It may seem hard to believe, but there was a time when kids weren’t able to nag their parents into buying DVDs so the kids could watch their favorite movies whenever they wanted to. Yes, back in ye olden days, we had to make an effort to watch movies. If we didn’t get taken to the matinee we had to wait for them to show up on TV (which had only 13 channels, and that’s if you were lucky) and then watch them. And if you were late or the TV went on the fritz, tough luck.
This wasn’t all bad. One reason I haven’t bought The Wizard of Oz on DVD is because it just doesn’t seem right to have it always available for viewing. It used to be a BIG EVENT when The Wizard of Oz made its annual appearance on TV – I remember marking the occasion with popcorn and an Orange Crush, waiting for the show to begin. Similarly, if you didn’t have folks willing to dump you at the local matinee for an afternoon, the best way to catch many kids’ movies was on local TV. That was my first exposure to Mad Monster Party, seeing it on the Channel 5 Family Film Festival.
Mad Monster Party is now on DVD with plenty of extras (previously there was only a bare-bones release), which means it’s time to see the film in its entirety without commercial interruptions or being dragged away from the TV to go take out the trash. It’s also time to see how the movie holds up without being viewed through nostalgia-colored lenses.
Made by Rankin-Bass, the same awesome folks who brought us Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and more, Mad Monster Party attempts to do for classic movie monsters what they earlier did for Christmas-themed characters, and to break out of the TV time constraints. And for the most part, it was a successful effort.
On his Caribbean island, Dr. Baron von Frankenstein (voice by Boris Karloff) has just created an anti-matter solution, just a few drops of which can destroy anything. Pleased with his success, he sends out party invitations to the most famous monsters: Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Invisible Man. Also on hand are the Baron’s monster creation, the monster’s supremely annoying wife (voiced by the supremely annoying Phyllis Diller), a group of zombies including a Peter Lorre type, and the Baron’s secretary, the astonishingly buxom redhead Francesca (voice by Gale Garnett) who probably made many young boys feel funny back in the day. And Felix Flankin will be there too.
“Who?” asks Francesca (and the audience). Well, Felix is a nebbishy, allergy-prone pharmacy clerk who is blind without his glasses and talks like Jimmy Stewart. He’s also the Baron’s nephew and when the Baron confides to Francesca that he plans to retire and leave all his secrets to Felix, Francesca and many of the monsters start trying to get rid of Felix. That’s easier said then done, though. And even more hijinks ensue when the dreaded monster “It” (no, not the Stephen King It) decides to crash the party.
Mad Monster Party is something you rarely find these days – a family film. It’s suitable for even the youngest viewers, yet won’t insult adults’ intelligence either. The humor, while heavy on the puns (many courtesy of an uncredited Forry Ackerman), is good for a few chuckles. My favorite moment is when two characters are fleeing danger – one can’t go on, and asks the other character to not just leave them behind but leave them with something to read – don’t want to be bored while waiting for one’s imminent death! And there’s an astonishing amount of detail not just in the excellent stop-motion animation but in the sets and backgrounds – yet Rankin and Bass don’t go overboard the way many CGI animators do and provide too many.
Like many of the Rankin-Bass holiday specials, Mad Monster Party includes songs, and most of them are catchy enough so you don’t mind if they get stuck in your head. In fact, “Do the Mummy” by Little Tibia and the Fibias (Beatles-esque moptop skeletons) is worthy of inclusion on any Halloween music mix. “One Step Ahead” and “Our Time to Shine” are also good. Unfortunately two songs grate – “You’re Different” is “sung” by Diller and besides being annoying does nothing but pad the film’s running time. Likewise “Never Was A Love Like Ours” not only is bland but stops the film dead at a point when its pace is beginning to flag.
Which leads me to my main criticism of the film - its pacing. Mad Monster Party is extremely episodic, as if Rankin and Bass were still working with TV commercial breaks in mind, and the pace drags particularly in the last half hour. The “Never Was a Love Like Ours” song will have kids squirming and adults looking at their watches; fortunately the mystery monster It shows up to give the movie a raucous and surprisingly poignant ending.
Lionsgate has come through with this DVD release. The movie probably hasn’t looked and sounded this good since 1967, and there are extras aplenty. Three featurettes about the making of the film, about stop-motion animation, and about the music of Mad Monster Party should be enough to make fans happy, along with sing-alongs and the movie’s trailer.
Flaws aside, Mad Monster Party is pleasantly ghoulish fun for the whole family.