Friday, October 27, 2017

Mad Monster Party? (1967)

For many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers Mad Monster Party? (1967) was a Halloween tradition growing up. In fact, many people are convinced that it was Rankin/Bass Productions' contribution to Halloween television specials. In truth, it was not one of Rankin/Bass's many holiday specials. In fact, it was a feature film released to theatres. What is more, the movie is not even set at Halloween. Mad Monster Party? became a Halloween tradition largely because of the independent television stations that flourished in the Seventies and Eighties.

It was in 1965 that Videocraft International, the company owned and operated by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass (and later renamed Rankin/Bass Productions), signed a three movie deal with Joseph E. Levine and his company Embassy Pictures. The first two films in the deal were Willy McBean and his Magic Machine (1965) and The Daydreamer (1966).  The third was Mad Monster Party?. In many respects it made sense for Rankin/Bass to make a movie based around classic monsters. In 1957 many of the classic Universal monster movies were syndicated to television stations as part of Screen Gems' Shock! package. More Universal monster movies would be syndicated to television in Screen Gems' Son of Shock package the following year. The end result was that the classic Universal monsters would enjoy renewed popularity. Indeed, the Shock! and Son of Shock syndication packages sparked a monster fad that peaked around 1962-1963, and persisted well into the Seventies. Quite simply, anything dealing with monsters sold in the Sixties and sold well. In many respects, then, Mad Monster Party! made a whole lot of sense as a project.

The initial script for Mad Monster Party? emerged from meetings between writer Len Korobkin and producers Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. Harvey Kurtzman, who wrote and edited Mad in its earliest days while at E.C. Comics, was brought into rewrite the script, adding various one-liners. Because Joseph E. Levine wanted to make the movie slightly longer, Len Korobkin later had to add two scenes. Contrary to popular belief, science fiction and horror superfan Forrest Ackerman never worked on Mad Monster Party?.

Harvey Kurtzman would not be the only veteran of Mad to work on Mad Monster Party?. The characters were designed by none other than artist Jack Davis, who was among the first artists to work on Mad. It would be veterans of earlier Rankin/Bass TV specials and films who would be responsible for much of the rest of Mad Monster Party?. The film was shot using Rankin/Bass's stop-motion process called Animagic. The chief Animagic technician on the film was Tadahito Mochinaga, who had earlier served as the animation supervisor on the classic television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as well as Rankin/Bass's previous films Willy McBean and his Magic Machine and The Daydreamer. The score was written by Videocraft's music director Maury Laws, who had previously scored The Daydreamer and Rankin/Bass's Saturday morning cartoon King Kong. He would go onto work on such Rankin/Bass productions as Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and The Hobbit. The songs were written by Maury Laws and Jules Bass. Mad Monster Party? was directed by none other than Jules Bass himself. He had also directed their previous feature film The Daydreamer.

As to Mad Monster Party? itself, the film centred on mad scientist Baron Boris von Frankenstein, who as head of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters calls its membership to his island to announce his latest discovery, as well as his retirement. Unfortunately, for the various monsters, Frankenstein's chosen replacement is his nephew Felix Flanken, a sweet-natured but clumsy pharmacist.

The monsters in Mad Monster Party? are largely parodies from classic literature and the classic monster movies. This presented Videocraft International with a bit of a problem, as they did not want to pay for the rights for those monsters still protected by copyright. As a result some of the monsters have different names from those with which people are familiar. The Bride of Frankenstein is "the Monster's Mate". The Creature from the Black Lagoon is simply "The Creature". The Wolfman is "the Werewolf". King Kong is simply referred to as "It". Of course, many of the classic monsters were in public domain by 1967, and so they are called by their familiar names: Dracula; Frankenstein's Monster; the Hunchback of Notre Dame; The Invisible Man; and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Throughout the movie the Monster's Mate refers to the Monster as "Fang". This is an in-joke. The Monster's Mate is made to look like Phyllis Diller and was voiced by her as well. Miss Diller often referred to her husband as "Fang" in her comedy routines.

In addition to appearances from various classic monsters, Mad Monster Party? also featured parodies of both classic movie stars and current celebrities. Baron von Frankenstein looks like Boris Karloff and was voiced by him. Frankenstein's nephew, Felix Flankin, sounds like Jimmy Stewart. Frankenstein's zombie butler Yetch looks like and sounds like Peter Lorre. The Invisible Man sounds like Sydney Greenstreet. These celebrity impersonations came courtesy of legendary voice actor Allen Swift, now best known as the voice of Simon Barsinister on Underdog. Allen Swift (credited as Alan Swift) voiced every single monster except for the Monster's Mate,  and voiced Frankenstein's nephew Felix Flankin and any incidental characters as well.

It was because of Allen Swift's incredible voice that Mad Monster Party? actually had a very small voice cast. As mentioned earlier, Boris Karloff voiced Baron Boris Von Frankenstein and Phyllis Diller voiced the Monster's Mate. Frankenstein's beautiful assistant Francesca was voiced by singer Gale Garnett, perhaps best known for the 1964 hit  "We'll Sing in the Sunshine". Even though nearly twenty characters appear in Mad Monster Party?, its cast only consisted of four people.

