If you have a five year-old and don’t show them Rankin/Bass’s 1967 feature film Mad Monster Party? around Halloween, then there should be a government agency to come around your house and cite you for neglect. I’m not saying it’s a great film – it’s a good one weighed down by too many songs – but if you want to keep a kid hypnotized and giggling for 95 minutes, then you need to get a copy of this movie. It’s really fun.
I remain amazed that it isn’t better known. Rankin/Bass’s stop-motion television holiday specials are so well remembered, but this oddball movie just seemed to vanish into obscurity. It was something that you read about but never saw, until 2009, when Lionsgate put out a DVD that was available everywhere. I picked my copy up at Target the week it was released; they had a big display like it was a summer blockbuster. It’s such a charming film, flawed, but impossible to dislike.
Two big factors helped to turn this from an okay old kids’ movie into something long-lasting and memorable. The script was co-written by the immortal Harvey Kurtzman, and the characters were designed by one of my favorite artists, Jack Davis, who passed away earlier this year. It’s full of silly puns and “boys and ghouls” level humor, jokes about poison, and slapstick shenanigans like a Black Lagoon-esque fish creature and an invisible man throwing pies in each other’s faces. This is like Comedy Ground Zero for elementary school kids.
So what’s the story about? Well, on the Caribbean Isle of Evil, Baron Boris von Frankenstein finally completes his life’s work, a formula that can destroy matter with a single drop. He chooses to retire at the top of his game and hand control of the great monsters to his chosen successor, inviting most of them – all but a mysterious pest known only as “It” – to a convention at his castle. Most of the monsters conspire and plot and hope that each will be the new boss, but the baron actually plans to pass the business down to his only living relative, a half-blind soda jerk from Vermont who’s allergic to everything.
Unlike a modern children’s movie, which tries to cast everybody on the B-list for voices, the only celebrity voices involved are Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller, who plays the bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, and they are both hilarious. The monster, incidentally, is called “Fang” for some reason. I love that. Everything about the movie oozes an effortless charm, with gags both obviously telegraphed and subtle. I wouldn’t call it timeless – there’s actually a horrible and badly dated moment where the baron’s scheming secretary falls in love with the soda jerk after he tries to smack her out of being “hysterical” – but kids love monsters like these, and they love the slapstick fun. Our kid was in heaven.
I had almost as much fun building it up as watching it. I didn’t let on that this was a stop-motion film for children or let him see the box art, but over the last week told him we were going to watch a scary movie. I gave him one last chance to back out, and said that if he gets scared, he could hold my hand. Then I asked whether, if I get scared, I could hold his. At one point about two-thirds in, a big black furball in the baron’s lab sprouts a pair of eyes and I went “eek!” My son grabbed my hand and gave me a good squeeze to make sure I was okay.