Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass may just be the weirdest animation team in history. Most of their stop-motion Christmas toons have become perennial classics, despite such bizarre characters as a carrot-topped roly poly dancing demon in hell; a misfit-among-misfits Arctic explorer; a dentist elf; a flying lion; a bitchy, bigoted Saint Nicholas; a winter warlock; a toothless, abominable Bumble; and a Charlie-in-the-Box. One wonders if the duo realized how off-kilter their formula was. When it came to their Halloween special, Rankin and Bass used the 1940s’ studio bound monster-mashes as their blueprint. Oddly, their Mad Monster Party (1967) was considerably better than those late, fatigued Universal extravaganzas. Helping tremendously was the voice work of Boris Karloff as Baron Frankenstein and Allen Swift as Felix Flankin, the Monster, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, and the Invisible Man.
Harvey Kurtzman of “Mad Magazine” and Forrest J. Ackerman, the celebrated founder and editor of “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” worked (uncredited) on the script. It shows. Mad Monster Party is a loving homage to Gothic cinema, replete with trademark campy puns, which equally inspire nostalgic smiles and pained groans. The special serves as a precursor of sorts to Henry Selick‘s Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Rankin and Bass approach their theme with far less originality than Selick, but the earlier film does have a pronounced sense of adolescent charm.
Karloff’s vocal contribution, per the norm, is beautifully mellifluous. His Baron is the ringmaster of a grand guignol island, with King of Kong waiting round the corner. The various monsters do exactly what we expect them to do by this point. However, being Rankin and Bass, we also expect a few moments of head-scratching eccentricity. They do not disappoint. The Baron’s nephew is a nerdy pharmacist (!?!) who takes a can of Raid to the residential rodent vamp and falls in love with a buxom, short-skirted, flaming redhead girl (!?!) The kitsch love ballad between the two and the G-rated flirtatiousness is mind-numbingly out of place in this kindergarten-esque ogre’s bacchanal. Equally grating is Phyllis Diller’s take on the “Bride of the Monster.” A little Diller goes a loooong way and her repeated canned cackling is fingernails on a chalkboard. The coloring book plot and Stooge-like slapstick place Mad Monster Party firmly in its time. However, like most period pieces, this film (shot in 35 mm) delightfully retains its inherent naiveté.
Apart from the Baron and the Count (with caricatured Lugosi mannerisms and accent), the monsters are mostly decor, and not given much to do. However, amidst the lame, predictable gags (i.e.the Wolfman running off with a bone), the Mummy does get to rhumba with a skeletal band, and the Invisible Man is unexpectedly given a Sydney Greenstreet voice. Contrary to horror film mythology, Peter Lorre never played Ygor, which doesn’t stop the animation team from casting his likeness in the role of the Baron’s assistant. Gale Garnett, voicing the role of the over-sexed Francesca, imbues the character with a velvet voice. She does wonders with woefully pedestrian lyrics.
Not surprisingly, it is Karloff who keeps the lethargically paced plot moving. The veteran genre actor clearly had fun with his role, although it is unfortunate that they relied on his Baron to elevate the endeavor. Mad Monster Party stands in contrast to Karloff’s best animation work: Chuck Jones’ 1966 “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” which may have been the actor’s last great role.
The Blu-ray edition comes with a making-of featurette, trailer, sing-alongs, and a second featurette on the art of stop-animation. The transfer is good, but not exceptional.
For all its flaws, Mad Monster Party is adored by my grandkids and, as usual, they will have the last word.