While the now-defunct Rankin/Bass animation studios are probably best remembered for their RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER and other Christmas-themed TV specials, they did make several forays into feature-length theatrical motion pictures, notably THE DAYDREAMER, based on the works of Hans Christian Andersen, and even the live-action KING KONG ESCAPES, co-produced with Japan’s Toho studios. But, for monster-crazed kids growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, MAD MONSTER PARTY? was their magnum opus, produced in their “Animagic” stop-motion animation process and released theatrically by Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures, no doubt to cash in on the early-1960s monster frenzy. Its infrequent TV airings (at least in the Chicagoland area), typically during Halloween season, were always an eagerly awaited event in my neighborhood. The title recently arrived on Blu-ray on the Lionsgate label, unfortunately in a shockingly substandard transfer.
Dr. Boris Frankenstein, voiced by none other than the definitive Monster himself, Boris Karloff (who had earlier lent his vocal talents to THE DAYDREAMER), is planning on retiring and leaving his monster-making business to his bumbling nephew Felix Flankin. He invites a number of famous movie monsters to his castle for a get-together where he will announce his retirement, including Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, a Black Lagoon–like Creature, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After making his announcement and naming Felix as his successor, several of the monsters get wind of his discovery of a formula for the destruction of matter, and plot to eliminate Felix and take control of Dr. Frankenstein’s terrible secret. A Kong-like giant ape named “It” is also featured, along with a 1960s garage-style band made up of skeletons (Little Tibia and The Fibias), and several carnivorous plants.
Besides Karloff as Dr. Frankenstein, the late comedienne Phyllis Diller voices the monster’s mate; Allen Swift, ubiquitous voice artist in numerous 1960s television shows, including "Tennessee Tuxedo", "Diver Dan, Underdog", and "The Beagles", provides the voices of Felix, all of the monsters, and Dr. Frankenstein’s henchman Yetch, a Peter Lorre caricature; and folk-pop vocalist Gale Garnett, Grammy award winner for “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” provides the sultry tonalities of the doctor’s assistant Francesca.
The movie features a number of original songs of varying quality penned by Maury Laws and Jules Bass, of which “Do the Mummy,” Gale Garnett’s rendition of “Never Was a Love Like Ours,” and the title song, modeled after John Barry’s theme from GOLDFINGER, fare best. Oddly enough for an animated movie, “Killer” Joe Piro, dean of the 1960s Peppermint Lounge–based New York disco scene and dance teacher to the Duchess of Windsor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is given a “choreography” credit (the “Do the Mummy” sequence was animated from 16mm film of Piro dancing). But the real attraction for most viewers will be the goofy, pun-filled script written by Len Korobkin and polished by Mad magazine stalwart Harvey Kurtzman (also editor of Hugh Hefner’s short-lived Trump and Warren Publishing’s satirical Help! magazines), and especially Jack Davis’s distinctive and clever character designs. Davis — a prolific advertising, movie poster, book and album cover artist — had been a regular contributor to Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein’s EC horror comics and Mad magazine — and Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! — and his unique style will be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up reading those mags.
MAD MONSTER PARTY? has long been a staple of the home video market, including at least two VHS incarnations and three previous DVD editions released by Starz/Anchor Bay (2003 and 2005) and Lionsgate (2009). The Starz/Anchor Bay releases included a hefty, 24-page informative booklet detailing the background and production of the movie, while the Lionsgate edition dispensed with the booklet but threw in three featurettes including interviews with Arthur Rankin, Laws and storyboard artist Don Duga, and a couple of sing-along tracks.
Being a fan of this movie since childhood, I was pleased, and a bit surprised, when a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release was announced by Lionsgate a few months back, and anticipated a major upgrade from the 2003 Starz/Anchor Bay DVD edition that I already owned (I never bought either the 2005 or 2009 reissues). Unfortunately, cueing up and directly comparing the Blu-ray to both the 2003 DVD and the new DVD included in the combo pack, I found the Blu-ray to look far inferior to both of them! I know, you’ve probably seen these “Blu-ray looks worse than DVD” reviews before, as I have myself. And since I always like to compare any new Blu-ray I buy to the previous DVD edition, if I own it, I have found most of these claims to be baseless.
