Well whaddya know, Rob Zombie made a PG-rated movie version of The Munsters. It’s a Universal direct-to-DVD-and-blu-ray movie, also released to Netflix on the same day, and to be honest the trailer looked pretty cheesy to me. Pre-release word I’d seen had been dire, and a pretty dull opening stretch had me worried, despite it immediately capturing a strong classic horror look.
But hot damn, by the end I really liked this one. In fact I might’ve loved it. It has that thing I always respect in a movie: it’s something that no other director would’ve thought to make, or would’ve wanted to make, or would’ve known how to make. This is an idiosyncratic horror auteur reviving his childhood favorite sitcom in defiance of the fact that it’s a style of show and humor that are completely out of fashion. He doesn’t feel the need to turn it into something hipper or grittier or more modern. It’s just shameless cornball humor. But also he doesn’t tone down anything about his cinematic style (other than excluding the foul-mouthed redneck stereotypes talking about skull fucking or whatever). It’s very much the same The Munsters we know but also it’s also the Rob Zombiest Rob Zombie movie possible – a beautiful two-headed beast of a thing.
If it was anybody else making this they would try to get some names in it. Let’s say… Bill Hader as Frankenstein’s monster Herman Munster, Alison Brie as his future wife (and vampire sorceress or something?) Lily and Eugene Levy as the Dracula-like Grandpa. Something like that. And maybe that could work, but I think Zombie made the better choice of using non-household names we know as regulars from his earlier movies who can disappear into the characters. It’s his own wife Sheri Moon Zombie as Lily, Daniel Roebuck (Jay Leno in THE LATE SHIFT) as Grandpa, and most crucially Jeff Daniel Phillips (who has had the most visibility of the trio, but it was as the caveman in the old Geico commercials) as Herman, and they are absolutely great telling the story of how Herman and Lily fell in love and moved to Raven’s Hollow.
Let’s get that slow opening out of the way, though. I worry it’s gonna kill it on Netflix. It’s a funny idea to show Herman’s origin story, being created from corpses by the egomaniacal mad scientist Dr. Henry Augustus Wolfgang (Richard Brake, DEATH MACHINE) and his hunchback assistant Floop (Jorge Garcia, COOTIES). Brake has become a Zombie All-Star after being the best thing in his worst movie, 31, and filling a Sid Haig sized hole in 3 FROM HELL (you may have also seen him recently as a scary motherfucker in BARBARIAN, or the chemist in MANDY, or The Night King on Game of Thrones, or Joe Chill in BATMAN BEGINS). So I can see why Zombie wouldn’t want to race through his scenes, but that means it’s 28 minutes before Herman appears on Good Morning Transylvania and the movie, you know… comes to life. And it’s another ten minutes before Herman and Lily meet face to face, which is when Zombie admits on his commentary track “the heart of the movie really begins.”
That’s not to say all that is worthless – I especially like Lily having an awkward date with Count Orlock (Brake in elaborate Nosferatu makeup) and thinking he’s a nerd because he keeps showing her photos of all his rats. And we’re introduced to the unique world and look of the movie. Lily’s home town in Transylvania looks like a classic horror village but with neon lights for bars and bail bonds and stuff.
There’s a gimmick that the characters are given a cool looking introduction before they turn out to be goofballs, and Lily gets the best one, floating in looking like this:
And she gets to do another one at the wedding. Right away Moon Zombie is really funny as Lily (doing more acting with her hands than a Muppet) but that’s enhanced as soon as she’s bouncing off Phillips’ hysterical interpretation of Herman. They even have funny chemistry at a distance; it cracked me up watching her swoon over his TV appearance (made me think of that first performance scene in ELVIS) and then get dressed up to watch his band play the Zombie-a-Go-Go Nightclub. I found that really funny that when Herman was young he had a punk rockabilly band that dressed like ‘50s bikers (actually based on his racing outfit from MUNSTER, GO HOME!) and rocked out to one-liners from his standup routine (“Working in a mirror factory is something I could see myself doing”). Zombie and cinematographer Zoran Popovic (THE LOST, WAR INC., BRAWLER) mosh along with the handheld camera. No wonder Lily thinks he’s cool. I mean, I kinda want to go see them.
There are some bits of the movie that have the clean digital video sort of look that turned me off in the trailer, and the cluttered set of Grandpa’s castle looks kinda tacky to me. But for the most part I think it’s a beautiful movie. There’s a nice grain to it (especially on blu-ray) and they have these big sets on soundstages in Budapest, like a Universal horror classic but with carnival dark ride day glow colors, green and purple lights really making it pop. I wouldn’t usually use this as a compliment but I love the BATMAN FOREVER colors of the Transylvania scenes. I think it was on the commentary track that Zombie said they wouldn’t let him do it in black and white so he tried to figure out what would be the opposite.
So it really is the sitcom crossed with HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES. It’s a world where every glorious wood-framed TV is always showing ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN or THE MUMMY or the Leave It To Beaver monster sweatshirt episode if not some custom Zombieverse programming starring the same Munster actors playing different characters. And it’s not all coffins and catacombs – they go to Paris and all the sudden they’re in this gloriously colored hotel room, Herman is wearing adorable skull-and-crossbones pajamas and a monogrammed beret, being confused by the plot of a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.
