In 1964 The Munsters made their TV debut. Around the same time The Addams Family also dropped onto boob tubes around the US. Each series only ran for two seasons before getting the boot, but Charles Addams’ ooky family definitely had the last laugh. After starting off in the late 1930s as a gag in The New Yorker, Gomez and the gang had their live action run, a guest appearance on Scooby-Doo, a Halloween special, two animated series, and two more live-action adaptations including one on Netflix, and that’s not even mentioning the four movies they’ve been made into!
That’s not to say the Munsters hasn’t tried getting back into the popular culture landscape—they actually had a revival series The Munsters Today which ran for three seasons from 1988 to 1991. They also boast four made-for-TV movies, an animated special, and Bryan Fuller’s attempt at reinventing the series: Mockingbird Lane. However, Rob Zombie’s The Munsters is probably the best example of why this family doesn’t take to longevity the way the Addams do.
Let’s begin with a very simple fact: the Munsters were a rip-off of the Addams family. I’m not saying this as someone who prefers Charles’ brood to Universal’s (though I do), Allan Burns one of the co-creators of the series admitted to this. Then there’s the fact that Universal insisted on classic movie monsters being used for the core family members thus creating a strange mishmash of beings that seemed completely unrelated. I mean, a Frankenstein monster married to a vampire who has a werewolf son!? How the fuck does that work? It does make Herman Munster the perfect patriarch to such a clan though—a man pieced together from the parts of others to make one horrifying whole? But lastly, and probably the most important factor, is that The Munsters were designed to be a satire on the ubiquitous American sitcoms of the day. The endearing dad, loving mother, outspoken in-law, innocent teen, and plucky child were all represented here in twisted yet loyal ways. It traps them in a specific time and place, really. Which is a big problem if you want longevity in an IP.
Conversely, the Addams are a completely different breed. For one thing they are an original idea, for another they’re all basically the same i.e. mostly human. Yes, Lurch, Thing, and Cousin Itt are fairly monstrous, even the grandma is assumedly a witch, but they are nowhere near as disparate as the Munsters. Finally, their satire of the American family is much more general in terms of execution. The Addams family was designed to be an opposition to the classic 20th century family with the added bonus of making them eccentric aristocrats instead of a blue-collar bunch. The fact that they have extended members also makes them easy to adapt to the shifting definition of “family” over time.
Rob Zombie’s The Munsters is an almost unwatchable film for the sheer reason that it loyally executes an old dog while trying to teach it new tricks. I realize that sentence is pretty funny, but let me explain…Zombie’s entire movie is an attempt to deepen the shallow pool that is The Munsters’ backstory. We start with Lily (Sheri Moon Zombie) whose father the Count (Daniel Roebuck) wants her to marry a rich suitor. In classic Munsters camp fashion, Lily goes out on a date with a nosferatu-type vampire but isn’t happy. At the same time, Dr. Wolfgang (Richard Brake) is on the hunt for people parts assisted by his less-than-brilliant companion Floop (Jorge Garcia). After a “hilarious” brain mix-up Herman Munster (Jeff Daniel Phillips) is officially born. He’s not what the doctor hoped and so off into exile Dr. Wolfgang sends himself, while Floop and Herman get into the cut-throat world of show business!
Lily sees Herman’s existence-premiere on the TV and that’s that. They meet, fall in love, and get together. Ah yes, there’s also the matter of Lily’s brother who is a werewolf! Which, I guess, explains why years later Lily gives birth to a werewolf son? Anyway, her brother, Lester (Tomas Boykin) is something of a loser and clearly the black sheep of the family. He’s gotten in over his head with a Romani woman, Zoya Krupp (Catherine Schell) who also happens to be one of the Count’s ex-wives. She tasks him with getting the deed to their ancestral home and he easily tricks Herman into signing it away.
The movie’s final act focuses on The Munsters acquiring their iconic home. After losing their castle to Krupp, Herman, his wife, their new pet Spot, and the Count, relocate to California. Cassandra Peterson makes a fun cameo as their relator, Barbara Carr, and because they visit the house on Halloween night, they believe it is the perfect place for them as there are monsters everywhere! It’s just like Transylvania…until the next day reveals that all of their neighbors are actually hideous human beings. On the bright side, Lester shows up out of nowhere and gives Herman his share of their “business venture”, which apparently leaves them filthy rich. Yay?
It’s not that trying to give the Munsters some depth is a bad thing; it’s the way Zombie goes about it. I actually like ideas of the creation of Herman, and the courtship with Lily, but the lack of Eddie and Marilyn leave something to be desired. The execution of everything in this movie is disjointed and ham-fisted at best. There is absolutely 0 context given to any of the scenes throughout the film. Literally, the audience is thrown into a 70s acid trip without a net. I get that a lot of people watching this will be fans of the original show, but holy fuck is this a blind box. And that’s not all, the presentation of the movie is equally bungled.
Zombie’s use of blacklight in the beginning of the film is near obsessive. He drops in EDM music into a 70s setting without reason or explanation, also has a 70s atmosphere draped over what is supposed to be the 1860s because…why not? Later, we get an animated sequence that looks less like an artistic choice and more like the budget ran out. And then there’s the lighting. I know this will sound strange coming from me, but this movie is way too bright! Shot in crisp HD with colors that pop off the screen—it hides nothing. This clean format is unforgiving when it comes to makeup or special effects fails, and though I’m guessing this might be on purpose since the original series is known for its camp composition. But without the nostalgia of black and white or even an “old timey film” filter of some kind, all the movie has to stand on is the performances and the material—neither of which are strong enough to support it.
Ah, casting. I’m not a fan of Phillips as Herman, his voice is not deep enough and he does not carry a goofy yet lovable air well. His Herman is annoying at best and grating at worst. Zombie is one of those directors who insists on putting his wife in everything he makes so we have Sheri Moon Zombie as Lily who reads her lines as if she’s in some 1940’s movie with that fake transatlantic accent they all used back then. It’s a shame since Lily’s part as the wife could have been expanded or strengthened, instead she comes off as a lovesick puppy who depends on her dopey man to her own detriment. Roebuck is probably the only actor who at least tries, granted his Grandpa is not only a grump but also too hammy for his own good. I don’t remember the Count hating Herman nearly as much as he does here. Yes, we get a good reason, and the old sitcom trope of the father-in-law begrudging his son comes through loud and clear, but it isn’t fun…just mean.
The Munsters, as a satire of the sitcom family, could work as a movie but you need to handle them as they are. Expanding on their lore, giving Lily and Herman a love story isn’t the problem, it’s how you do it. If you want to bring them into 2022 then update them to fit! Fuck, let them satirize the insanity of the world today, its modern technology, the streaming wars, social media…there’s so much juicy meat to chew on here! If the greatest gift The Munsters ever gave was the idea of beauty within why not let them show it now? It’s not impossible to cut down the Herman and Lily origin stories to fit a flashback, and then have Eddie and Marilyn in the present. Think about it, their second live-action show didn’t try to trap them in the 60s from whence they came, it allowed them to explore the new decade in which they found themselves. And, since Lily and Herman are said to have met in 1865 why not go full 1865??? Why twist 1865 into 1970? Zombie tries to make a schlocky 70s horror movie while also making a campy 70s TV show…and it fails amazingly. Painfully. This movie isn’t even fun bad, it’s just bad bad.
I give this movie a solid F, there are no redeeming qualities here save for the ghosts of good ideas that clearly didn’t haunt this director nearly enough.