The Munsters (1964-1966)
The original TV series of “The Munsters” was a childhood staple of mine. I was a huge fan of the Universal Monsters (Wolf-man, Frankenstein’s monster, Mummy, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon) as a kid; I had the glow in the dark Aurora model kits, and Forry Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland” was my first magazine subscription (at the tender, impressionable age of eight). So, it’s no surprise that reruns of “The Munsters” were nirvana for me as a kid. The story followed the weekly exploits of the “all-American” Munster family; Frankenstein-monster patriarch, Herman (the irreplaceable Fred Gwynne), his sexy vampire bride Lily (Yvonne DeCarlo), their Wolf-boy son Eddie (Butch Patrick), Dracula-esque father-in-law Grandpa (Al Lewis) and their niece; the sweet-natured ‘ugly duckling’ of the family, beautiful Marilyn (played by Beverly Owen and Pat Priest). The family, along with their largely unseen pet dragon, Spot, lived in a dilapidated, cobwebbed estate at 1313 Mockingbird Lane, in otherwise sunny Southern California.
Note: Beverly Owen played the role of Marilyn for the first half of season 1, to be replaced for the remainder of the 2 season series by Pat Priest. Owen reportedly left the show to marry and start a family.
This outwardly ghoulish family of Transylvanian immigrants saw themselves as wholesome, handsome, upstanding American citizens, and seemed oblivious to the fear they unwittingly caused in outsiders. Despite their own healthy egos, the Munsters were also kind, humble and sweet-natured, showing great sensitivity to poor, unfortunate Marilyn, who was born without the family’s ‘good looks.’ The series (created by Allan Burnes & Chris Hayward, developed by Norm Liebman & Ed Haas) turned the once-popular family sitcom genre on its head, featuring a lot of sly-yet-benign social commentary on conformity, as well as loads of self-deprecating humor. The charm of Fred Gwynne, along with a game supporting cast, really sold this lovable family of monstrous misfits as they pursued the American dream. While admittedly not as sophisticated as their chief rival, “The Addams Family,” (which also ran from 1964-1966), the Munsters projected a genuine warmth and sweetness that, as a young monster geek, made me want to vicariously join that family. To hell with the Brady Bunch…
The prematurely cancelled series begat a 1966 feature film sequel, “Munsters Go Home,” as well as a 1973 cartoon (“Mini-Munsters”) and a 1981 made-for-TV live-action sequel “The Munsters Revenge,” which featured both original cast and new cast members. There was also an all-new, made-for-syndication TV series in the late 1980s; “The Munsters Today” was a direct sequel to the original, featuring a recast Munsters family going into suspended animation back in the 1960s (a metaphor for their prior cancellation…?) and awakening in the acid-washed 1980s. The series featured John Schuck as Herman, Lee Meriweather as Lili, Jason Marsden as Eddie, Howard Morton as Grandpa and Hillary Van Dyke as an ’80s-updated Marilyn. Schuck and company did their best to recapture the vibe of the original actors, and the lower-budget syndicated series lasted for three seasons (1988-1991); a season longer than the original CBS network series.
After “The Munsters Today” ended its three-year run, “The Addams Family” enjoyed a huge renaissance in 1991 with a big-budget feature film and a successful sequel two years later (newer animated “Addams Family” movies are also doing decent business). Hoping to find a bit more plasma in their veins, “The Munsters” returned for a pair of made-for-TV movies in the mid-1990s, with “Here Come the Munsters” (1995) and “The Munsters Scary Little Christmas” (1996), both of which featured different casts. There was also a one-off Bryan Fuller-produced reimagining called “Mockingbird Lane” (2012) which eschewed many of the original’s broader elements, such as Herman’s Boris Karloff-style makeup. None of these sequels quite captured the heart or warmth of the original, and the various attempts only served to prove that the original cast was truly lightning in a bottle, particularly the late Fred Gwynne (1926-1993), who passed away shortly after a critically-acclaimed comedic role as the judge in 1992’s Oscar-winning legal comedy, “My Cousin Vinny.”
