Stop motion animation is regularly referred to as a dying art in the press, but from where I sit, the form seems relatively healthy. Laika has put out a feature in the form every two to three years since Coraline in 2009, and filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Guillermo del Toro have embraced the miniature medium. By accident or design, many of these stop motion pictures have included horror elements. It would be tempting to trace this, and the ongoing presence of stop motion in American cinema, to 1994 and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. But Burton himself has acknowledged an earlier antecedent. “There was one [stop motion feature] I liked when I was a kid called Mad Monster Party?,” he told interviewer Mark Salisbury in the book Burton on Burton. “People thought Nightmare was the first stop motion animated musical, but that was.”
It’s not so surprising that Mad Monster Party? has been overlooked. It was released in the spring of 1967 – not exactly prime real estate for a horror-comedy – and didn’t make nearly as much of a splash as the TV Christmas specials that were production company Rankin/Bass’s bread and butter. The film was chasing the trend of horror spoofs set by The Munsters and The Addams Family, a trend that may have tapered off too much by 1967 to let an independent stop motion feature register with the public. Frankly, those two series do better with the concept, as do the various straight and comedic “monster mash” movies made before and after Mad Monster Party?’s release. But that’s not to say this picture doesn’t have its charms, or a significant influence in the field of stop motion.
Mad Monster Party? was part of a three-picture deal between Rankin/Bass and legendary producer Jospeh E. Levine, who wanted family films for his company Embassy Pictures. The “mad” of the title is a wink to MAD Magazine, the go-to humor publication of the generation. Producer Arthur Rankin Jr. wanted a MAD vibe to the film, and was so determined to achieve it that he hired original MAD editor Harvey Kurtzman as a writer. Kurtzman didn’t have fond memories of the experience. He claimed that “I wrote for them like one evening and made about $3000, and then they threw it all out the window and they put my name on it.” Rankin/Bass historian Rick Goldschmidt argues that Kurtzman only came into play near the end of the writing process as a punch-up man, the bulk of the writing having been done by Rankin/Bass regular Len Korobkin. Either way, they worked from a story by Rankin: having mastered the power of creation, Baron Boris von Frankenstein discovers the power to destroy matter. Feeling the time is right to retire “on top,” the Baron – who is also the head of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters – invites all his followers to the Isle of Evil to celebrate. But he also invites Felix Flanken, his milquetoast pharmacist nephew. The Baron intends to bequeath his destructive formula to Felix and install him as his successor monster master. The monsters covet the title and the formula for themselves, and a race to murder the Baron’s heir gets underway. Among the schemers is Francesca, the Baron’s robot secretary, whose own designs on the succession are complicated when she falls in love with the kind-hearted Felix.
It’s a fine premise for a horror-themed romp. Boris Karloff himself leads the cast as Baron von Frankenstein, his final contribution to the legacy of the character he was most associated with. But voice actor Alan Swift did the lion’s share of the work, voicing not just Felix, but every male monster in the picture. And there was quite the collection of monsters for him to perform. Universal Studios established the idea of teaming horror figures together with their “monster rally” pictures of the 1940s, featuring Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man. Mad Monster Party? added to that roster the monster’s bride, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Peter Lorre (in the form of the Baron’s butler Yetch), walking skeletons, zombies (before George Romero’s work made them a horror staple), and even King Kong. Of course, to duck licensing fees, those monsters who weren’t in the public domain passed under pseudonyms and redesigns. One such case was the bride, referred to as the Monster’s Mate in the credits and patterned, in looks and personality, after her performer – Phyllis Diller.
The puns and the parodies that MAD Magazine was notorious for abound in Mad Monster Party?, and many refer to films outside the horror genre. They aren’t necessarily easy for the average viewer to catch, either. The film is as much a collection of Easter eggs for cinephiles as it is a family-friendly comedy. To take one example: the celebrated 1935 production of Mutiny on the Bounty is referenced just by having Swift impersonate Charles Laughton as a steamboat captain. And the script all these in-jokes are a part of, while very much played with a light touch, never forgets that its star characters are monsters. There’s no wishy-washy business of them all coming together as old buddies, hiding away from the big bad humans; these guys are all about their classical role as purveyors of evil. They plot, scheme, menace, and betray one another in their efforts to subvert the will of the Baron, the one honorable gentleman of the Organization of Monsters.
These machinations are fun to watch, and the love story between Felix and Francesca is rather cute. But so far as story is concerned, the good stuff in Mad Monster Party? comes in fits and starts. Distributor Levine felt that the film was too short as originally conceived; to appease him, extended gag sequences involving Yetch and the Baron’s household staff were shoved into the midsection. The film ended up too long in Rankin’s estimation, and all the added comic business represents a significant detour from the plot. Though Mad Monster Party? was always intended for theaters, the pacing is the stuff of TV; there are even several fades to black, as if to set up a commercial break. And if the story isn’t stopping for padding or fade-outs, it’s stopping for musical numbers. Rankin/Bass made their name adapting popular songs into holiday specials, but their use of music could feel like an excuse to have a song as often as a motivated part of the story. The numbers of Mad Monster Party? have a tangential relation at best to what’s going on around them, and as an extra kick in the teeth, they’re boring (with one exception: the title song, sung by Ethel Ennis in a marvelous imitation of James Bond openings of all things).
Where Mad Monster Party? is consistently strong is in the visual department. Rankin/Bass was a low-budget studio, and for all their virtues, the holiday specials they produced betray their meagre funding. But with Embassy Pictures as a partner, Mad Monster Party? enjoyed a significant step up in resources and production value. The miniature sets are larger, deeper, and more populated with dressing and detail than any of Rankin/Bass’s TV work. The stop motion puppets move more, and more fluidly. Lip-sync is more accurate. And Harvey Kurtzman wasn’t the only MAD hire for the film: cartoonist Jack Davis, among the founding artists of MAD, was brought in as a character designer. His signature touches (large heads, large feet, long skinny legs) were carried over from conceptual sketches to finished puppets, as were the risque proportions of Francesca and the quality of Davis’s caricatures of Karloff and Diller. Both the Baron and the Frankenstein monster puppets carry the Karloff look, and Davis’s modifications to the basic Bela Lugosi Dracula image would reappear years later in the Count of Sesame Street.
It’s the design aspect of Mad Monster Party? that’s left the biggest mark on stop motion animation. A challenge of any form of 3D animation is that it can’t easily replicate the graphic qualities of a drawing. Choices of texture, shape, proportion, and exaggeration available to 2D media don’t always translate well into three dimensions. In Burton on Burton, Tim Burton recalled his fondness for various forms of stop motion but noted, “to me, in Claymation the design elements get lost.” In his own work with the form, he said that “we weren’t trying to push the boundaries of great animation. What we were trying to do…was to be more specific with the design…what we wanted to do was what you do in a drawing, but just spring it into the third dimension.” He (and director Henry Selick) succeeded in high style with The Nightmare Before Christmas, and in the years since that film’s release, stop motion features have sported a wide variety of visual styles. But the first step down that road was taken decades earlier by a low-budget studio and their uneven but charming monster mash.
Robert Pattinson’s Batman looks out on the city of Gotham… or maybe this weekend’s event.
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