Remake. Reboot. Reimagining. Reversioning. Whichever way you try to dress it up, those words are all variations upon the depressingly prevalent trend for old TV and film properties to be dusted off in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, rather than any higher-spirited artistic merit or aspiration.
More and more, the entertainment industry feels more like a relentless, insatiable ouroboros, forever swallowing its own tail in an ever decreasing circle. Or, perhaps less charitably, a dog eating its own sick. The more trips that they make to the creative well, the more it seems to be running dry. However, original ideas still seem to keep on losing out to the constant diet of rehashed, reheated old intellectual property, serving up leftovers on a menu which seems to constantly shrinking and becomes evermore limited.
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Some ideas keep circling the drain and cropping up every few years or so. Look at those two horror-sitcom properties from the 1960s, forever inextricably linked akin to Chang and Eng Bunker: The Addams Family and The Munsters. While each had a relatively short run on television, it seems Hollywood just cannot let them rest in peace, and carries on exhuming them over and over. For the purists, both series exist in that gothic, shadowy, monochrome world, which not only looked stunningly effective, but also covered a multitude of sins (as anyone who has seen contemporary colour production stills taken behind the scenes will testify).
The two series did, however, have dabblings in colour, as the original cast of The Addams Family made a one-off return in the 1977 special Halloween With The New Addams Family, shot on videotape, rather than black and white film. While the unaired pilot presentation of The Munsters had been made in colour, the residents of Mockingbird Heights all remained resolutely achromic until 1966’s big screen spin-off named Munster, Go Home! and the belated sequel, The Munsters’ Revenge, in 1981. Since then, both the Munster and Addams families have seen multiple resurrections, to varying degrees of success.
In the last year alone, we have seen an Addams Family spin-off on Netflix, focusing on Wednesday’s adventures away at college, going back to Charles Addams’ original cartoons as the jumping-off point for the show, rather than trying to be a continuation of the 1964 TV series. The Addams Family is rather fortunate that although the original programme still casts a long shadow even now, it has source material in the form of Addams’ drawings, which can be used to inspire all manner of new interpretations. For The Munsters, however, the Sixties sitcom is the definitive text, so any new versions only have that to draw upon, and be compared against.
Such is the problem which is faced by Rob Zombie’s revamp (emphasis firmly on ‘vamp’) of that show, which also turned up during the last twelve months in movie form, in what can only be described as the streaming era’s equivalent of being ‘straight to video’. Yes, The Munsters are back, at the hands of someone who considers himself a self-avowed fan. Now, having the lead creative on a project also happening to be an aficionado is not necessarily a recipe for disaster: just look at Russell T. Davies’ time as showrunner on Doctor Who, as one example of how this can work superbly.
Perhaps rather less successful in that capacity, however, was one of his successors in the role, Chris Chibnall, whose vision for the programme was somewhat less well received. Sadly, Zombie seems to be more in the Chibnall than Davies mould, because as a poacher turned gamekeeper, what Zombie has served up is nothing short of a desecration, a hamfisted and bungling misunderstanding of just what makes the original property work. It fails on such an epic scale that you have to wonder about his status as a supposed devotee, as anybody would be hard pressed to believe that Zombie – responsible for the script as well as direction – even likes The Munsters, given how he besmirches it here.
The movie is positioned as a prequel to the original series, as it starts out in Transylvania, showing us Dr. Henry Augustus Wolfgang (Richard Brake) completing his experiment to give life to a pot-pourri creation made out of grave-robbed human parts, which ends up becoming Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips). Lily Gruesella (Sheri Moon Zombie) – daughter of The Count (Daniel Roebuck) – falls for Herman after seeing him appear on a local TV show. After a whirlwind romance, Herman ends up being conned by brother-in-law Lester (Tomas Boykin) into signing over the deeds to The Count’s castle, leaving all of the family homeless, and having to move to a true Hell on Earth: Hollywood, USA.
The film starts out promisingly enough, using an old black and white Universal logo to open, but things immediately end up going downhill from there. Zombie had reportedly wanted to film the whole thing in monochrome, but the studio are said to have seemingly nixed that plan, a decision which had the most ghastly of consequences. Zombie has gone so far in the opposite direction, it feels like a huge overcompensation, as a veritable vomiting of many different hues splatters across almost every scene. In fact, the look of the film has so many garish, neon colours and Dutch angles, you may almost think that Joel Schumacher has returned to us from the grave and stolen the director’s chair.
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At 110 minutes, the movie feels far too long and oddly paced, with two-thirds of the running time located in Transylvania, in an origin story that feels painfully and interminably drawn out. In fact, it drags more than the TV show’s Drag-u-la. For a film based around a sitcom, the whole endeavour also feels almost totally bereft of actual humour, with most of it being dumb, juvenile, or simply absent. It even has the sheer gall to nick Young Frankenstein’s joke about the wrong brain being stolen by a henchman, and manages to add insult to injury in trampling it to death, by telegraphing the gag in the lamest, most insulting of fashions.
Almost all of the lead performances are pitched wrong here, with Herman being both written and played as a narcissistic, bellowing, charmless oaf, lacking any of the subtlety of Fred Gwynne’s original turn. Sheri Moon Zombie’s Lily is a weirdly pitched take, full of affectations which serve to distract and – at worst – just annoy. The only one even close to getting it right is Daniel Roebuck as The Count (not ‘Grandpa’ here yet, due to the lack of an Eddie Munster), who shows flashes of Al Lewis’ characterisation. Rather more effective here are some members of the supporting ensemble, like Catherine Schell and Sylvester McCoy, along with – in a clever bit of casting – Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira.
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The whole exercise feels like nothing but a massive preamble to presenting us what Zombie really wanted to do, which is a recreation of the original opening titles to The Munsters, in gloriously faithful black and white, which immediately looks so much classier than anything in the preceding 95 minutes. In fact, it serves to emphasise how cheap the whole thing looks throughout, appearing so very flat and one-note in its visual style, which falls somewhere between Goosebumps and an MTV music video. We know Zombie is capable of giving us so much better than what he delivers here, so why he manages to fall so far short is quite a mystery.
Rather than a loving tribute and a possible resuscitation of The Munsters, this movie ends up dancing on its grave, and possibly even driving a stake through not only its heart, but that of its audience too.
The Munsters is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital.