In The Munsters television show, normal sitcom situations transpire in an abby-normal way because the sitcom family happens to be a family of monsters. The fact that Rob Zombie’s feature-length take on the show reverses this premise is the first thing that squishes the life from it. Instead of sitcom situations, the film deals near-exclusively with Zombie’s monster world, a jumped-up comedy club nightmare on sets that would barely pass for filler in late-night hosted marathons. Its denizens scream under different-colored filters of light, which shines on their faces from the bulbs like behind-the-scenes photos rather than finished shots in a film. They seem to have just woken up in a music video and don't know where they are. The experience of watching this idea of The Munsters could almost be replicated by enduring 110 minutes of the scientists dickering with each other in the in-between commercial segments of MST3K, except for the fact that even those segments hold the secret promise of eventually getting back to a movie.
While the Munsters show was powered by the sincerity of Fred Gwynne as the hulking horror of clumsiness, in his absence the film finds another source of charm. Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob’s wife and frequent cameo artist, plays Lily Munster with affected, drunken sweetness. Her pixie stick personality over-extracts the idea of the character from the show into someone more similar to Elvira (she’s the kind of Lily Munster you’d expect to find five times at any given Comic Con). She doubled down on the airy romantics and forgot about the original Lily’s domestic demeanor, powered by Yvonne De Carlo’s understated sensuality. The result is a performance that isn’t understated so much as a joke on understatement, which gives it a parody feel. But even a parody performance is closer to the film’s stated premise of being even approximately mistakable for The Munsters than most of the acting and writing going on around her.
Lily’s friendly attitude towards a jacked-up music video world, and by extension her unchallengeable love of its clumsiest representative, is the best feeling the film offers. When she’s bouncing around, reading lines in the way that falling down a staircase is technically descending it, The Munsters occasionally stumbles into an idea of being charming. Its best moment is when Herman and Lily honeymoon in Paris, absently remarking that Europeans act so strange around Americans, concluding that their beauty must be off-putting to the ugly French folk. But when she’s not on-screen, the film devolves into comedic stomach cramps. Floop (Jorge Garcia), Igor (Sylvester McCoy), Dr. Wolfgang (Richard Brake), and Lester (Tomas Boykin), are painful personalities whose most painful aspect is the impression that they’re aware of how unfunny they are at the viewer’s expense, like performers on kids’ shows who clearly don’t want to be there. The scene where Floop "names" Herman Munster by pretending to go through alternatives is as painfully precise as those show-offy scenes in modern superhero films where they don't want to let on that they don't know how uncool it is to not think that comic books are lame. It's twisted by intentions it wants to appear to be smart enough not to have. Describing it is worthy of a quadruple negative.
This rhetorical pandering results in a world that constantly feels like something the TV show never felt once, which is hostile. The characters become a reaction to hostility, with Grandpa (Daniel Roebuck) playing his personality straight despite rarely being allowed to relax into himself. He’s forced to worry about Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips), who is susceptible to being tricked into a shady business deal by those other kooky characters. This whole subplot has the intellectual tempo of the desperate stories in those direct-to-video animated Disney sequels – it’s the Herman Munster equivalent of Cinderella being tricked by a witch into selling the castle. Around half an hour from the end, the film snaps its fingers and this single conflict evaporates like Nosferatu in the sunlight to make room for the final act, which is finally a replay of a Munsters scenario. Everyone fairs better at this point by being allowed to stop resisting their role in the inevitable family dynamic. But the film doesn’t resolve the painfully specific plot shenanigans that led them there, which resulted in Grandpa hating Herman for selling the manor to his ex-wife, a witch played by Catherine Schell who had served as the antagonist up to that point. In the next scene, they're just fine with each other. Since none of that is resolved, the whole thing might as well have started in Hollywood, with everyone basically settled into their roles by default. Even the ending of the film, which attempts to close out the original plot, bizarrely fails to connect with the beginning of The Munsters show, rendering the origin story idea pointless on its own terms.
Near the end, the film at least gets to some bits that feel like The Munsters, as they witness Halloween fade into the pastels of the Hollywood daytime with abject terror. But the lack of the show’s key character – the “ugly” niece, Marilyn – robs it of its funniest bit of self-reflection. Her absence is the best reminder that Zombie could only see the show for its monster parts, which he seems to love. He’s like the people who are scared of Herman, but in reverse – rather than run from his funny ugliness, he embraces it. But he still sees only the ugliness. It's similar to the way he sees their world, with harsh neon spotlights that never seem to integrate into their surroundings and jokes that don't pretend to be dialogue. Selfies taken on the set of the production have the exact visual quality as finished shots in the film because it's all so equally slapped in place.
To anyone familiar with the show, Phillips' Herman impression is an unfortunate distraction. He seems to be playing at being Herman rather than playing him, lacking the crucial element of Gwynne’s lonely drawl (Brad Garrett might have been a more inspired casting choice since he has that same rare combination of imposing hugeness and a face that can’t help but self-assess). But more importantly, Phillips lacks the self-doubt in his posture that made the original Herman a sad parody of dadliness that tended to quietly make points about just why, exactly, our society expects men to act the way they do. This emotional context of the silliness flew completely over the reboot’s flat-topped head, despite its stated intention to be the origin story for it. What's left of its world after removing the mundanest (and most sincere) parts is similar to what's left of Herman – a primetime technicolor comedian persona that believes it can conquer the universe with knock-knock jokes.
To overcome these inevitable comparisons, the Zombie version just had to be funny. But his script never pulls off a joke at anything more severe than a pre-chuckle. No film that goes out on a limb for its whacked-out vision of a 60s sitcom filtered through Halloween decorations and grinning should be penalized just for existing. But at some point, behind all the kooky sets and push-in shots, someone needed to write a joke that landed. By appearances, the film seems to be a strictly budgeted schedule-filler that has only Zombie to thank for being interesting enough to talk about. There’s a certain nobleness to his inability to deter his vision with Hollywood tropes. But even the most insignificant vision needs a basic backbone. I watched it with four other people, whose ages span over 30 years. Not one of them laughed one time (two fell asleep).
This makes its reliance on pun-based horror humor even more desperate, such as when Count Orlock (also Brake) tries to impress Lily on a date with jokes that include the awkward pauses at the end of knowingly bad puns, like the badness is the joke. It's like those filler segments with rubber chickens on Svengoolie but without the unspoken agreement to forgive them out of pitying his self-awareness. The fact that Zombie pushed this underachieving idea to nearly two hours rather than relying on its 85 minutes of inspiration is another thing that turns his abstract idea of reliving sitcom memories with amped-up colorful charisma into a laughless nightmare that only flirts with being charming in its off-time. The priorities are so scattered that I wouldn’t be surprised if the deleted scenes were the best they filmed. Even being inconsequential would have been an improvement over the wincingly over-important devices that the film sells as cultural staples when it has to and abandons when it feels like it.
The biggest shock of all is that the jokes in the screenplay’s meta are so bad that Herman’s standup jokes in the universe of the film, seemingly a parody of his comedic ego, are actually funny in comparison. It’s not hard to imagine why Lily loves him, if this is where she lives every day.
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Universal Pictures Home Entertainment/Netflix
Cast & Crew
Rob Zombie (screenplay)
Allan Burns and Chris Hayward (show)
|Lily Gruesella||Sheri Moon Zombie|
|Herman Munster||Jeff Daniel Phillips|
|Dr. Wolfgang/Orlock||Richard Brake|
|Zoya Krupp||Catherine Schell|