The box of cereal was branded “Agatha Crispies” and had an illustration on it that appeared to be the author after a psychotic break. This blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment was in Rob Zombie’s debut feature, House of 1,000 Corpses. It was little things like that, and his encyclopedic knowledge of silent cinema, which had me wondering what he might do with his features after that. Alas, each new movie had me despairing, wondering if he would ever make a quality film. I often wondered if he needed to try his hand at a genre other than horror.
In 2022, he did exactly that with The Munsters, a new take on the 1960’s sitcom of which he is a huge fan. I am somewhat a fan of that series, as well. Like so many dichotomies, you can only really be a fan of that or The Addams Family, and I love the latter show. Still, I worried what Zombie would do with a show that had such a genuine sweetness and gentleness to it.
So, now that Zombie has finally stepped outside his comfort zone, did he make a good movie? In summary: “no”, though the detailed answer is more complicated.
First off, his heart is definitely in the right place. Although the original show aired in the 1960’s, he opens with the logo Universal used in the 1930’s. It’s that one with the plane flying around the world, which preceded such pictures as The Black Cat. I smiled when I saw that.
Alas, things started to get wobbly almost immediately afterwards. In a pre-credit sequence, two guys (one of whom is Hurley from Lost) are breaking into a crypt when they encounter a very polite and proper British zombie, which is easily dispatched by a pickaxe through its bare skull. That seemed a tad outside the good-spirited humor I expected from the original series.
But, of course, this isn’t meant to be an exact replica of that show. First, it is in color. Curiously, the lurid color scheme employed reminded me more of Creepshow and the output of E.C. Comics than anything else. Secondly, this is a Rob Zombie film, and so it is going employ some of his recurring motifs.
So you get Herman Munster briefly fronting a hard-rock band. Oh, and there’s that staple of Zombie’s oeuvre, his wife, Sheri Moon, as Lily. More on that in a bit.
Unfortunately, the movie’s worst moments are largely where it tries to modernize the world of the characters. There’s a painfully unfunny bit where Nosferatu tries to impress Lily by busting a movie while techno music plays.
The events of the film take place before Herman is made, and Lily has so far been unsuccessful in finding love. Through a rambling series of episodes, they eventually get hitched and the movie finishes with them setting down at 1313 Mockingbird Lane.
There isn’t so much a plot here as what feels like a distillation of half a season’s worth of a TV show. I honestly can’t say what is padding and what is essential because, in a way, this is all padding. One carryover from the world of TV I didn’t appreciate are the cartoon sound effects. When accompanying jokes that work, the goofy sounds don’t make them any funnier. When alongside jokes that don’t work, they only emphasize how badly they failed.
The element that works best in this reimaging is what I thought nobody would have pulled off. Jeff Daniel Phillips makes for a completely believable Herman. This, in a role I thought nobody but Fred Gwynne, the original, would be able to do. It isn’t that Phillips is a dead ringer for Gwynne, as he is not. Instead, he channels some sort of essence of that character, in much the same way that Martin Short’s take on David Lynch would never fool anybody into believing that really is the director they’re seeing. We’re just so impressed he has captured a certain undefinable “Lynchness”. Daniel Roebuck delivers a similar performance as The Count, the character who would later be Grampa.
And then there’s Sheri Moon. *sigh* OK, I have read a great deal of negative reviews of this picture and, honestly, she isn’t that bad. At least she tries to broaden her range here, in much the same way her husband tried something different with this venture. Also, I definitely see her trying hard with this performance, adopting some of Yvonne DeCarlo’s gestures and mannerisms.
Unfortunately, she just doesn’t have whatever elusive element it is that gives somebody screen presence. Also, I found it odd she seems to be channeling Elvira more than Lily. This becomes especially odd when she is in a scene opposite a much-welcomed Cassandra Petersen, who was Elvira. Petersen does so much in so small a performance that it reinforces my desire to see her in more roles beyond that of her trademark persona. Unfortunately for Moon, a scene between her and Petersen emphasizes the gap in quality between their performances.
The Munsters is such a labor of love that I hate to say anything negative about it. In fact, it was far more enjoyable than I expected. All that said, it is, at best, a curiosity. There’s a slavish fidelity to the source material that doesn’t gel with Zombie’s tastes. The film wants to modernize the world of the characters, while also existing in some parallel universe 1960’s. It has a bloated runtime filled with odd side trips that don’t add to the experience. Still, I have to give Zombie and company credit: at least he tried to do something outside his wheelhouse, and he definitely delivered a movie only he could make.
Dir: Rob Zombie
Starring John Daniel Phillips, Sheri Moon Zombie, Daniel Roebuck
Watched on Shout Factory blu-ray