Written by: Rob Zombie (screenplay), Norm Liebmann & Ed Haas (characters), Allan Burns & Chris Hayward (format)
Directed by: Rob Zombie
Starring: Jeff Daniel Phillips, Sheri Moon Zombie, and Daniel Roebuck
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I knew from the moment I saw your flat head and that cute little scar that I wanted to spend every moment tightening those neck bolts.”
Even though Rob Zombie’s affinity for The Munsters has been documented for decades, I’m not sure any of us ever expected him to actually direct a revival. Serving as a producer or consultant may have been believable, but Zombie’s brand of abrasive exploitation homage makes him an unlikely candidate to helm an update of a 60s family sitcom. It’s especially easy to be skeptical since this isn’t the first time Zombie boarded a project that felt a little out of his wheelhouse. Anyone still haunted by the sight of a spectral Sheri Moon Zombie and white horses should fret not, though: Zombie’s take on The Munsters is faithful to both the original show and his artistic sensibilities, not to mention a refreshing change-of-pace for a filmmaker who’s been mired in the doldrums for a few years. A project that sort of reeks of desperation—a filmmaker trying to escape his own shadow by resorting to a childhood favorite—winds up being exactly what Zombie needed to establish himself as one of our boldest, most idiosyncratic filmmakers.
Zombie embraces the sitcom roots with a flighty script that feels like three episodes mashed together to form an origin story of sorts. Lily (Sheri Moon Zombie) lives with her father, The Count (Daniel Roebuck), whose Transylvanian estate has seen better days. His ex-wife Zoya (Catherine Schell) has enlisted their werewolf son Lester (Tomas Boykin) to hatch a scheme to steal the family castle and turn it into a casino. Meanwhile, mad scientist Henry Augustus Wolfgang (Richard Brake) and his hunchback assistant (Jorge Garcia) seek to create artificial life using the brain of the world’s smartest man. However, in a familiar mix-up, the hunchback steals the brain of a hack comedian instead, and the creature lumbers to life as Herman Munster, whose rise to stardom allows him to conquer the airwaves. Instantly lovestruck after seeing him on TV, Lily seeks a date, only to discover that Herman is just as infatuated with her, leading to a whirlwind courtship that puts the couple on the path to 1313 Mockingbird Lane when Zoya’s plot finds an easy mark in Lily’s boneheaded new beau.
I get it: nobody was exactly asking for a Munsters origin story, particularly during an era where we’ve seen fanboy filmmakers inject gravitas into their childhood favorites, desperately insisting on unnecessary profundity. Zombie completely resists this urge, though, and keeps a light touch throughout. He’s not here to convince you that The Munsters is serious business, a cultural touchstone that’s worthy of reverence. Instead, this feels exactly like The Munsters should: broad, silly, and playfully spooky, boasting an aesthetic that evokes vintage Halloween stores and carnival funhouses. This isn’t a daring reimagining of the source material so much as it’s bold embrace of it, almost as if Zombie tried to stuff every imaginable design idea into the frame. Fog-shrouded graveyards, neon-lit punk clubs, and moonlit castles pop off of the screen, creating the impression of a live-action cartoon. Apparently, Universal nixed Zombie’s choice to shoot the film in black-and-white, and his response whiplashes in the opposite direction as he soaks The Munsters in vibrant, candy-colored hues, his hyperreal, fluorescent vistas leaving no doubt about the film’s spirited tone.
This approach works best during the early-going, when Zombie takes The Munsters back to the source so to speak by putting them into a Universal Monsters movie. Wolfgang’s brain-swapping exploits particularly recall the later Frankenstein films, while the presence of vampires and werewolves recapture the spirit of the Monster Rally films, with a dash of the Abbott and Costello crossovers (at one point, Zombie even makes his inspiration abundantly clear when he has The Count is watching the comedy duo’s encounter with The Mummy). Zombie could have easily titled this House of The Munsters, and Universal could do worse than to tap him as a consultant or producer if they ever seriously reconsider reviving their stable of iconic monsters. He’s often spoken of his childhood love of horror, citing the “monster movies” of his youth as formative experiences, and it shows here. The phrase “monster movie” conjures up the specific vibes that Zombie harnesses: the source material might be the stuff of horror, but these films are more fun than they are scary. After all, these are the films that inspired the first generation of “Monster Kids,” and The Munsters feels like the ultimate tribute to that era. Somehow, it feels right that Zombie is passing this on to the next generation.
