‘It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.’ – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
‘They must all know. Know that I, Baron von Frankenstein, master of the secret of creation, have now mastered the secret of destruction!’ – Baron Boris Frankenstein, Mad Monster Party.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Frankenstein is that it isn’t always a horror story. Certainly my own first encounter with the Monster was as a character in children’s TV. I’d seen the Groovy Ghoulies, The Drac Pack and The Munsters long before I saw a version of Frankenstein that was actually meant to scare. How exactly did this legendary fiend become family entertainment? I’m not entirely certain, but it somehow it seems to work.
Mad Monster Party? is a case in point. Made in Claymation by Rankin Bass, best known for their Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman films that ran every Christmas for flippin’ ever. Mad Monster Party was their only cinema release. It features the talents of Boris Karloff; the great Mad Magazine editor Harvey Kurtzman and–for some reason–Phyllis Diller as the Bride of Frankenstein. I like the late Ms Diller but, seriously, that’s some random casting right there.
Baron Frankenstein, hard at work on his private island, discovers a substance that is basically an atomic bomb in a test tube. Having completed his life’s work, he summons all of the monsters to witness his success. He means to retire, step down as the monsters’ leader, and appoint a successor. Dracula, the Mummy, Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, the Wolfman, the Gill Man, Quasimodo, the Monster and its Bride are all invited, but the monster known as ‘It’ is not.
However, the strangest guest is Frankenstein’s nephew, Felix Flanken. Frankenstein tells his assistant, Francesca, that he means to appoint Felix as his successor rather than one of the monsters.
Felix as a klutzy assistant pharmacist, who arrives on the island with no idea about the horrors he is about to face. The monsters begin scheming against him, while of course double dealing and plotting against one another. Francesca is at the centre of these plots. This changes, firstly when the other monsters turn on her and then when she kisses Felix and instantly falls in love with him.
The monsters stop playing around, and attack en masse. Felix is saved by the fortunate arrival of ‘It’, who turns out to be a King Kong-like giant ape. ‘It’ captures Francesca and all the monsters, and Frankenstein and his zombies attack in old-fashioned biplanes. He rescues Francesca, who runs off to Felix, to whom he has given a getaway boat. Frankenstein is captured by ‘It’. Disappointed at the treachery of his friends, the Baron deploys his atomic test tube, destroying the island.
I want to like this movie more than I do. I mean it’s really quite charming. The character design is lovely. Most of the gags – both visual and verbal – work well. The musical numbers are a little too numerous, and of highly variable quality–the theme song is truly delightful but none of the others quite match it. The voice talent is fun. Karloff is in fine form, playing Frankenstein as a friendly avuncular figure. In spite of my misgivings Diller does some interesting things with her domineering Bride. The big set pieces are clever, fun and technically impressive for its time.
Why doesn’t it quite come off? Basically, too much padding. There’s an extended scene where Frankenstein’s head zombie, Yech, is talking to Italian chef Mafia Macchiavelli, in which the biggest joke is that the Italian chef is named Mafia Macchiavelli. And then there are several sequences that are just repetitive. A sailor is scared by a monster, then by another monster, then by another. A scene in which Dr Jekyll is trying to sleep but is woken by the Gill Man is followed by a scene in which the werewolf keeps waking the Invisible Man is followed by a scene in which the Hunchback can’t sleep because of the Mummy is followed by a scene in which the Monster is kept up by the Bride’s snoring.
Did that last sentence bore you? Try watching the movie.
It’s the cinema running time that lets the movie down. Had the filmmakers been working on an hour-long TV special, they might have produced gold. As it is, there’s just too much filler.
So that’s it as a movie. How is it as a Frankenstein movie? Well, it does have some interesting twists. For once, Frankenstein seems to have a pleasant relationship with his creations. In addition to the Monster and its Mate, he has a sort of blob creature and a small army of cute little monsters for a song-and-dance scene. In an early scene, he addresses the Monster as ‘my boy,’ and it is hard not to imagine Karloff smiling a little as he recorded the line. The planes that Frankenstein’s zombies fly are said to have been built by Orville and Wilbur Frankenstein, two more additions to the ever confusing Frankenstein family tree.
The most interesting take on the myth is the Monster’s relationship with the Bride. In this film, the Bride is called ‘the Monster’s Mate’ and, since she is played by Phyllis Diller, she refers to the Monster as ‘Fang’ throughout. The Monster himself is the big, stupid, mumbly version, and all of the cartoonish violence he commits is directed by his bride.
It’s kind of funny in an old fashioned way. In more recent decades, the old comedy trope of ‘henpecked husband’ has gone out of style. Rightly so, too, given that it’s pretty damn sexist when you get down to it. But if we accept Mad Monster Party as a product of its time, then it becomes an interesting twist on the idea of the ‘female Monster’ that goes back to Mary Shelley herself. Be careful what you wish for, Fang.
The other twist on the ‘female monster’ idea is Francesca. In the end of the film she reveals that she is one of Frankenstein’s creations. This is a twist that will surprise no one over the age of seven–but then again, I suppose it doesn’t have to. Felix is also implied to be some sort of robot.
Its tempting to see Felix’s reveal as a cop out. But I don’t know, isn’t that what we’ve just been watching? A film about little inanimate homonculi coming alive for us? What could be more ‘Frankenstein for kids’ than bits of clay, animated into life, singing and dancing and telling jokes?