One mystery surrounding Mad Monster Party? is its exact title. In its opening credits the title is given as "Mad Monster Party?". In some of the promotional materials, including posters from 1967, it is given as "Mad Monster Party" without the question mark. Given that there appears to have been no consistency with regards to the title even in 1967, perhaps one should simply assume both are correct. As to the famous posters for Mad Monster Party?, the art was provided by Frank Frazetta. Now best known for his fantasy artwork, Mr Frazetta also did many movie posters, often in the more comical style of such artists as, well, Jack Davis. 

Sadly, given the amount of work that went into Mad Monster Party?, the film apparently did not meet Joseph E. Levine's expectations. He then limited its theatrical release. This is perhaps the reason it is hard to determine the film's exact release date, at least going by various online sources. Rotten Tomatoes and several other sites give its release date as January 1 1967. This seems somewhat unlikely, as "January 1" is often given as a release date when web sites are not exactly sure when a film was released. IMDB and yet other sites give the film's release date as March 8 1967 in New York City, giving no sources for the information. This also seems questionable given the date of The New York Times' review of Mad Monster Party? was March 8 1969. It seems possible that someone, knowing that the film was released in 1967 simply took the date of The New York Times review and moved it to the year that Mad Monster Party? was released. For the film to have been released on March 8 1967 and then reviewed in The New York Times on March 8 1969 would seem to be a rather big coincidence.

That having been said, it is clear that Mad Monster Party? was released in 1967. Rankin/Bass's sources give the film's year of release as 1967. Dell's comic book adaptation of the film has a cover date of September 1967. If this was not enough, Danny Miller in a reminiscence of October 31 1967 on his blog Jew Eat Yet makes reference to a movie he had seen the weekend before Halloween, Mad Monster Party?.  Between the cover date of the comic book and Mr. Miller's reminiscences, it seems possible that Mad Monster Party? received a very limited theatrical release in the autumn of 1967.

Not only would Mad Monster Party? have an extremely limited theatrical release, but its soundtrack album would not be released for years. It was planned for the soundtrack album to be released in 1967 by RCA Victor about the same time as the film . The movie's credits even state that the soundtrack album is available through RCA Victor. Sadly, the soundtrack was not released in 1967 and would not be released until August 1998 by Retrograde Records.

Fortunately, Mad Monster Party? would have a second life on the children's matinee circuit. Beginning in 1968, Mad Monster Party? was shown at children's matinees. It was at this point that the film became linked to Halloween, as many theatres in 1968 booked the movie for children's matinees around the holiday. Mad Monster Party? would further be saved by New York Times critic Howard Thompson, who discovered it at a children's matinee. His March 8 1969 review of Mad Monster Party? is absolutely glowing. He closed his review with "As directed by Jules Bass and produced by Arthur Rankin Jr. with some gifted technicians, this party should make everybody chuckle, the tots and their escorts, and even the monsters at heart."

By 1969 it was becoming clear that a good many people disagreed with Joseph E. Levine's assessment of Mad Monster Party?. More and more theatres booked Mad Monster Party? for children's matinees, particularly at Halloween. It was in 1970 that Mad Monster Party? was released to independent television stations. It was at this point that the film firmly became a Halloween tradition. Many television stations showed it each year around or on Halloween, leading many to believe that it was simply another Rankin/Bass holiday special, not the feature film originally released to theatres that it originally was.

Sadly, for years Mad Monster Party? would not be seen as it was upon its original release. The original 35mm print of the film had suffered water damage, and as a result all video releases were from an inferior 16mm print. Fortunately, a pristine 35mm print was discovered by Sony Pictures Television. This print was digitally remastered and would provide the source for DVD releases since 2009.

Mad Monster Party? would ultimately prove to be a significant film. It would be the last project associated with Frankenstein that Boris Karloff worked on. He died February 2 1969.  Its popularity on television would lead to a prequel of sorts, Mad, Mad, Mad, Monsters. Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters was a cel animated, television film that ran slightly over an hour. It aired on September 23 1972 as part of the TV series The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie.

Mad Monster Party? would also have a lasting influence. Its impact on director Tim Burton can be seen in his films Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas (which he produced, but did not direct), and Corpse Bride. It would also have impact on director Henry Selick, who not only directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, but also Coraline. The film would also have an influence on several other films, including Pixar's Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University, and Sony Pictures Animation's Hotel Transylvania,

Mad Monster Party? has maintained a cult following to this day. Its appeal goes well beyond its comic portrayal of classic monsters. There can be little doubt that much of its appeal for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers is that it is a product of Rankin/Bass. Its stop-motion animation is familiar from several classic television specials, and it features several likeable songs. At the same time, however, it is unlike anything else produced by Rankin/Bass. With the possible exceptions of Felix, Francesca, and a few others, the characters look nothing like most one would find in a Rankin/Bass holiday special. Indeed, as might be expected, they look like Jack Davis artwork come to life. Mad Monster Party? also differs from other Rankin/Bass products in another respect. Namely, the movie appears to have been made to appeal to a adults as well as children. Throughout the film are pop culture references, jokes, and even a few situations that probably went over kids' heads even in 1967. The movie's end is even a reference to a now classic film that had only been released eight years before. It is a movie that mixes the familiar with the unfamiliar, a movie meant to appeal to adults as much to children. While Mad Monster Party? would become a Halloween tradition for many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers in their childhood, it probably remains a favourite for so many because it is simply a good, fun film.

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