Mad Monster Party?
***/**** Image A+ Sound B+ Extras B
screenplay by Forrest J Ackerman, Leo Korobkin, Harvey Kurtzman
directed by Jules Bass
by Walter Chaw From Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, the creators of such disturbing "animagic" fare as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the unintentionally terrifying Frosty the Snowman comes 1967's Mad Monster Party?, a sort of Jay Ward Lite stop-motion revue featuring the vocal talents of Boris Karloff (shudder) and Phyllis Diller (shudder) as well as Allen Swift doing his best Jimmy Stewart, Peter Lorre, and Bela Lugosi.
It seems that venerable Dr. Frankenstein (Karloff) has decided to hang up his mad-scientist frock after reaching the pinnacle of his profession: a potion that causes "complete destruction" in a suspiciously nuclear cloud of smoke. Hoping to choose a successor among his Universal Classics brethren, Dr. Frankenstein invites Dracula, the Wolfman, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and his own stable of Igor, Frankenstein's Monster, and some red-headed bombshell who does a nice tango with Drac to Evil Island and the eponymous party.
With a pie-fight at a gross-out banquet, a skeleton band (with groovy Ramone haircuts), and the saturation limit of good-naturedly bad puns, Mad Monster Party is a mod-phile's dream--all hipster chic set to the nostalgic rhythms of Rankin & Bass' perverse sensibilities. It is a children's film in the sense that there's a load of slapstick, but what it does best is remind that children's entertainment need not be an empty sideshow free of controversy and the occasional chill. Of interest to a modern viewer, Mad Monster Party?demonstrates its influence at every turn on Tim Burton's marvellous A Nightmare Before Christmas, proving Burton's contention that stop-motion displays the touch of true anima with each movement manipulated by a human hand.
Mad Monster Party? delights in its details, from a wonderfully conceived Invisible Man to Dr. Frankenstein's menagerie, and as a consequence, we delight in the invention involved in its creation. There are few lessons offered in this picture compared with the morality of Rankin & Bass' holiday classics, but it's clear that a great deal of care has gone into the creation of Mad Monster Party?. Its crowning achievement is its human ("Eww, those are the worst!" says Drac) protagonist, the good doctor's nephew, Felix. As an unintentional and well-intentioned demon-slayer, Felix is a hero to be embraced: clever, humble, and unafraid--an archetype with shades of Mr. Magoo, but carried through to its fullest potential in Clive Barker's uncharacteristically affable short story "The Yattering and Jack." It's something of a shame that Phyllis Diller (shudder) is allowed to do her "haw haw haw" shtick; perhaps topical at the time, Ms. Diller provides for the film's only real dull moments--imagine Joan Rivers in about forty years...or now, come to think of it.
Anchor Bay's DVD release of Mad Monster Party? is a typically excellent production from what has become the format's (along with Criterion) best reason for existence. Dedicating themselves to archiving cult favourites and the output of alternative auteurs, Anchor Bay treats all of its properties to loving restorations, and whatever one thinks of Rankin & Bass or Mario Bava, they provide a library truly deserving of celebration and hyperbole. Mad Monster Party? contains a 1.33:1 transfer of the film's original and fully restored 35mm elements so sharp that the fishing line-thin wires occasionally supporting the animagic puppets are visible. The vixen fatale's hair is redder than red, Dracula's skin is an appalling greenish grey, and the plasticine water effects are crinkly, detailed, and blue. Video quality, in other words, dazzles. Less flashy is the Dolby mono track, which reproduces the voice work and cocktail soundtrack with a workmanlike fidelity. No pops or fizzes in either picture or music mar the presentation. This disc, very simply, rocks.
Special Features for Mad Monster Party? include a charmingly kitschy trailer for the picture, a twenty-image Production Art gallery that's exactly what you would expect, and a sixty-image poster & still gallery (full of lobby cards, merchandise, comics, and original sketches) that exceeds expectation. The star of the show, however, is a twenty-page insert that, with Anchor Bay's high standard for history and snappy prose, details the history of Mad Monster Party, apparently the third in a three-picture deal signed with producer Joseph Levine! Originally published: July 27, 2002.