When I think of Rankin Bass, I think of sickly sweet stuff like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; any time I see that style of stop-motion animation, I expect someone to start singing in Burl Ives' voice. But five minutes into their 1967 epic Mad Monster Party, we've seen a spooky old castle, a mad scientist who has learned to blow stuff up, and a song about selling your soul to the devil at a party. Awesome!
To call this a Halloween special isn’t 100% accurate; this 1967 feature-length film was a given a theatrical release in Spring, 1967, and makes no mention of Halloween. However, after flopping at the box office, it found new life as Halloween special on television for years. With a script that was polished up by Harvey Kurtzman (of MAD magazine), it's ten times funnier than any other Rankin Bass special I've ever seen - and it's full of cool spooky scenes of dark castles, graveyards, foggy streets - what more does one want?
That's not to say that Mad Monster Party is exactly a masterpiece. It works best at the times when you can see Kurtzman's involvement - when the sight gags are MAD sight gags, the celebrity cameras are MAD-style cameos. I wish there were more of them - it's almost hard to imagine now how anarchic and edgy MAD was to kids in the 1960s. I don't know that MAD is really any less funny now than it used to be, but there's a lot more competition in the world of sardonic humor nowadays (who in the world would have ever believed that Cracked would be held in more esteem, at least online, in 2010?). LIke The Simpsons, it's just sort of outlasted its own edginess as its brand of humor, once so shocking and cutting-edge, is absorbed into the mainstream.
However, I hope I don't live to see the day when there's nothing shocking about Phyllis Diller and Tina Louise ripping off each other's dresses and having a cat fight.
A particularly interesting thing is how well it's aged - sometimes there’s a difference between something between finding something “dated” and just being able to tell what year it takes place (and if someone will explain this to the book bloggers who freak out every time they see a pop culture reference in a book, I’d be very grateful) ; Mad Monster Party is loaded with circa 1967 pop culture references and topical humor. Boris Karloff pretty much plays himself. Phyllis Diller totally plays herself (and frankly steals the show), even calling the monster "Fang," as she always called her husband in her comedy routines. There's a femme fatale said to be based on Tina Louise (the movie star from Gilligan's Island). There's a mop-topped Skeleton band that I assume was a Beatles take-off (though they sound more like the Stones or the Who). The groovy "period" vibe keeps it interesting to watch even during the slow parts (of which there are many).
I don't know how well little kids would like this today - it's full of references they won't catch and gets off to a slow-moving start (even though it's gorgeous to look at the whole time), with long stretches between jokes. And many of the jokes seem like they OUGHT to work, but they just don't quite seem to nail the timing. For perhaps the first time in my life, I almost wished there was a laugh track now and then (I can't help but wonder if it was written with one in mind). Like most feature-length Halloween specials, it probably would have worked better if they crammed it into a shorter running time.
If you saw this as a kid, watching it now will surely bring back memories - double the amount if you lived through the 1960s and can get a nostalgia trip out of the all the pop culture references. If you're seeing it for the first time as an adult, there's plenty to admire here, from the gorgeous visuals to the jazzy score, but it'll seem more like opening a time capsule than anything else - it won't keep you on the edge of your seat with the plot or anything. I wonder if one could take advantage of the peerless visuals and play it silently and play some particular rock album under it, like you can do with Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon, or Metropolis and the second Stiffs Inc album.
The movie had a lousy run in theaters, but became something of a cult classic through TV airings (some say that Tim Burton learned everything he knew about visuals from this show). A soundtrack album was released in 1998, more than thirty years after the movie came out, and, though early VHS copies were known to be made from crummy prints, recent DVD releases look stunning. THe movie is still aired now and then on AMC and other such channels around Halloween - it's status as a "movie," not exactly a "special," seems to make it more attractive to re-air.
Flop though it was, it did spawn an animated prequel, the 1972 animated TV special Mad Mad Monsters. Stay tuned!