Which is to say that The Munsters is totally kids’ stuff, despite Zombie’s previous work. With the exception of a few bawdy entendres, it’s innocent and tame, something I never thought I’d say about a Rob Zombie film. His sense of humor actually acquits itself well, too: while he’s often relied on crass obscenity during his career, his humor has always been underscored by a silly, juvenile streak that’s perfect for The Munsters. He’s relentless here, unleashing sight gags and goofy dialogue with full force. It doesn’t all land, nor is the film uproariously hilarious; it is, however, quite amusing, which is exactly how I’d describe the television show, which often thrived on hammering one note (The Munsters don’t get that they’re the weird ones) in the service of sitcom chicanery and occasional social commentary. The only real difference here is the length and Zombie’s signature anachronistic approach: while The Munsters hails from the 60s, the 70s are very much alive and well here, intermingling with design choices from other decades to achieve a paradoxical timelessness. Like so many of Zombie’s films, this one feels vaguely retro in a way that heightens the otherworldly nature of the production, which often recaptures the sitcom’s backlot artificality, distilling The Munsters to the stuff of arcane Americana.
Zombie has a familiar troupe at his disposal, highlighted by Jeff Daniel Phillips and Sheri Moon Zombie, who revive the iconic lovebirds to varying degrees of faithfulness. The latter is more accomplished in this respect in the way she imitates Yvonne De Carlo’s mannerisms and line deliveries: she’s very much recognizable as Lily Munster, allowing Zombie to show off some of her range because this is a long way from Baby Firefly. Phillips’s turn as Herman is likely to inspire a little more trepidation, if not downright consternation: like his counterpart, he successfully commits enough to the bit that there’s little doubt about the character he’s playing. However, his Herman sometimes feels a little more acerbic than his small-screen predecessor, and Zombie’s penchant for abrasive, off-putting humor reveals itself in Phillips’ blaring, boisterous presence. Herman doesn’t just chuckle at his own dad jokes: he pounds tables and roars, almost acting as a one-man sitcom laugh-track, and he often misses the sweet, unassuming charm of Fred Gwynne since this younger version of the character is more churlish.
It’s the film’s most noticeable misstep, but Zombie compensates with an entertaining cast of supporting characters. Daniel Roebuck is a little bit more curmudgeonly than Al Lewis was as the future Grandpa Munster, but his rapport with Phillips recaptures the sitcom’s dynamic with these characters quite well. By this point, it should come as no surprise that Richard Brake gives a standout performance in a Zombie production, and he actually gives two here. He’s utterly delightful as Wolfgang, an eccentric mad scientist role that allows him to play against type; however, he also puts a fun spin on Nosferatu when he appears as a nerdy Count Orlock during a disastrous date with Lily, a scene that best speaks to Zombie’s silly, episodic monster mash approach here. The Munsters probably doesn’t need a scene where Count Orlock tries to impress Lily Munster with pictures of his pet rats, but Zombie’s films have often been less about story and more about texture and self-indulgence. As much as his previous two films have reveled in stale schtick, I’m not sure I ever want Rob Zombie to not make a Rob Zombie movie, and I love that he remains committed to churning out these labors of love with his frequent collaborators. I mean, who else is giving Brake a chance to do anything besides play disreputable scumbags?
The Munsters makes it abundantly clear that Zombie has no intentions of shying away from his signature style, and the gambit to double down somehow feels like a course correction. Redirecting his manic, ostentatious energy towards this lighthearted fare gives us the best of both worlds: a movie with all of his flourishes that still doesn’t quite feel like anything he’s done before. It’s a heartening development, especially coming off of 3 From Hell, an uninspired retread mired in Zombie’s worst impulses. The Munsters stands in stark contrast, bursting with exuberance and visual virtuosity thanks to Zombie’s eccentric vision and game collaborators like DP Zoran Popovic and production designer Juci Szurdi. In a cinematic landscape that routinely prioritizes plot and relies on pallid, functional filmmaking, this effort—a goddamn Munsters prequel—feels positively audacious in the way it’s just all about vibes. Hardly anyone is making mainstream movies that look like this, and the purity of the aesthetic is infectious enough to waive off any nagging concerns. By the time Cassandra Peterson appears as the real estate agent that hands over the keys to the Munsters’ creepy abode on Halloween, it’s hard not to be swept up by Zombie’s joyous ode to a bygone era that will never die—not that we’d ever want it to.
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