The Machine At The Mad Monster Party - Theory

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1The Machine at the Mad Monster PartyMad Monster Party (dir. Jules Bass, 1967) is a beguiling film: the superbRankin/Bass “Animagic” stop-motion animation is burdened by interminable pacing, thecelebrity voice cast includes the terrific Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller caricaturingthemselves but with flat and contradictory dialogue, and its celebration of classicUniversal Studios movie monsters surprisingly culminates in their total annihilation inthe film’s closing moments. The plot finds famous Dr. Baron Boris von Frankensteinconvening his “Worldwide Organization of Monsters” to announce both his greatestdiscovery, a “formula which can completely destroy all matter,” and his retirement,where he will surprisingly be succeeded not by a monster but by something far worse: ahuman, his nebbish pharmacist nephew Felix Flanken. Naturally, this does not sit wellwith the current membership, nor even Felix, who is exposed to monsters for the firsttime in his life and is petrified at what he sees. Thus, a series of classic monsters teamup to try to knock off Felix and take over for Baron Frankenstein: Dracula, TheWerewolf, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, The Creature fromthe Black Lagoon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein’s Monster, TheMonster's Mate, King Kong (referred to only as “It”), Yetch (an ersatz Peter Lorre/Igorhybrid), and Francesca, the buxom red-head secretary. Much of the plot’s comedy isthat Felix is so humanly clueless: glasses-wearing, naive, constantly sneezing, he failsto recognize the monsters’ horribleness and manages to avoid their traps mainly byaccident and dumb luck. Ultimately, Baron Frankenstein intercedes to do battle with hisconstituency, using his anti-matter formula in a suicide mission to destroy the monsters,

2leaving only Francesca and Felix to sail off to safety and get married. The last scene’ssurprising reveal, however, is that the two lovers in the new post-apocalyptic Eden areactually android creations of the Baron.Why does Mad Monster Party complicate its celebration of classic monsters bydestroying them and replacing them with technology? Why are the human andnonhuman alike threatened by technology, even though the benevolent version oftechnology is the only promise the film offers to continue to propagate human culturalnorms like heteronormative marriage? Mad Monster Party initially establishes monstersas an organized threat to humanity (led by the traitorous monster-creator Frankenstein,who now has apocalyptic powers as well), only to argue that monsters and humansalike face the greater threat of technology, which paradoxically can both destroy allmatter and ensure survival of human culture. Thus, the film’s conclusion condenses thehuman and monster onto the axis of the organic and places the androids Francesca andFelix on the inorganic, privileging the replication of social structure over the organicbody. Reading Mad Monster Party in this way reveals it to be a text that expressesbasic mid-1960s cultural anxieties seen in other media productions of the time, but onethat ultimately contradicts its progressive agenda by eliminating all threats to humanheterosexual marriage: including the humans!1960s Camp Monstrosity and Televised DomesticityAs with any repurposing of horror for youthful audiences, Mad Monster Partysimultaneously addresses an adult audience familiar with the originals and a childishaudience that should be protected from the true horrors of these creature’s existence.

3Thus, the classic movie monsters are tweaked so they are recognizable but friendly: theHunchback has a shock of pink hair, the Monster is comically hen-pecked by his Mate,the Creature gets a face full of cream pie, and the Werewolf pants like a puppy. [Figure1] But the monsters’ presentation does more than just make them safe for children;rather, Mad Monster Party fits with a larger 1960s trend of playful camp monstrosity.Reflecting on his monster-loving childhood in the 1960s, media scholar Henry Jenkinspoints out how "[t]he idea of monster parties was clearly in the air in the mid-1960s,suggested perhaps by Bobby 'Boris' Pickett's 1962 novelty song, 'Monster Mash’” andthe banquet scene in Mad Monster Party.1 Whereas media critics speak today of thecomplexities of industrial strategies like “crossovers,” “convergence,” and “cinematicuniverses,” the 1960s monster party was a simpler straightforward play with ideas: anexperiment in the ecosystem of monstrous behavior that allowed white middle-classAmerica to compare and contrast the characteristics, traits, strengths, and weaknessesof various forms of monstrosity.The monster party was surely on critic Lynne Spigel’s mind when she identified anew, related generic form of 1960s television programming, the “fantastic family sitcom,” “founded on the merger between the troubled paradise of 1950s domesticity andthe new-found ideals of the American future.”2 Specifically catalyzed around thetelevised spectacle of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Spigel sees this hybrid genre as onethat mixes the “conventions of the suburban sit-com past with the space-age imagery of1Henry Jenkins, “I Was a (Pre-)Teenage Monster,” The Journal of Fandom Studies 1.1 (2012): 94.Lynn Spigel, “From Domestic Space to Outer Space: The 1960s Fantastic Family Sit-Com,” in CloseEncounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction, edited by Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, LynnSpigel, and Janet Bergstrom, 205–35 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991): 205.2