Actually the most visually appealing stuff to me is all in daylight. I just love how the colors look like an old postcard.
The big joke in the last act is just based around them moving to suburban California on Halloween and not realizing that everybody’s wearing costumes (and thinks they are too). Corny as hell, which is exactly what the movie demands. Lily marveling at the beautiful children (wearing rubber monster masks), or worrying that she’s not cool enough “for this hipster neighborhood.” Perfect.
I especially appreciate that when I think of the type of thing these adaptations usually turn into. It’s a miracle there’s not some, like, greedy real estate developer or somebody as a villain whose schemes are foiled after an annoying slapstick climax. I’m so happy there’s not really a manufactured bad guy character. The only conflicts are stuff like Grandpa doesn’t want Lily to marry Herman, Herman gets scammed by Lily’s werewolf brother Lester (Tomas Boykin, I AM) and is embarrassed to tell Lily he lost money, or the Munsters are terrified of their non-monster neighbors. In my opinion a movie designed to deliver jokes like this (Herman had a transplanted brain so of course he gets brain freeze, their top tourist priority in Paris is the sewers, etc.) honestly shouldn’t have a plot involved enough that the audience feels like they’re expected to care about it more than they do. Without that charade we’re free to just concentrate on loving these monster people. More than the light plot, THE MUNSTERS is fueled by the sweetness of how much Herman and Lily adore each other. Which is even cuter when you consider that she’s played by the director’s wife.
The reaction to the announcement that Zombie was doing this was, to me, one of the funnier faux outrages in recent Twitter history. If you were to tell me that there were, say, seven people who were alive on that day, had active Twitter accounts, and sincerely cared about the sanctity of The Munsters at any time between the day they were born and the second before they read that headline, I would think you were out of your fuckin mind, there is no fuckin way it’s that many. I watched the show a little when I was a kid and probly more than many I’ve met in my life because it was way before my time, and I’m older than most of you scamps. But even if you are in fact the Sacred Guardian of the Munsters Legacy I gotta say, I don’t believe you’re as into them as Rob Zombie. Seems far-fetched.
I think it went without saying that the honorable thing to do was to shut up and let the weirdo who loves The Munsters make a weird movie about The Munsters. And I have been proven right. I will accept your apologies in the form of me not having to hear you mouth off about whatever the next couple stupid things that come up are. Thank you.
Mr. Zombie has made something few others could: a Munsters movie that is exactly as silly and stupid as The Munsters have always been, and yet, somehow, seems personal to him. Perhaps unconsciously it’s about all the loves of his life – including his actual wife, but also all the pop culture and visual stimuli of his youth that sent him on the path of becoming who he is. In a certain sense I think this is his version of a LICORICE PIZZA or a THE FABELMANS. Only a monster could get mad about something like that. Or a non-monster I guess.
Although THE MUNSTERS is based on a live action show it really seems like a cartoon, so just as I do with animated movies sometimes, I will end with some screen grabs of frames I thought looked nice. Happy October, everybody!
Appendix: My views on the films of Robert Zombie, for those keeping track
HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES: It’s a mess, but its distinct style, tone and exuberance have made me a fan since opening day. I believe I called it Tobe Hooper meets Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
THE DEVIL’S REJECTS: Probly my favorite, though it’s also his most disturbing so I don’t rewatch it very often. Much more assured direction, cool sun-drenched ‘70s style, love how it makes you quasi-sympathize with irredeemable monsters.
HALLOWEEN: I don’t think this one works, but I like some of it and respect its ambition so I don’t hate it the way so many people do.
HALLOWEEN II: This is actually my other candidate for favorite R. Zombie joint. Freed from the constraints of being a remake he really does something new and interesting with Michael Myers and with Lauria and Annie (who survived the first one in his version). I love that it can simultaneously pay homage to the original HALLOWEEN II and be a HALLOWEEN sequel that doesn’t seem to feel it has to follow any of the rules of previous HALLOWEEN sequels. Also this is an incredible looking movie. I’m a fan of many HALLOWEEN sequels but this is definitely the best looking one.
HALLOWEEN II director’s cut: I wrote a followup review for this one because I actually think it takes away some of what I love about the theatrical version (the survivor’s bond between Laurie and Annie, and the most perfect moment of the ending.) Most seem to disagree with me, but I feel strongly enough about it that I have a Canadian import blu-ray (theatrical cut’s not even included in the ridiculously complete Scream Factory HALLOWEEN box set).
THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPERBEASTO: I don’t remember liking this animated DTV movie very much.
THE LORDS OF SALEM: I was also a little disappointed in this one, didn’t seem to be on its cryptic wavelength, but I remember some great images and scenes and think I might try it again soon.
31: This one I didn’t really like at all other than the cinematography and the performance by Richard Brake as “Doomhead.” It’s the first time I felt like Zombie was just trying to do what was expected of him instead of having an idea he was excited about. I was bummed enough that I didn’t even review it.
3 FROM HELL: So my expectations were low for the long-delayed Firefly family trilogy capper, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. A return to form, kinda.