Of all the media oddities to come out of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the shift of horror toward the underage set has to be one of the most unusual. During the height of Ike era paranoia, EC Comics and its founder William Gaines were vivisected by a government looking to blame juvenile delinquency on anything other than absentee parenting. So ‘funny books’ got the call. And yet, as peace and love started permeating the counterculture, terror took up residence in the child’s sphere of influence. By the start of the ‘70s, Scooby-Doo, the Groovie Ghoulies, and dozens of local late night shock showcases were keeping the wee ones enthralled by day and awake at night. Perhaps the weirdest offering in the bunch was a tribute to Universal’s monsters made with marionettes. That’s right - a musical comedy cavalcade about the creepy known as Mad Monster Party?
Under the tutelage of renowned kid vid giants Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass (responsible for, among other things, the Christmas classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) a process known as “animagic” - read: stealthy stop-motion animation - was utilized to bring to life a wide variety of crazy creatures. In the tradition of Art Clokey and George Pal, the Rankin/Bass formula found unique ways to accent what was standard storytelling. While they would eventually branch out to pen and ink offerings during the course of their amazing career in entertainment, their puppet-based fare is most fondly remembered. Yet in a strange way, Mad Monster Party? remains one of their more elusive offerings. Long available on the home video format, the dated diorama deserves a contemporary revisit, if only for it’s unique design and what it says about the state of dread in 1969.
When Dr. Frankenstein decides to retire as head of the worldwide monster federation, he believes his nephew, mild mannered milquetoast Felix Flanken, would make a good replacement. He sends out an invitation to all the known nasties of the macabre - Dracula, the Monster and his Mate, the Werewolf, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll (and his darker doppelganger, Mr. Hyde), the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon - and when they arrive at the doctor’s castle, they learn the disquieting news. A human? In charge of monsters? With the help of Francesca, Frankenstein’s sexy secretary, they plan to get rid of the outsider once and for all. Then they can fight among themselves for the secret to the doc’s anti-matter formula, a brew capable of destroying the world. Of course, love steps in and screws things up.
From a narrative standpoint, Mad Monster Party? is incredibly schizophrenic. On the one hand, it offers up tons of slapstick comedy and bad macabre puns. Dr. Frankenstein (voiced with standard aplomb by Boris Karloff) utilized bats as his carrier “pigeons”, and there are lots of Flintstones-level sight gags involving typical terror stereotypes. But then director Bass places the nightclub cackle of comedian Phyllis Diller directly into the mix, providing her with lame one-liners that trade on her then well known marital distress with a hubby known as ‘Fang’ (she plays the Bride of the Monster, more or less). It’s an odd fit. Then you have the faithful rendering of the fiends, thanks in part to the artistic input of Mad Magazine‘s (and EC legend) Jack Davis. Noted for his malevolent work in such mythic titles as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, his cartoon take on the title terrors is unsettling.
And then there is the overall storyline, which sees Frankenstein looking to give his world-destroying secrets to his nerdy nebbish of a relative, Felix. Voiced to sound like a combination of Jimmy Stewart and Thurston Howell, III, this main plotpoint takes a while to get going, and once Bass puts the dork in harm’s way, the material grows labored. In fact, a lot of Mad Monster Party? feels like someone’s misguided idea on what is entertaining. The songs are sappy and almost always slow down the film’s forward momentum (the exception - Phyllis Diller’s showstopper about horror-based matrimony) and the pace is slightly problematic. Of course, in our short attention span society of 2008, a 90 minute plus puppet show would seem excessive and self-indulgent by any standard.
Thanks to the clever character design and attention to terror traditions however, Mad Monster Party? becomes an intriguing, idiosyncratic curio, a gem that no longer shines so brightly. It poses more questions about the individuals behind the scenes and the proposed demographic than it finds ways to frighten the audience, and when taken together with the surreal songs and physical shtick, it’s enough to make one’s brain bubble over and burst. Unlike other Rankin/Bass pieces which set a tone early and rarely deviate from same, this all over the map movie gives the impression of trying too hard. Clearly, it wants to be faithful to the source, to stand up for the fiends that pop culture has embraced and make them meaningful. And yet there is an irreverence and illogic that keeps things distant (like when the much maligned villain “It” shows up, only to look like a hairless King Kong).
Still, as a symbol of when the shivers were sold almost exclusively to the prepubescent crowd, Mad Monster Party? is gangly, goofy fun. The “animagic” process may pale in comparison to something like A Nightmare Before Christmas, and yet Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass came up with some inventive, imaginative visuals - especially when you consider the technological and budgetary limits in place. Perhaps the best way to describe this pleasant peculiarity is that it’s endemic of the entire post-Doody direction children’s programming took during the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. On the one hand, you had Sesame Street trying to make education entertaining while Saturday morning was just discovering its ability as a powerful marketing tool. Feeding fear to kids was nothing new, but Mad Monster Party? painted it in oddly adult ways. It remains a silly standout today.