4the New Frontier."3 That is, while these shows were structured around the conventionalsit-com format, the presence of “good witches, flying nuns, glamorous genies, favoriteMartians, humorous horses, motherly cars, and friendly ghosts” brought surprisingjuxtapositions to the screen that reflected new 1960s space-age techno-anxieties.4Spigel particularly argues that two horror-themed shows that simultaneously aired, TheAddams Family (ABC, 1964–1966) and The Munsters (CBS, 1964–1966, based onUniversal’s monster properties), explicitly used the monsters to critique white middleclass suburbia, which was shown to be more threatening than the benevolent monsterfamilies.5 As a result, the fantastic family sit-com encouraged mid-60s television viewersto understand monstrous and alien characters as even more normal than the normal,skewering middle-class conventions and the hypocrisy of traditional social values.Identifying with monstrous families asks viewers to reconsider their own social values atthe same time as they are encouraged to see these values as universal (that is, evenmonsters have car trouble and domestic arguments).As part of a larger group of 1960s monster texts dealing with domesticity, doesMad Monster Party follow a similar strategy of invoking the benevolent monster family inorder to critique the middle class? Not really. While the monsters in Mad Monster Partyare initially friendly (they are excited to go to a party after all), their scheming to get ridof Flanken makes them villainously unlikeable. The film introduces three related objectsof desire for the monsters to chase, which map onto middle-class values of career andmarriage: the anti-matter formula, the position as “Head of the Worldwide Organizationof Monsters,” and the sexy Francesca. Except for the Monster and his Mate, the3Spigel, 205.Spigel, 220.5Spigel, 220.4

5monsters are romantically unattached, and so Francesca is the source of lust for all ofthe male characters except her creator the Baron. The strongest images of middle-classdomesticity surround the Monster and his Mate, whose unsentimental love is expressedin her song ”You’re Different”:Now let's agree you're not incredibly handsome or even charming / But you canbe so disarming. / You're different, as unpredictable as rain / You're an Eastercandy cane / Like a snowy day in June.Their relationship, functional but loveless, is based on never being able to negotiate anessential, unpredictable difference. In a scene just before the monster banquet, theMonster’s Mate criticizes the Monster, wearing an ill-fitting tuxedo, as a “poor inventionof a man.” But in the next scene, Frankenstein begs a snarky Francesca to be polite tothe two and “remember that we are all one happy family here.” Once we learn whatFrancesca knows in this scene—that she is also a creation of Frankenstein—we canbetter interpret the Baron’s sentiment as a clichéd response to sibling rivalry: “come onkids, play nice.” But when the audience, and Francesca, learn that Felix too is one ofFrankenstein’s creations, it must uncomfortably consider how the film defines the“happy family” as one that is technologically incestuous. Frankenstein only says toFrancesca that he hopes she and Felix will be friends, but Dracula understands the truedynamic of ownership, telling Yetch that “she is his, not yours.” More than just arranginga marriage, Frankenstein has created one.Upward mobility is the other conventional middle-class theme that Mad MonsterParty employs to dramatize Flanken’s problem. In an opening scene that introduceshim, we find Flanken literally working for no pay in a pharmacy as an indentured

6servant. Felix’s bumbling makes him a curious candidate to take over for Frankenstein,who assures Francesca that he is “a mere human . . . [b]ut he also happens to be mynephew.” Felix is hesitant to accept the miracle promotion, but, emphasizing theimportance of family over qualification, Frankenstein assures him that since“Frankenstein blood flows through your veins, you’ll do just fine. . . . This is a familybusiness: there’s a tradition to uphold.” While Felix eventually decides to turn the offerdown in order to run away with Francesca, the question is rendered moot for him whenFrankenstein blows up the formula and the organization. Thus, by rehabilitatingFrancesca so that she falls in love with Felix, the film demonstrates the incompatibility ofromance and career (the same lesson taught in Shelley’s Frankenstein). Thus, unlikethe fantastic family sit-com, Mad Monster Party provides models of conventionaldomesticity that are ultimately destroyed by technology.Technologies of AmbivalenceThere is a variety of technology on display in Mad Monster Party, from thefantastical devices in Frankenstein’s laboratory to his monstrous and robotic creationsrunning around the castle. All of this technology is treated ambivalently, captured in theproud boast after the anti-matter formula is mastered: “I, Baron von Frankenstein,master of the secret of creation, have now mastered the secret of destruction.”Frankenstein’s feat closes the book on his career; we can understand his scientificinterest in destruction as a kind of symmetry, but in the context of his family and careerwhy would he work towards such a discovery? The anti-matter formula is anamalgamation of new and old science: a visual homage has Frankenstein raise the blue