It’s been a decade since the last live action “Munsters” attempt aired, and musician-horror filmmaker Rob Zombie (“House of 1,000 Corpses,” 2007’s “Halloween”) has crafted a prequel-reboot of the original, which tells the love story of ‘when Herman met Lily,’ just in time for Halloween. Sadly, the result flatlines…
Rob Zombie’s “The Munsters” (2022)
At the start of the story, we’re in a neon-hued, English-speaking ‘Transylvania,’ that–like the 1930s Universal monster films–is a surreal mishmash of various time periods; retro-TV sets and cars suggest the early 1960s, while the ambient music, tattoos, fashions, and other signs suggest the 1990s. In a creaky old castle owned by past-his-prime vampire, Count Ezra Mosher (Daniel Roebuck, as the future “Grandpa”) is desperately trying to marry off his 150 year-old daughter, Lily (Sheri Moon Zombie, writer/director Rob’s wife and longtime muse/collaborator).
Note: The movie opens promisingly with the 1930s Universal logo; the old biplane circling a shiny Earth in black & white. This signaled to me that the movie would honor its Universal monsters’ roots, and it does–sort of. The Count’s name “Mosher” is a nod to Bob Mosher, the original composer of the famous Munsters theme, as well as its unheard lyrics.
As the Count watches a clunky old television, he and his faithful manservant Igor (Sylvester McCoy) await the return of Lily, who is on a date with the creepy, rat-obsessed vampire, Orlock (Richard Brake), whom Lily’s father hopes to pair her off with, because of his fine lineage. The date doesn’t end well, as Orlock seems more infatuated with his rats than with Lily. A desperate Count Mosher resorts to using black magic spells in order to conjure a perfect man for his daughter, but as we saw with the TV series, his spells were often bungled in execution.
Note: “Orlock” is a nod to the famous, century-old German silent film, “Nosferatu” (1922), which was a beat-for-beat retelling of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”; so much so, that it was ordered destroyed in a lawsuit. However, multiple prints survive to this day, and the film is rightly considered a horror masterpiece. Directed by F.W. Murnau, the vampire makeup on actor Max Schreck’s “Orlock” used to scare the piss out of me as a kid, even only in still photos from my “Famous Monsters” magazines.
In a nearby crypt, a bumbling simpleton grave robber named Floop (Jorge Garcia of “Lost”) is aiding his master, Dr. Augustus Wolfgang (also played by Richard Brake), who is collecting parts of various corpses in the hopes of replicating the old Frankenstein experiments of sewing together a ‘perfect’ body with the mind of a freshly dead genius. After entering the crypt, they are met by a sentry zombie, whom they quickly dispatch and continue with their cadaverous thievery.
Note: Despite my many issues with the movie which I’ll get into later, the early visual homages to the Universal Horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s are beautifully done, rendered in a surreal ’80s day-glow/neon lighting scheme that gives them a broadly comic visual flair. Director George Romero did something very similar with the comic book hues and panels seen in the 1982 horror anthology film, “Creepshow.” Visually, I appreciated the “Creepshow” meets “Beetlejuice” look of the movie very much; in fact, the ingenious production design is one of the few positive aspects of Rob Zombie’s “Munsters.”
In an homage to both 1935’s “The Bride of Frankenstein” and Mel Brooks’ horror-comedy classic “Young Frankenstein” (1974), Dr. Wolfgang’s bumbling assistant Floop steals the wrong brain; while he was sent to steal the brain of a recent deceased genius, he instead steals the brain of the recently deceased genius’ twin brother, who was a controversial Transylvanian standup comedian.
Note: Rob Zombie’s tin ear for ‘horror comedy’ dialogue results in something you’d find in an early 1990s Nickelodeon kiddy Halloween special. Zombie is a master of horror, but his script feels like he was hurriedly put in charge of making something for his four-year old nephew’s Halloween party. Even the original Munsters TV series’ jokes were far more witty than this dreck.
