Oak Lawn, IL, Miser Bros. Press, December 2011, 269 pages, 978-0-9713081-3-8, hardcover $59.99, trade paperback $54.99.
Today there are coffee-table “The Art of …” and “The Making of …” books on just about every new American animated theatrical feature to be released. Books about older movies are rarer. Here is one on an often-neglected 1967 “classic”: the stop-motion Mad Monster Party.
By 1967 the team of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass was well-known for their Videocraft International stop-motion TV programs and specials, from The New Adventures of Pinocchio in 1960 on and especially including Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). They had already made one “Animagic” theatrical feature, the 1965 Willy McBean and His Magic Machine. In the 1960s humorous monsters, particularly comedic versions of the most famous movie monsters, were especially popular, with the 1964-1966 TV series The Addams Family and The Munsters leading the way and the 1970 animated TV Sabrina and the Groovie Goolies showing that the fad had not lost its appeal. So in 1967, the success of a light pastiche of Frankenstein, his Monster, his Bride, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, a generic Peter Lorre henchman, the Creature, the Hunchback, a skeleton parody of the Beatles, and so forth in cute stop-motion puppets must have seemed a sure-fire success. “It is the only animated film to bring together the classic movie monsters in the spirit of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and it certainly has inspired projects recently like Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride.” (p. 9)
One distinct advantage that modern features have is that all of their production art is currently available for their art books. Presumably that is no longer the case with Mad Monster Party. This book by Rankin/Bass “Official Historian” Rick Goldschmidt is beautiful, and beautifully-produced; full of illustrations on almost every page for the first half. But what is included and what is not is significant.
There are scores of black-&-white and color photographs of Rankin and Bass, and of executive producer Joseph E. Levine, of famous cartoonist Jack Davis who designed the stop-motion puppets, of Don Duga who storyboarded the film, of composer Maury Laws who with Jules Bass scored and conducted the film’s sound track, of writers Harvey Kurtzman (who is quoted as complaining, “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.” – p. 83) and Len Korobkin who actually wrote the film. Goldschmidt spends pages repeating that famous horror-movie fan/editor Forrest J Ackerman had absolutely nothing to do with the movie, even though IMDb and the manufacturers of its DVD releases insist on putting his name into the credits. There is information about Japan’s MOM Studios and its director Tadahito Mochinaga, which produced all the stop-motion animation for the movie. (The Japanese animators built the puppets from Jack Davis’ character designs, for about $5,000 each.)
There are publicity photos of Boris Karloff, Phyllis Diller, voice actor Allen Swift who performed all of the male voices besides Karloff’s, voice actress Gale Zoë Garnett who was the sultry femme fatale Francesca, and title-song vocalist Ethel Ennis. There are what must be every movie poster that was ever made for the film (including art by Frank Frazetta), all the lobby cards, publicity stills and ad slicks, and the video and DVD release covers, sharply reproduced in black-&-white or in full color as appropriate. There is the recorded-for-LP but unreleased-until-1998 sound track recording of the film score. There are all of the movie’s toys, Halloween costumes, and other merchandising items plus the advertisements for them. There is other material including the complete lyrics and music to the songs in the movie (pages 64 to 81), the complete shooting script (pages 89 to 181), and the complete authorized comic book adaptation (pages 220 to 253). There is a brief mention of the 1973 cel animation Halloween TV special “somewhat a sequel” Mad Mad Mad Monsters. There is a chapter of fan art of the monsters, drawn just for this book by movie/TV cartoonists such as some of the Warner Bros. TV animation staff (which is all very pretty but is painfully obvious padding for the book).
What is not included are a lot of the details that would make the book so much more valuable to the movie’s fans and to animation scholars! When in 1967 was Mad Monster Party released? (IMDb says March 8, 1967 in New York City; theater not specified – although since IMDb falsely insists that Forrest J Ackerman was one of the film’s writers, maybe we shouldn’t trust that.) How much did the movie gross? Reading between the lines, the Avco Embassy release was not a financial success; but did it only make a modest profit or did it lose money? Why does Mad Monster Party sometimes have a ? added to the title? The reproductions make it clear that this discrepancy goes back to 1967, but the unexplained flip-flop back and forth between Mad Monster Party and Mad Monster Party? grows cryptically exasperating. Since 32 pages are devoted to reprinting the comic book, who drew it? Inquiring minds want to know, but the information is not here – and what there is is hard to find, since there is no index. For example, the running time (93 minutes) in small type at the bottom of page 88 is easily overlooked.
Probably unavoidably after 45 years, the book’s attractive cover -- a montage of frame grabs from the Eastman Color movie -- and all the interior color photographs from the movie have unfortunately become very reddish. (The frame grabs on page 183 stand out because they are in excellent full color; were they made from a color film print when it was still new and unfaded?) What should have been avoidable is the author’s or publisher’s apparent belief that “its” always has an apostrophe in it.
These are annoying flaws in what is clearly a labor-of-love book about an unusual animated feature that has often been overlooked when the cel animated features of Disney, the Fleischers, Warner Bros., and others (including Rankin/Bass’ own 1982 The Last Unicorn) are discussed. For all that is included, Rankin/Bass’ Mad Monster Party is enthusiastically recommended.
Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945). He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom. He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996. A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at email@example.com.