7test tube through his lab’s ceiling so it may be animated by lightning, but the effects ofthe formula are atomic: a single drop from the old blue vial results in a nuclearmushroom cloud. [Figure 2] The theme of new-old science is further emphasized by asubtle sound effect during the first and final scenes: a simultaneous bubbling andmodulated beeping sound pervades Frankenstein’s lab, and this recurs in thesoundtrack when we learn Felix is an android too. This mixture of new and old soundssuggests an uncertain embrace of different technologies. While the sounds of chemistryand electronics are mixed acoustically in the scenes of dystopian possibility, thesciences are not mixed visually in the film itself: the anti-matter formula is the realm ofchemistry, the Monster of biology, Francesca of mechanics.6 There is, thus, not acoherent vision of technology in the film, but a patchwork of technology usage.While atomic discourse and nuclear disaster are the most obvious anxietieshovering over Mad Monster Party, there is one smaller scene that introduces a magictelevision, noticeably at odds with the rest of the castle’s antiquated decor. The Baronhimself grabs a “bone-jo” to sing “Stay One Step Ahead,” a didactic song encouragingFelix to take over as successor: “You gotta stay one step ahead. / Tune in to what'shappening, boy, / and stay one step ahead.” During the song, about a dozen smallmonsters suddenly appear, frightening Felix and causing him to bump into a screen.Pushing a button, the monsters suddenly appear on the television, which Felix watchesin awe, not aware that another group of monsters is sneaking up behind him. [Figure 3]At the final chorus, a monster pushes a button and Felix himself appears on the screen.More than magical utopian technology, this scene demonstrates the permeability of the6She tells Felix: “[b]ut where other women have a heart, I have a spring that will unwind. Where otherwomen have lungs, I have a pump that runs on batteries which will run out. Where other women haveelbows and knees, I have metallic joints that will one day grow rusty and stiff.”

8screen: rather than unidirectional transmission of culture and social norms from thescreen outwards, we have a feedback loop between entertainment and reality. Thethreat of monsters is everywhere, and the lesson of Frankenstein’s song becomes clearwhen we learn Felix is an android. For Frankenstein, the monster-technology battle isunresolved. That is, his technology (specifically Felix) is not guaranteed to win, andrather than being stronger, faster, or smarter, Felix must be strategic, “staying a stepahead.” When Frankenstein throws the monsters a human skull to play with, we first seethis as a veiled threat to the human Felix. Only later do we understand this as adistraction, that Frankenstein is pitting the monsters against humans so that his androidcan beat both.That scene uses technology to instruct Felix about vision and progress, but whatare the larger purposes for Frankenstein’s technology? One small detail provides a clue:the film’s final glitchy line of dialogue finds Felix accepting Francesca’s confession thatshe is only a machine: “Well Francesca, [he sneezes], well Francesca, none of us areperfect, are perfect, are perfect . . . .” In repeating these last broken words with a jerkytwist of his head, Felix reveals his true android nature, which is surprisingly not superhuman, perfect, or timeless, but rather one that will also wear out and twitchunexpectedly. Having been invited to identify with Felix, what are spectators to make ofthis reveal, where humans are to be replaced by a flawed technology? Frankensteinhad called Francesca his masterpiece, and was treating Felix as if he were a human.But rather than aiming for “perfection,” Frankenstein was more interested in replication.Felix himself seems unaware that he is an android when he expressed his desire forFrancesca: “we’ll be married, and soon there’ll be the sound of tiny Flankens running

