At long last, a motion picture with absolutely no cultural value!
You know Rudolph, and Frosty, and Little Drummer Boy, and Rudolph's Shiny New Year—Here Comes Peter Cottontail, Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Frosty's Winter Wonderland. But do you recall the most underappreciated Rankin/Bass classic of all?
Facts of the Case
At last, Baron Von Frankenstein has achieved his greatest creation and now it is time to retire. To celebrate, he convenes a special meeting of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters, where he will name his successor. Everyone is invited—Dracula, The Frankenstein Monster and his Bride, the Werewolf, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even the Baron's nephew, Felix Flanken. When word gets out there will be a change in leadership, the Monsters begin plotting against each other to make sure they will wind up on top. The result is a zany weekend of madcap musical comedy in classic Rankin/Bass style.
Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass gained worldwide notoriety with their 1964 NBC television special Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer. Six months later, Rankin, Bass, composer Maury Laws, and their production company Videocraft International signed a deal for three full-length feature films, based on their animagic artistry, with producer Joseph Levine and Embassy Pictures. When the first film, The Daydreamer, failed to impress Levine, the marketing support was pulled and its release was scaled back to little more than a kiddie matinee in select markets. The resulting fallout severely impacted production and distribution of the remaining two films, The Wacky World of Mother Goose and the as yet untitled Monster Movie, which fell into relative obscurity.
During the 1970s, as Rudolph and other Rankin/Bass television specials became established as annual holiday traditions, local television stations began running the Rankin/Bass films to draw ratings. Most Gen-Xers will vaguely remember a Rudolph-style Halloween special they saw once or twice, as a kid, but can't remember where, when, or why it didn't return every Halloween. This fondly remembered film was, of course, Mad Monster Party. During the 1980s and 90s it became the Holy Grail of long forgotten animated classics, finally achieving a CD soundtrack release in 1998, followed by a limited video release in 2000. This classic has now made its way to DVD in unparalleled style and form.
Universal Studios, birthplace of the greatest movie monsters, drew large audiences to films which brought together more than one of their famous anti-heroes—Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein. Rankin/Bass took this concept one step further by not only bringing together every classic A-list monster but also infusing them with unique and dynamic personalities. The great Boris Karloff stars as the voice of Baron Von Frankenstein—mad scientist, world leader, and devoted family man. Karloff brings wondrous life to the animagic Baron as he celebrates his crowning achievement and prepares to hand down his greatest secrets to his one true heir. Little does the loveable but naïve Baron realize the impact his announcement will have on the assembled guests. The Baron's longtime assistant, Francesca—voiced by singer Gale Garnett—assumes she will be the one tapped to take over the Frankenstein Empire. But when the Baron informs her of his intentions, the sexy and sultry Francesca becomes a woman scorned and force to be reckoned with. Rounding out the name talent is boisterous comedienne Phyllis Diller, who voices the '60s update of the Bride of Frankenstein, ruling her whipped and befuddled husband with a shrill cackle and an iron go-go boot. Veteran voice actor Allen Swift, famous for his celebrity impersonations, gives life to the rest of the assembled guests in very distinct fashion, save for several of the characters who merely grunt, snort, or gurgle their way through the picture. The Baron's hyper-allergic nephew Felix is a homage to Jimmy Stewart. Zombie manservant Yetch is a diminutive version of actor Peter Lorre, who pines for the love of Francesca. The Invisible Man is a transparent version of larger than life actor Sidney Greenstreet, complete with fez and smoking jacket. Dracula is a monocled, manipulative moron whose bark is definitely worse than his bite. Swift obviously was the Harry Shearer of his day.
The film itself is grander in scope and scale than its televised brethren—larger and more elaborate sets, innovative animated effects (for the 1960s), and endearing characters designed by legendary cartoonist Jack Davis (Mad Magazine). What really drives the film is the direction of Jules Bass. From the opening title sequence in which the invitations are delivered, to the frenetic food fight during the dinner party, Bass uses unique camera angles and cuts to switch between characters, action, and subplots. The choreography alone of Bass and Laws musical numbers is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. While certain scenes do tend to go on longer than needed, the jazzy underscore of Maury Laws reclaims the tempo of the film and will have you humming these themes long after it's over. Many thanks to Arthur Rankin Jr., Jules Bass, and Maury Laws for paving the way for such talented and celebrated filmmakers as Nick Park, Henry Selick, and Tim Burton.
As for the physical evidence, the 1.33:1 full frame transfer is one of the most vibrant animated prints ever brought to DVD. You will be hard pressed to find any dirt or degradation here. Compared to the version you may remember from television and the included theatrical trailer, the colors pop right out of the screen. This is particularly evident during the Baron's lab experiments and the whacked out dinner party. Francesca's hair color alone proves how exceptional a restoration job this is. New titles and enhanced effects really put the icing on this print. My only question is, having gone to all this trouble to restore the original 35mm print, why not display it in anamorphic widescreen? The 1.0 Mono track is a slight disappointment, but then again the music sounds great and there is not much here that would require the full Dolby surround treatment. Still, not bad for a 35 year old obscure film. In terms of extras, animated musical menus introduce a comprehensive production art gallery—housing much of Jack Davis' early work—as well as a poster and still gallery. A much anticipated featurette was scheduled to be included on this release but had to be scrapped when it was discovered the talent involved had not signed the proper releases nor been paid for their efforts. Instead, a full color 24 page booklet, detailing the history of the film, has been included and provides a wealth of information for Rankin/Bass fans.
While Rudolph may forever remain the jewel in the Rankin/Bass crown, Mad Monster Party is destined to be second or third in line to the throne—I admit, I'm still partial to Year Without a Santa Claus. I strongly recommend, at the very least, a rental for everyone and a definite purchase for those who treasure the Rankin/Bass holiday classics.
Mad Monster Party is hereby absolved of any criminal intent and ordered to be placed alongside It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown and The Simpsons' "Treehouse of Horror" as must see Halloween DVD. This court now stands in recess.
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