After assembling the parts and electrifying the combined whole, Dr. Wolfgang is devastated when his stitched-together creation fails to animate. As Wolfgang turns away in sorrow, Floop notices that the shrouded monster has indeed risen, and is walking in a clumsy, Frankensteinian way. “It’s alive!” So, how do Dr. Wolfgang and Floop celebrate this scientific miracle? By booking their creation on Transylvania’s late-night talk show circuit, of course. Floop has already dubbed the doctor’s creation “Herman Munster” (“Not Monster; Munster, like the cheese,” he clarifies).
Note: The humor in the script is more dead than the cadaver pieces stolen to create Herman. I appreciate Rob Zombie’s visual flourishes, and his attempt to fill in missing bits of “The Munsters” lore, but the dialogue in this movie is so bad it might cause constipation. I certainly love a good dad joke or two, but this movie’s repartee isn’t even clever by 1964 broadcast TV standards, let alone 2022 streaming.
As Count Mosh–er, Grandpa (to hell with it; he’s “Grandpa”) watches his favorite late-night Transylvanian variety show, his daughter Lily become enamored with the creation of its guest, Dr. Wolfgang, as a still-bandaged Herman Munster struts his reanimated stuff for the late night audience. It’s love at first sight, as the big galoot soon begins telling moldy first-grader jokes and destructively banging on a piano (his hands belonged to a former pianist). Grandpa is, of course, not pleased with his 150 year-old little girl’s choice in men…
Note: I remember reading some online comments about the ages of the actors playing this prequel’s incarnations of Herman and Lily. According to IMDb, actor Jeff Daniel Phillips is 57 while Sheri Moon Zombie is 52. Beyond it being terribly ageist, I have zero issues with older actors playing ‘younger’ versions of these characters, because Lily is supposed to be over 150 years old in the movie, and Herman is a composite of reanimated corpse parts. Who gives a damn how old the actors are offscreen? All the lead characters in the movie are buried under a ton of makeup anyway, so it makes absolutely no sense to dwell on the actors’ ages. Moving on…
As Lily’s infatuation with the local Transylvanian celebrity Herman Munster intensifies, her no-good werewolf brother Lester (Tomas Boykin) is indebted to a vengeful old gypsy woman Zoya Krupp (Catherine Schell) and her son, Bela (Levente Törköly), who offers to settle the matter for good, if Lester can get Grandpa to sign his crumbling estate over to her name.
Note: Lester’s debt to the gypsy is a comedic riffing on the plot of 1941’s “The Wolf-Man,” when Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) befriended the old gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), after he accidentally killed her werewolf son, Bela (horror icon Bela Lugosi), in self-defense. Since her son bit Talbot during the attack, Talbot shared her late son’s curse, which made Maleva feel responsible for his dilemma. In “The Munsters,” Lester is in debt to the old gypsy, who is eager to collect. Zoya Krupp is played by “Space: 1999” costar Catherine Schell, who played season 2’s shapeshifting science officer, Maya.
Lily pursues local rock sensation Herman Munster down to the neon-drenched dance club where he performs nightly shows. Afraid that he might not be interested in her, Lily bribes her brother Lester, who works at the club, to give her access to Herman’s dressing room. She knocks on his dressing room, and it’s love at first sight, as the hulking monster-rocker ‘makes room’ for her in his empty schedule for dinner at her father’s castle the following night.
Note: I realize this is a reimagining of “The Munsters” as much as it is a prequel, but is this really the same Herman Munster we are supposed to imagine later in the TV series? Yes, actor Jeff Daniel Phillips does a good job of emulating Gwynne’s gale-force laughter, and even some of his body language, but everything else feels strangely off. The warmth is gone, as this version of Herman feels more like a vapid caricature of the TV series’ more charmingly domesticated suburban ghoul. Yes, the makeup is spot-on, as is the actor’s height (with the comically large lifts in his boots), but it feels more like a nightclub impersonation of Herman Munster.