9around.” Rather than little robo-Flankens, what is being replicated here are middle-classvalues.The surprise ending of Mad Monster Party argues that middle-class values areworth replicating even at the expense of human life; in other words, the ideology ofreproduction within marriage is more important as a concept than the actual human (oreven monstrous) experience of heterosexual marriage. Thus, unlike the serial nature ofthe fantastic family sitcom, Mad Monster Party concludes definitively with theapocalyptic image of expulsion and new beginnings. Whether the film presents this as apositive or negative is difficult to determine. On the one hand the film is deeplyconservative, as in the scene where Felix slaps Francesca, resulting in her suddendecision to love him after all. But on the other hand, I suspect that a parodic reading,with the androids sailing off into their new techno-Eden, would have had to have beenmade subtle. An ecocritical approach taken by Robin L Murray and Joseph K Heumanndisagrees, taking the fantastic family sit-com position to argue that Mad Monster Party“replaces the violent destruction of [human] ‘monsters’ like us with (apparently) peacefulandroid technology."7 Their reading sees the film’s conclusion as offering a new tactic:“[w]hen humanity proves so destructive it destroys itself, it may be better if technologytakes its place, rejuvenating a once-human world and its cultures and bringing peace toa war-driven civilization.”8 I disagree with this reading, primarily by seeing Mad MonsterParty’s ending as a riff on “The Lonely,” a 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone, where afuturistic convict imprisoned on an asteroid falls, against his expectations, in love with arobot, only to have her destroyed in front of him when he is pardoned. While Felix and7Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann, That’s All Folks?  : Ecocritical Readings of AmericanAnimated Features (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011): 118.8Murray and Heumann, 124.

10Francesca may seem peaceful in the final image, the projection of human culture ontothe broken androids is a cynical mark of what happens when monsters disappear andculture comes simply to mean mechanical reproduction. Replacing organic monsterswith inorganic technology is poor salvation if it means humans must disappear as well.[Figure 4]And what of our poor beloved monsters, whose insurrection is foiled first whenthe zombie bellhops betray them and second when “It” turns on them, holding themcaptive before Frankenstein’s final strike? These monsters, so unprepared for theapocalypse, are unimaginable in the computer age. Contemporary cinema takes adifferent approach, plopping classic movie monsters into futuristic scenarios hoping thattheir essential monstrosity remains legible, as in recent tech-driven reboots like VanHelsing (dir. Stephen Sommers, 2004); I, Frankenstein (dir. Stuart Beattie, 2014); andUniversal’s announcement to create an action-oriented “cinematic universe” aroundtheir monster properties. But in 1967 it was a much more radical proposition to suggestthe timeless qualities of monstrosity. Indeed, the fact that monsters could be radical isproven by the efforts of The Munsters, The Addams Family, Count Chocula, SesameStreet’s The Count and other media texts that work hard to contain monsters as safe,humorous fishes out of water. The expectation of Mad Monster Party is for the monstersto also learn a life lesson, but they are never given the chance: the Baron gives, and theBaron takes away.The extent of Mad Monster Party’s uniqueness is apparent when considered inlight of its closest contemporary version, Hotel Transylvania (dir. Genndy Tartakovsky,2012), which pays constant homage to the earlier film but to very different effect. In

11honor of his daughter’s birthday, Dracula throws a party, inviting all the classic monstersbut also minor characterizations from Mad Monster Party like a skeleton band, a strongwilled chef, the nagging Monster’s Mate, and an “It.” Likewise, into this world onehuman character arrives, a backpacker who throws the monsters into disarray, butwhose love for Dracula’s daughter forces Dracula to come to terms with integratinghuman-monster culture. The traditional middle-class plot—father desperate to preventhis daughter from falling in love—thus serves a liberal agenda of embracing difference.For all their surface similarities, this is decidedly not the ending of Mad Monster Party,which rather than reaching a resolution that allows for integrating humans andmonsters, instead replaces them both with technology. In this way Mad Monster Partycomplicates its celebration of classic monsters in order to suggest a greater, sharedthreat to monsters and humans alike: the machine. Rather than privilege the replicationof social structure over the organic body, the film implies, we must continue to root forthe monsters to do their worst.

12Figure 1a: The Creature with a face full of pie.Figure 1b: The Invisible Man with a face full of pie.

13Figure 1c: The henpecked Monster and his Mate.Figure 2: Baron Boris von Frankenstein admiring his nuclear anti-matter formula.

14Figure 3: Felix surrounded by real and televised monsters.Figure 4: Francesca and Felix, two android lovers in the post-apocalyptic Eden.

the Creature gets a face full of cream pie, and the Werewolf pants like a puppy. [Figure 1] But the monsters’ presentation does more than just make them safe for children; rather, Mad Monster Party fits with a larger 1960s trend of playful camp monstrosity. Reflecting on his monster-loving childhood in the 1960s, media scholar Henry Jenkins