Every little thing Judge Erich Asperschlager does is ani-magic!
"You've always been my type. O-negative, isn't it?"
It's not always easy for new viewers to watch old movies. This is especially true of films and TV shows that are closely tied to childhood nostalgia. Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass and their trademarked "Animagic" stop-motion animation created a host of holiday specials that still warm the hearts of those who saw them as children. Along with TV classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, Rankin/Bass Productions made several stop-motion feature films, including Mad Monster Party (sometimes shown as Mad Monster Party?), which came out in the spring of 1967. Even outside the Halloween window, the film made an impression on the youngsters who saw it on the big screen and in repeats on television. More than 40 years later, Mad Monster Party is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Lionsgate. Separated from the glow of childhood memories, it's still a scary movie—just not for the right reasons.
Facts of the Case
When Baron von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff, Suspense) decides to retire as the head of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters, he invites all the major monster players to a party on his mysterious island, where he will announce his successor. Along with Dracula, Wolfman, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mummy, Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein's Monster and his Mate (Phyllis Diller, A Bug's Life), the doctor invites his geeky nephew Felix Flankin (Allen Swift, The Beagles, who also voices many of the monsters), a drugstore employee who has no idea what's awaiting him. But with Frankenstein's most powerful secrets on the line, his duplicitous secretary Francesca (Gale Garnett, Mr. & Mrs. Bridge) is making plans of her own to take over.
Stop-motion animation is a grueling, painstaking process that becomes even more difficult the longer the film and the more characters are on screen. Mad Monster Party was indeed a mad undertaking. At 95 minutes (long for an animated movie even by modern standards), with a huge cast and numerous complex sets, it's an impressive feat, regardless of the end result.
All to say that, despite the efforts and the creative involvement of some very talented people, watching Mad Monster Party is a chore. It's an hourlong special stretched out to feature length, with more than a few scenes that run on too long or are completely unnecessary. It also suffers from pacing problems. Written by Mad Magazine's own Harvey Kurtzmann, the screenplay is full of one-liners and monster-related gags that should hit hard and move quickly. For some reason, everything lasts a few beats too long. There are too many pauses between lines of dialogue. The animation moves too slowly to land the jokes; even when they are funny, it's despite of the delivery, not because of it.
It also doesn't help that Phyllis Diller seems bored with the material. It's clear that the filmmakers went to great lengths to include her stage persona and likeness into the role of the Monster's Mate. A good chunk of the film is devoted to Diller's signature "ha!" after each of her jokes. They even had her call Frankenstein's monster, "Fang." As funny a comedian as Phyllis Diller is elsewhere, her personality is wasted in the film and takes attention away from her fellow monsters.
Unlike Diller, Karloff's stunt casting as Dr. Frankenstein is perfect. He's great in every one of his scenes, and ties Mad Monster Party to the Universal monster catalog in an endearing way. Also in the film's plus column is Kurtzmann's script. Botched delivery aside, it's full of goofy and subversive jokes that aren't always for the kiddies. There are lines about "easy pick-ups," double entendres, and even a dress-ripping cat fight between the bosomy Francesca and stop-motion Phyllis Diller.
Mad Monster Party hits Blu-ray with a full frame 1080p transfer that is mostly free of scratches, and has fine detail that would be even more obvious if the film wasn't so darn dark. The transfer's overall dimness makes it impossible to see shadow details, and drags down what is an otherwise sharp, natural image. The audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix that is clean, well-balanced, and hiss-free. The songs in the film are catchy if generic '60s easy-listening and music hall numbers that are fine on their own but have nothing to do with monsters.
In addition to a DVD copy of the movie, Mad Monster Party comes with a small collection of bonus features:
• "Mad Monster Party: Making of a Cult Classic" (14:46): This making-of featurette interviews many of the key people involved with the film, including Arthur Rankin Jr., Allen Swift, and storyboard artist Don Duga, who helped bring Mad Magazine artist Jack Davis's character designs to life.
• "It's Sheer Animagic! Secrets of Stop-Motion Animation" (9:35): In this featurette, Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh of Screen Novelties describe the painstaking process of armature puppet filmmaking.
• "Groovy Ghouls! The Music of Mad Monster Party" (3:44): A brief look at the songs in the film, including the revelation that the title song was inspired by the Goldfinger theme.
• Karaoke style sing-a-longs for two songs: "Our Time to Shine," and "One Step Ahead."
There is a clever monster movie parody somewhere in Mad Monster Party. Unfortunately, it's buried under an overlong and overstuffed feature. Those who remember the film from their early years may be able to look past its flaws, but the dark transfer and limited extras are harder to get past,—relegating this Blu-ray to the collections of only the most dedicated monster hunters.
I'm mad at myself for watching this monster party. Guilty!
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