Dinner is predictably antagonistic, as Grandpa simply doesn’t see what his daughter finds so appealing in this oafish interloper. Herman tries his best by bringing his future father-in-law a fresh pint of O-Negative. As soon as the grotesque meal is over, Herman and Lily take off for a night on the town.
Note: Despite my issues with the interpretation of Herman Munster in this prequel/reboot, I found actor Daniel Roebuck’s Grandpa to be spot-on perfect. His little addition of a curled mustache only adds to the aged vampire’s faded veneer of Transylvanian royalty–and it might also be a nod to the famous mustache worn by the real-life 15th century prince of Walachia (modern Romania), Vlad Tepes, aka “Count Dracula”; the infamously cruel ruler who savagely impaled his enemies and allegedly dined among their fresh corpses, earning him the historical nickname of “Vlad the impaler.” Despite the accusations in Bram Stoker’s famous work of horror fiction, Vlad Tapes was not a ‘real’ vampire.
Herman and Lily’s whirlwind romance is told in a colorful montage, including a genuinely funny karaoke of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You, Babe” (one of the few gags that actually works) and a weekend spent at Devil’s Island, where Herman finally pops the question. After they’re married by a robot minister (a riff on Herman’s adopted robot son in an episode of the TV series), the Munsters then decide to honeymoon in Paris, where the terrified locals are too afraid to be anywhere near the cadaverous couple (another nod to the TV series). In the sewers of Paris, the two locate a dragon-like monster whom they immediately adopt as their pet “Spot.” It’s during their honeymoon that Lily and Herman receive a visit in their hotel from an angry Grandpa, who reveals that Herman unwittingly signed over Grandpa’s estate to Lester, who in turn sold it to Zoya to pay off his debts. With no home to return to, the newlywed Munsters decide to turn a negative into a positive by emigrating to the United States and seeking new lives for themselves in Hollywood, California.
Note: The two moments out of this hour and forty-nine minute movie that nearly made me chuckle were the “I Got You Babe” karaoke scene, and the sped-up Paris tourists fleeing in terror from the Munsters–a nice visual homage to the TV series (a still-funny gag as old as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and the “Our Gang” serials). In the entirety of the movie, these were the closest I got to genuine laughs. I laughed more at the dark redneck humor in Zombie’s 2007 reimagining of “Halloween” than I laughed at his deliberate attempt at ‘comedy.’
Before flying out to the United States (those wonderfully simple immigration laws of fiction), Lily makes arrangements with a real estate agent Barbara (Cassandra Peterson) to tour available homes near the Hollywood hills. Barbara then warns her unseen client that since they’re arriving on Halloween, she might be in costume when they meet. Wearing green witch makeup, Barbara then meets the ghoulish Munsters and faints dead away (another staple of the TV show). Reviving to see Herman, Lily and Grandpa standing over her, Barbara then sheepishly assumes they’re wearing their own Halloween costumes, as she pulls herself together, and drives them out to see the available properties on “Mockingbird Lane”…
Note: I truly expected Cassandra Peterson to dress as “Elvira” for her character’s ‘Halloween costume’. While I realize Peterson is in her early 70s these days, she still looks amazing, and could’ve easily pulled it off.