In this case, however, it is surprisingly, sadly true. Within minutes of starting the movie, before even beginning my direct comparison to the Anchor DVD, I knew something was terribly wrong. I don’t know how Lionsgate did it, but the Blu-ray looks absolutely atrocious: the contrast is so flat that there are literally no deep blacks or bright whites to be seen, the color is woefully undersaturated, making the image look nearly monochromatic in some scenes, color balance is markedly off, and the entire frame exhibits a pallid, washed-out appearance; it looks like you’re watching the whole movie through a piece of smoked glass. The color is so grossly undersaturated that Dracula’s and Yetch’s subtly colored skin tones (green and blue, respectively) look an ashen gray in most shots, the Hunchback’s vivid magenta hair is rendered a pale pink, and the previously pinky-beige, natural flesh tones of Felix and Dr. Frankenstein exhibit a greenish-yellow cast. About the only thing that breaks through the murk is Francesca’s neon orange-red hair, and even that is considerably muted compared to the DVD.
I was so astonished at the abysmal quality of the Blu-ray that I even called my wife into the room to get an unbiased opinion, and she picked the DVD over the Blu-ray within 10 seconds, without being told which was which. You just can’t appreciate how rotten the Blu-ray looks without comparing it side-by-side with the DVD. As jaw-droppingly gorgeous as the Universal Classic Monsters Essential Collection Blu-rays look (all of which I watched the previous week), this is just as jaw-droppingly awful. Once you see it, you’ll never want to look at the Blu-ray again — it’s painful to watch, and depressing to see how badly Lionsgate botched it.
To add insult to injury, MAD MONSTER PARTY is presented in 1.33:1 Academy ratio instead of being soft-matted to its proper 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Some have speculated that it was originally released to theatres full frame, but the formatting of the opening credits and well-framed compositions throughout the movie (when enlarged to fit a 16x9 television) seriously call this assertion into question, not to mention that by 1966 virtually no theatrical movies were being exhibited “flat,” unless perhaps in tiny neighborhood theatres that couldn’t afford to install wide screens.
Comparing the combo pack DVD to the 2003 Anchor disc, there is a barely noticeable increase in sharpness and detail. Otherwise, contrast/brightness and color saturation/balance are virtually identical. Since the source print for the Blu-ray transfer exhibits some reel change marks and minor blemishing not seen on the new DVD, I’m guessing that it’s simply a repackaging of the 2009 release, which I’ve never viewed. In fairness, the Blu-ray is sharper and more detailed than either the 2003 or combo pack DVDs, but the rest of its problems completely nullify any improvement realized by the higher 1080p resolution. (For the record, all comparisons were made on the same 60" Sharp LED TV by switching from player to player, not on different TVs.)
So, the bottom line is, if you don’t own this movie yet, the BD/DVD combo is a worthy purchase for the DVD alone; it actually looks quite superior next to the Blu-ray. If, however, you already own any of the previous DVD editions, particularly the 2009 edition, you can probably skip this release entirely. The combo pack does not include the informative booklet that came with the 2003 and 2005 editions, although it at least carries over the additional extras from the 2009 release. So, I suggest hanging on to the Starz/Anchor Bay DVD if you have it, for the booklet alone, and purchasing the new combo pack only for the incrementally sharper DVD and additional extras from the 2009 edition if you don’t own that release. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you feel like shelling out for this set, but don’t expect even a halfway-decent Blu-ray; it’s really extraordinarily subpar, and easily the single worst HD remastering I’ve seen out of the 125+ titles I own on the format, including Legend’s similarly inferior PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE disc.
I’d also like to mention that several movie review sites, including dvdtalk.com and blu-ray.com have reviewed the new Blu-ray and given it a tepid endorsement. But, with all due respect, they obviously did not directly compare the Blu-ray with either the combo pack DVD or any of the previous DVD editions or they would have given this release a hearty Bronx cheer and a big thumbs-down. Blu-ray.com speculates that the mediocrity of the Blu-ray is due to the original camera negatives being heavily damaged, necessitating mastering from a 35mm print, but also claims that all previous home video versions have been mastered from this same print, which the reel change marks on the Blu-ray appear to contradict.
Unfortunately, Lionsgate’s bungling isn’t terribly surprising. Most other Lionsgate DVDs I own have some type of similar problem: their TOBOR THE GREAT and HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL DVDs are grainy, fuzzy messes; several of their Sam Arkoff Collection releases use inferior pan-and-scan transfers instead of proper widescreen prints (for example, TEENAGE CAVEMAN and WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST); and their DVD of Ken Russell’s GOTHIC looks like it was mastered from VHS. Apparently, quality control isn’t their strong point.
As Harvey Kurtzman might have put it, “feh!” to Lionsgate for totally dropping the ball on this furshlugginer Blu-ray transfer. Perhaps with their penchant for double- and triple-dipping they’ll actually remaster and re-release this again in the future, and hopefully get it right. Until then, consider yourself warned. (Paul Tabili)
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