Back in the 1960s, if you wanted to watch a weekly sitcom about monsters living in suburbia, there were only two games in town: “The Addams Family,” about a group of kooks whose wealth and largely normal looks gave them the freedom to pursue their freaky interests, and “The Munsters,” about a working-class group of unmistakable monsters whose outward appearance provided a humorous contrast to their utter normalcy.
The Addams Family have gone on to great cinematic success in the decades following their sitcom (and the New Yorker cartoons on which it was based), with successful live-action and animated movies to their name. But Hollywood hasn’t been quite so kind to The Munsters. Their show was originally a bigger hit than “The Addams Family,” but they’ve never been cinematically rebooted for the big screen. (Not counting the spinoff series “Munster Go Home!” in 1966.)
And even though there’s a brand new feature-length “Munsters” movie from heavy-metal superstar and cult favorite grindhouse director Rob Zombie, they still haven’t.
“The Munsters” is a new live-action comedy arriving straight-to-video and bearing a remarkably low-fidelity aesthetic that’s more reminiscent of “The Big Bad Beetleborgs” than “House of 1000 Corpses.” It’s bright, it’s friendly, it’s inviting, and it’s so disarmingly silly one would be forgiven for scratching one’s head and wondering if the director was some other “Rob Zombie” you’ve never heard about, unrelated to the guy who brought you “The Lords of Salem.”
But here’s the thing about Zombie: He may have changed his aesthetic for “The Munsters,” but this silly film fits tidily into his filmography. His films of him have always been love notes to monstrous, underappreciated media, filled with strange and often disturbing characters who watch silly old movies and TV shows. “The Munsters” is the type of program the Firefly family in “The Devil’s Rejects” watches to give their grisly world a wholesome grist. If Dracula, Dracula’s daughter and the Frankenstein monster can find familial bliss in a world that doesn’t understand or appreciate them, why can’t everyone?
Zombie’s “Munsters” movie is a PG-rated, even dorky ode to the original series, which provides a prolonged backstory to the characters we know and, presumably, love. We witness the creation of Herman Munster (Jeff Daniel Phillips, “Satanic Panic”) in a plot point liberally cribbed from “Young Frankenstein,” where the mad scientist Dr. Wolfgang (Richard Brake, “Barbarian”) sends his hapless assistant Floop ( Jorge Garcia, “Hawaii 5-0”) to get a brilliant brain from the morgue, only to find out too late he returned with the brain of a hack stand-up comic instead.
Herman becomes a bit of a local celebrity in Transylvania, combining his tired vaudeville jokes with punk-rock music and attracting the attention of the hopeless romantic Lily (Sheri Moon Zombie), who instantly falls for his innocent charms. All this is to the chagrin of her father, The Count (Daniel Roebuck, “3 From Hell”), who hates Lily’s new boyfriend and keeps trying to set her up with more desirable men, like Orlock from the movie “Nosferatu” (also played by Brake) or a tap-dancing monster he accidentally conjures up in his lab.
The plot of “The Munsters” finds Herman marrying Lily but swiftly signing away their posh Transylvanian castle to her ne’er-do-well brother, a werewolf named Lester (Tomas Boykin, “Allan the Dog”), forcing them to consider moving to Hollywood and pursuing a brand new life amongst typical American suburbanites.
“The Munsters” is a whimsically realized production, with amusing production design and art direction by Juci Szurdi (“Hab”) and Hedvig Kiraly (“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions”), who make the most out of a clearly limited budget. Zombie’s film either looks like an expensive music video or a modestly-priced Halloween Horror Nights funhouse, and cinematographer Zoran Popovic (“Clean”) blasts bright and weird colors at every single corner of those sets.
It’s the kind of film you’d expect to see on a television set in the background of any other Rob Zombie film, or on the giant screens behind Zombie as he unleashes heavy-metal riffs about death and sex in front of a cheering crowd. What it’s not, sadly, is a particularly good movie to watch without other distractions at hand.
“The Munsters” is friendly enough, but Zombie seems content to merely hang out with these characters in their Transylvanian world, to the point that the actual story — the one about Lester betraying the family and forcing them to move — gets shoved off into the corner, to be dealt with only in the final act. The film doesn’t even so much end as it just stops, with a final plot point giving everyone a happy conclusion that, oddly, doesn’t even match the starting point of the series.
The film is packed with attempts at humor, but the jokes rarely land; when they do — usually from either Garcia’s sidekick character or Phillips’ likable delivery — they earn a hearty guffaw. It’s Phillips who emerges as the film’s greatest bit of casting, not just capturing the vibe of Fred Gwynne’s original performance but also finding a somewhat more youthful, romantic, wannabe-celebrity attitude for Herman that’s distinctive without feeling unfaithful. Whereas Sheri Moon Zombie, usually the standout in most Zombie productions, is given less entertaining material with which to create a character.
It’s rather telling that Zombie seems completely uninterested in getting the Munsters to suburbia until the very end of the movie, and that Cousin Marilyn, the one conventionally human member of the Munster family, is nowhere to be found. (That their werewolf son is absent makes a lot more sense, since the film is technically a prequel.) Zombie doesn’t seem to care about the Munsters in contrast with conservative reality or even as a meaningful part of it, despite their superficial dissimilarities .
Zombie just seems to want to live in a peacefully eccentric world, where creatures can party down and suck some blood without having to worry about any of the normies bothering them. The appeal is understandable, but it doesn’t make for much of a movie. The story is inert, even by the standards of films based on sitcoms, and the absence of contrast with old-fashioned Americana robs the premise of most of its humorous potential.
“The Munsters” is a love note to the characters from the sitcom but not their trappings; there’s more to “The Munsters” than the Munsters, but he seems to have missed that. Zombie’s film, though clearly sweet and well-intentioned, seems only partially formed, a Frankenstein monster with only half the parts.
“The Munsters” premieres on Blu-ray, DVD and digital Sept. 27 via Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.