Showing the Munsters a nice suburban house on the block, Barbara deliberately steers them away from a crumbling, “Grey Gardens”-looking number across the street. With the Munsters twisted sense of ‘beauty,’ Herman erroneously assumes that Barbara is steering them away from the prized property on the block, and convinces a grateful Barbara to unload the hideously dilapidated dump at… you guessed it, 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Moving in that same afternoon (as you do) and later joining a Halloween block party that evening, the Munsters mistakenly assume the costumed locals of the town are the “beautiful people” of Los Angeles. The nearly-broke, but very lucky Munsters also manage to win a check for $1,500 at a ‘costume contest’ during the party, which they assumed was a beauty pageant, of course. Their streak of luck continues, as Herman is then offered a steady job at the local mortuary during the party…
Note: $1,500 for a Halloween block party costume contest is a ridiculously big win, even for a broad horror farce. Hell, even my local SoCal Homeowner’s Association only gave $50 for best-decorated house one Halloween, back in the early 2000s—that didn’t even cover their monthly fee. But I’m not bitter, of course…
Waking up the next morning, Herman steps outside to see the locals as they truly are—beautiful people playing in the streets and riding bicycles. Herman is terrified to see the entire town seemingly replaced with these hideous ‘creatures from outer space.’ Lily calms them down, and suggests they all do their best to accept the strange ways–and people–of their newly adopted country.
Note: Even for a broad comedy, I have to wonder why Herman would be so terrified by the sight of ‘normal’ people, when he saw many such people during his honeymoon in Paris? Granted, he mistakenly assumed the masked trick or treaters of his new community were wearing their true faces on Halloween night, but all the same, Herman’s initial reaction could’ve been a bit more subtle, and condescendingly funny, as it used to be whenever Herman and Lily used to discretely lament their ‘poor’ niece Marilyn’s unfortunate looks. Once again, this reimagined version of Herman as a vapid, former rock star just feels so off-the-mark; Herman’s innate sweetness is all but gone.
The mega-happy ending sees ne’er do werewolf Lester arriving at the Munsters’ new doorstep with a huge share of the fortune he’s made for himself in Las Vegas by gambling with his portion of Zoya’s cut for Grandpa’s castle. The money, combined with Herman’s steady (recession-proof) job as an undertaker leaves the Munsters unexpectedly affluent.
Note: The coda sees a faithful black & white recreation of “The Munsters” original opening credits montage (minus Eddie and Marilyn, of course), complete with the original Bob Mosher “Munsters” theme. I was rather surprised that, given Zombie’s heavy metal musical career, he didn’t choose to significantly spice up the main title theme with his own metal-stylings. Not complaining, mind you, just… surprised.
Summing It Up.
Once again, “The Munsters” proves a difficult property to recapture, and sadly, Rob Zombie’s script does no favors to the Munsters’ memory. While the stylish, colorful production design brings to mind the look of Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” (1988), Zombie’s flat-footed comedy sounds less like the original “Munsters,” and more like one of those dreadfully innocuous kiddy Halloween specials from early 1990s cable TV. Yes, the TV Munsters’ jokes were corny, even for 1964, but there was also a heart—along with tongue-in-cheek social commentary on American middle-class conformity—that is almost entirely missing in this stylish yet comically inert prequel. I really wanted to like this movie, but I didn’t laugh once. Zombie desperately needed a genuine comedy writer on this project.
Chock full of colorful guest-roles and cameos (Cassandra Peterson, Sylvester McCoy, Butch Patrick, Pat Priest, Catherine Schell), the movie almost needs an accompanying spotter’s guide. To their credit, the central cast really sink their teeth into the material (no pun intended), particularly Daniel Roebuck and Sheri Moon Zombie. However, the script bizarrely reimagines Jeff Daniel Phillips’ Herman as some kind of standup comedian/rockstar, which just feels wrong for the character. Herman Munster was a middle-class patriarch and wannabe conformist, not a fame-monger. While I appreciated how Zombie’s script dovetails into “The Munsters” TV series’ lore by setting up its core elements (Spot, Igor, the mortuary job, etc), it’s that nagging misreading of Herman’s essential character–and a surprising dearth of laughter–that keeps “The Munsters” from fully working. Despite the manic energy level, there’s very little heart, warmth, or humor.
As Halloween treats go? “The Munsters” 2022 is one of those orange, foam peanut-things you threw into the garbage as soon as you came home from trick-or-treating. Not worth unwrapping.
Where to Watch.
Rob Zombie’s “The Munsters” is available to stream on Netflix, and is also available to purchase on BluRay and DVD (prices vary). Happy Halloween!