Fri
Oct 28 2011 1:00pm

The Answer is Yes: Mad Monster Party?

“The full moon brings out the monster in you. / A strange tune seems to be playing for you. / Could you be someone’s invention, so unreal as you feel tonight? / Did you sell your soul to the devil at that monster party last night?”

Imagine an animated monster film more silly than genuinely frightening but still very creative and not without moments of subtle menace. Sound cool? Now imagine that the film is an obvious influence on Tim Burton and Pixar. Definitely cool, yeah? Now imagine it’s a musical with Phyllis Diller. Did I lose you? Don’t worry. It’s still cool.

I’m speaking, of course, of Mad Monster Party, (or Party?) that fabulous stop-motion foray into macabre kookiness. Rankin/Bass, best known for their numerous Christmas specials, created this in 1967 and released it in the spring. Consequently, it’s not exactly a Halloween special. But spring-schming, I’ve only ever watched it around Halloween. And it’s about 14 billion times more satisfying than that nihilistic family favorite, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

Mad Magazine’s Harvey Kurtzman brought the mad to the Monster Party script and Mad illustrator Jack Davis designed the characters (storyboarded by Don Duga, a Rankin/Bass regular for many years). Some say Forrest J. Ackerman contributed as well. While that remains disputed, I do think that Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland could have been an influence, especially through the cover art from Basil Gogos (a guy who, now that I think of it, deserves a tribute post of his own). But influenced or not, the design is effectively fun and creepy at once, and any reader of early Mad will know Davis excelled at that combination.

The story goes like this: Baron Frankenstein (Boris Karloff), a mad scientist who has discovered “the formula which can destroy all matter” (as well as the ability to make crows explode) decides to retire. He invites a host of villainous friends for a retirement party on his Caribbean island (because, I suppose, even mad scientists like to sit down to a plate of ackee and saltfish under a coconut tree after a hard day deciphering the mysteries of death). At the party — attended by Dracula, the Wolf Man, a mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, Phyllis Diller, Doctor Jekyll and many more — rumor circulates that the baron will name his successor. The baron’s nephew, Felix Flankin, is also invited, though he’s more clumsy than sinister. He dresses a bit like George Will and sounds like Jimmy Stewart. (I guess that adds up to Garrison Keillor?) Mayhem and malevolent Machiavellian machinations manifest as the mysterious monsters meet and maneuver. Or, less alliteratively, the bad guys (read: everyone but Felix but especially the Baron’s hot redhead assistant, Francesca) plot against each other (especially Felix) to get control of the Baron’s powerful secrets after it’s announced that Felix will be the Baron’s heir. And the ending? Let’s say it prefigures The Smiths line, “If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.”

As I mentioned, it’s a musical. At least, it has several songs (is there a song-to-dialogue ratio distinguishing a musical from a movie with music in it?) composed by Maury Laws and Jules Bass (who had also collaborated on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer a few years before). The best song by far is the opening James Bond-like theme and jazz singer Ethel Ennis’s smooth, confident sexiness. Also notable are “The Mummy,” in the style of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and “One Step Ahead” in which Boris Karloff sings. Kinda. Banjos are involved. Don’t miss it.

Rankin/Bass didn’t invent stop-motion animation; it’s nearly as old as film itself. But for the most part, it was a special effect or, at most, an animation technique for very short films, or comparatively simple work such as Gumby. With Rudolph, and even more so with Mad Monster Party, they propelled stop motion into a fully realized animation format for longer films with great stories, voice acting and full, complex visuals.

Those of us who grew up watching Rankin/Bass specials hold them in special esteem, even though they can be dated and a little hokey at times. Watching these stop-motion shows was a lot like seeing dolls and action figures come to life — I did mention Pixar earlier, I believe — and what kid wouldn’t find that magical? As an adult I still enjoy them, not just for nostalgia but because they’re genuinely fun and clever. And for me, Mad Monster Party was the best of the bunch.


Jason Henninger thinks Francesca looks like Christina Hendricks. He thinks of this quite a bit, in fact.

This article is part of Monster Mash on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
5 comments
David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
I'd almost forgotten this. I also have very fond memories of it. In some ways, it may be the best of the Rankin/Bass animations from this era. I would suggest, however, that it was also influenced by Bobby "Boris" Pickett's Monster Mash. Some of the jokes are very similar, especially if you look at the other songs on the Moster Mash LP.

Also:
He dresses a bit like George Will and sounds like Jimmy Stewart. (I guess that adds up to Garrison Keillor?)
made me laugh.
James Whitehead
2. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
Found this in the local supermarket check out line a few years ago at Halloween & bought it for my youngest. He was sick with pneumonia & was going to miss Halloween that year.

I had never seen it before although I had heard of it on a Rankin-Bass fan website. The whole family loved it, it was such a blast. My son was mollified somewhat by the movie for missing out on trick or treating; that & his older siblings carried a bag for him as he was sick. He actually got the biggest haul of the three due to the sympathy angle. ;-)

I don't mind and don't notice the hokey or dated aspects of this one, or any of their other specials honestly, as they do bring me back to my childhood and I like the simple message.

Kato

PS - Not sure I agree with your description of the Cahrlie Brown special however. Just watched it last night with the kids, even the 15 year old, and found it still to be good fun.
Bridget McGovern
3. BMcGovern
I think Mad Monster Party is about as crazy as Rankin & Bass get--except for maybe their Life and Adventure of Santa Claus, but at least that was riffing on some pretty wacky source material...this is some next-level craziness, and I love every minute of it. The fact that this is available on Netflix streaming is kind of the best thing ever--I keep forcing my friends to watch it (admittedly, it's sometimes hard to get them to stick around past the Phyllis Diller song, but if you can get through that, they're usually glad they stayed. Also, booze helps :) And, as goofy as the movie is, it's a great introduction to the amazing Ethel Ennis: probably best known for the Mad Monster Party theme song...and singing at Nixon's reinauguration (and still going strong, by the way). If only we could get her to cover The Smiths, and bring this thing full circle...
craig thrift
4. gagecreedlives
Wow I just geeked out hardcore seeing a post about Mad Monster Party. I freaking love this movie. But nobody I know outside my immediate family have even heard of it let alone seen it.

Bit of trivia apparently the kitchen scene with chef Mafia Machiavelli wasnt originally in the movie but had to be added to pad out the time.

It also has probably my favourite bar fight scene ever........punch anyone :)
Ian Tregillis
5. ITregillis
I have been wondering about this movie for YEARS. Thank you!

I saw it on TV maybe close to 30 years ago, and have always had a vague memory of it (whatever it was) being wonderful.

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