It’s somehow appropriate that Tim Burton gets to reboot the classy creepy sit-com The Addams Family (in the Netflix show Wednesday) while Rob Zombie is given the broader, perennially not-quite-as-sharp The Munsters. Zombie’s The Munsters was made by 1440, that Universal sub-label (1440) known for turning out under-the-radar sequels to flagging franchises like Chucky, Doom, Tremors and Death Race (they’ve just made another RIPD film!). Ironically, The Munsters is also going straight to Netflix.
While The Addams Family are drawn from Charles Addams’ macabre cartoons, The Munsters are basically a ‘what if …’ skit in which Universal’s monsters IP are reimagined as a sit-com family. A few years later, when the influence of Father Knows Best or I Love Lucy had faded, the monsters might have been a rock group like The Monkees or The Impossibles. Perhaps the slyest joke (if it is a joke) in the new film is that the first scene features mad scientist Dr Wolfgang (Richard Brake) and hunchbacked minion Floop (Jorge Garcia) literally robbing a zombie. Quite a lot of Zombie’s work feels like seamy fan fiction, and this sometimes looks like one of those non-sex versions of porn parodies (cf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bza32ncKlM4 ). Given his track record, it’s perhaps a surprise that Zombie doesn’t sex or gore up the premise. Mockingbird Lane, the unsold TV pilot with Eddie Izzard as Grandpa, went for a more adult, less comedy take on the premise of monsters moving to suburbia, so this goes the other way and plays more or less as a prequel to the original show.
It’s mostly set in Transylvania in a sort-of 1960s. Wolfgang sews together Herman Munster (Jeff Daniel Phillips), but Floop gets the brain of terrible stand-up comedian Shecky von Rathbone rather than his genius brother Shelly so the creation is a dolt. Lily (Sheri Moon Zombie) annoys her father, the Count (Daniel Roebuck), by falling for Herman rather than a richer vampire Orlock (Brake again). After the marriage of Lily and Herman, the only plot is that Lily’s useless werewolf brother Lester (Toman Boykin) dupes the big lug into signing away the Count’s castle to his grudge-holding gypsy ex-wife (Catherine Schell). This means that, in the last half hour of the film, the whole clan relocates to Los Angeles. Real estate lady Barbara Carr (Cassandra Peterson) thinks she’s unloaded a lemon by selling them the ramshackle mansion on the block. It offers origin stories for the bat minion Igor – transformed from a human minion played by Sylvester McCoy – and dragonlike pet Spot – found in the Paris sewers during the Munster honeymoon – and shows Herman landing his job with undertakers Gateman, Goodbody and Graves. Of course, since they don’t yet have a child, we don’t meet Eddie. Grandpa isn’t a grandfather so the character has to be billed as the Count. I guess Marilyn is being saved for a sequel. Butch Patrick and Pat Priest from the original show have voice cameos.
In the TV show, it’s established that Herman’s creator is Dr Frankenstein and that Grandpa and Lily are members of the Dracula family – but Zombie doesn’t (or isn’t allowed to) use the brand names. With the Count and Orlock both in the cast – arguably, Brake’s Nosferatu parody is the funniest thing here – we get two competing not-quite-Dracula characters. So, is it as bad as people feared? Not really, but it’s not exactly good either. Previous reboots have gone with name casting, but Zombie has stuck with his family and friends. Phillips and Roebuck (who played Dracula in the 2001 short The Vampire Hunters Club and is also in the short How My Dad Killed Dracula) partially imitate Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis when they remember. In a moment of panic, Herman calls out ‘Car 54, where are you?’ – a joke most kids will need wikipedia to understand. Sheri Moon Zombie, always a presence in Mr Z’s films, is against all odds the second best thing here as a sweetly off-kilter Lily. Her CV in Zombie’s filmography even gives her something of the second-rank screen siren stature Yvonne de Carlo had when she landed the role she’ll be remembered for (SMZ might have drawn some inspiration from fellow cast member Peterson’s Elvira persona).
As with so many Zombie films, it’s as crammed with visual ideas as a MAD Magazine movie satire: animated bits, guest monsters, random art direction, inventive lighting. But, also as with most Zombie films, it’s let down by writing – it’s a real risk to make a running joke out of Herman telling terrible jokes when the film doesn’t really stretch to anything much better. It’s not as mindwipingly excruciating an experience as the film versions of The Beverly Hillbillies or Car 54 Where Are You? but it’s not going to make you forget Addams Family Reunion or The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas.