer to take over as head of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters. (WOM? Come on, Rankin & Bass, you couldn’t take a few minutes to come up with a funnier acronym? Throw the adults a bone here.) “Felix Flanken,” he muses, “Chairman of the Board of Monsters, Incorporated…”

And speaking of Frankenweenie, look closely at any animated Tim Burton movie and tell me he didn’t wear out his copy of Mad Monster Party by watching it over and over when he was a kid.

Dude. The band is naked.

Memorable Moment: Stop motion is always impressive but the more moving sprites there are at once, the more impressive it becomes. There’s a dinner scene in Mad Monster Party that pretty well blew my mind. First off, puppets consuming food is a neat trick, but when the meal breaks up there’s a little dance-off involving Phyllis Diller, the Mummy and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. That’s cool and all but after they finish gyrating, Frankenstein’s monster tosses Dracula across the room for being a smug little weasel. (Going strictly by the stats the odds are in the vampire’s favor but I think Frank kicks Dracula’s ass in a fist fight. He has the intangibles.) The brawl erupts into an elaborate, room-clearing food fight, which is just bananas.

Yup. Amazing.

Choice quote: “Quickly! Into the air, zombie birdman!”

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2 Responses to “Mad Monster Party (1967)”

  1. […] A terrifying movie terror-thon of terror « Mad Monster Party (1967) […]

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