Mad Monster Party? Review
The easiest way to describe Mad Monster Party? would be to suggest it as a forerunner to Tim Burton’s stop-motion animations. As with The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, it combines the musical with an affectionate, but kiddie friendly, take on the horror genre. As with Vincent’s casting of Vincent Price, it places the voice of Boris Karloff at the very forefront of its tale. Put together by the prolific Bass-Rankin Productions (specialists in holiday-themed television specials), the story itself is very simple. Baron Boris von Frankenstein (Karloff), having mastered the art of creation, has discovered the secret of destruction. In order to celebrate he organises the titular party and invites the various stalwarts of horror literature and/or their cinematic counterparts: Dracula, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll (and therefore Mr. Hyde), the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Wolfman. Also on the guest list is the Baron’s nephew, the only truly human invitee, a clumsy lad by the name of Felix who’s all wide-eyed innocence and a sound-alike to Jimmy Stewart. Creating the dramatic tension is the fact that Frankenstein intends to make Felix his successor, something that doesn’t go down too well with the various monsters and scientific-experiments-gone-wrong. Add into the mix a giant ape, a Peter Lorre-alike and a few musical interludes and there’s your 90 minutes of Halloween fun, albeit finally released onto DVD in the UK in January.
It’s important not to dwell too much on Burton comparisons, however, as Mad Monster Party? was made much earlier, without the various technological developments Burton had to hand or indeed his budgets. The key element is an earlier Bass-Rankin effort by the name of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Made for television in 1964, this particular piece was the pair’s first excursion into 3D stop-motion animation and proved to be a massive seasonal success in the US. The ‘Animagic’ process it utilised was adopted for further TV specials and, three years later, for Mad Monster Party?’s big screen outing. Yet despite the move across mediums there isn’t a massive leap in production values. The animation retains a certain crude simplicity whilst the sound design is considerably sparse.
In some ways this works in Mad Monster Party?’s favour, in others ways not. The style is perhaps best described as cute. There’s no real horror here, rather a favouring of child-friendly archetypes. The incarnation of Mr. Hyde that we see here, for example, isn’t that far removed from the one offered up in various Looney Tunes (Hyde and Hare, say), all green skin, top hat and oversized eye. Similarly Mad Monster Party?’s Dracula would appear to have been the basis for Sesame Street’s Count. All of the elements which make up these key figures are there, but the rough edges have been smoothed out and, despite being rendered in 3D, are distinctly cartoon-ish. Of course, how you take all this is no doubt come down to personal preference. Bland and anonymous to some, really quite charming to others. And it's worthwhile mentioning quite how much nostalgia will come into play here too.
Furthermore, whether you’re charmed or not by all this becomes a factor in how you’re likely to take the rest. The script for Mad Monster Party? takes a similar tact inasmuch as it’s the cartoon-ish elements which are heightened. In fact the film almost plays out as a series of sketches, complete with fade-outs after each sequence. The dialogue is of the punning variety (amongst the screenwriters was Mad Magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman, whilst rumours have prevailed that Forrest J. Ackerman, of Famous Monsters of Filmland fame, also offered some contributions), rarely entering into more adult themes and happy to play on the obvious. For example, Dracula to the Baron’s female assistance: “Francesca, you have always been my type. O negative, isn’t it?”
One problem this sketch-style formation creates is that Mad Monster Party? does seem a tad too long at just over 90 minutes in length. The various TV specials on which Bass-Rankin made their name were generally an hour tops, including commercial breaks, and you feel that would have been just about right here too. Similarly the musical numbers - excepting the Hammond-led ‘Do the Mummy’ - aren’t quite energetic enough, or indeed their visualisations, to continually sustain attention. And so whilst there are great moments (the giant ape attack at the conclusion) and cheeky moments (the Some Like It Hot rip-off right at the very end) and charm aplenty, Mad Monster Party? doesn’t quite entertain as much as it could. Of course, it’s also worth noting that I no longer fit into its target audience; I do remember loving the film when I caught it as a result of a rare UK television screening in the mid-eighties, and at just the right age too. It’s just a shame that Optimum have decided to release it at this time of the year when surely it would have gone down just right as a Halloween treat for the kids.
Finally reaching the UK, Mad Monster Party?’s Region 2 incarnation is something of a disappointment. The film was initially released onto disc in the US in 2003 by Anchor Bay where it was accompanied by the theatrical trailer, TV spots and a photo gallery. A few years later Lionsgate then bettered that edition with a spruced up transfer from the original 35mm print and the addition of three featurettes covering the film’s various aspects. Thankfully it appears as though we are getting the better print in the UK. The colours are crisp and retain their cartoon-ish elements, whilst print damage is minimal save for moderate scratches, equally moderate flicker at times and perhaps a little too much grain on occasion. We also get an open-matte 1.33:1 aspect ratio that would have been masked for theatrical showings but shown just like this whenever it cropped up on television. Of course it was shot, and therefore animated, at this ratio so there’s no reason to feel short-changed. Furthermore, it never looks as though there is any excessive space at the top and bottom of the screen; I’d argue that masking to a more theatrically inclined ratio would possibly appear a little cramped.
As for the soundtrack, here we get the original mono spread across the front two channels and it sounds merely okay. However, I’m inclined to believe that this is simply down to the sparse sound design of the original production as opposed to any flaws in the film’s transfer or restoration. (Indeed, given the aspect ratio and so-so soundtrack you do wonder if Bass-Rankin were possibly concerned that Mad Monster Party? would never gain a theatrical release and thus end up as another of their holiday specials.)
Extras, on the other hand, have not been ported over to the Region 2, either those from the original Anchor Bay disc or the Lionsgate ‘Special Edition’. Instead we are left with simply the film itself, something that will no doubt prompt enthusiasts to look elsewhere for this particular title if they haven’t done so already.