The classic monster movie-inspired TV show that has refused to die.
There was clearly something strange in the water during 1964, as US TV managed to more or less simultaneously produce two comedy shows featuring macabre families. While The Addams Family was the edgier of the two shows, The Munsters was the more popular with the public, probably because its satirical take on wholesome family sitcoms and Universal monster movies was rather more familiar and comforting.
The Munsters was created by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, who had previously scored big with Leave It to Beaver. The show featured the titular family, who lived at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Although they behave like any regular suburban family, they are anything but. Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) is a Frankenstein’s Monster-type creation (with make-up fashioned in the famous Universal Frankenstein series – possible because Universal also produced this series). His wife Lily (Yvonne De Carlo) is a gothic vampire, as is her father, referred to by everyone as Grandpa (but aka Sam Dracula, played by Al Lewis). Son Eddie (Butch Patrick) seems to be a cross between a werewolf and a vampire (Herman should demand a DNA test!) while daughter Marilyn (Beverly Owen for the first 13 episodes, Pat Priest thereafter) seems to be completely normal.
The half-hour format show was shot in black and white (though a 15-minute test pilot episode, with a different cast, had been shot in colour and revealed the characters – Marilyn aside – to have a blue-green tint to their skin). Shooting in black and white allowed more investment in production values – the Munsters’ home is an impressively decrepit set, and their two cars – The vintage hearse-like Munster Koach and, later, the speedster coffin the Drag-U-La – are pretty spectacular. The show also had one of the best theme tunes of the era, a surf-guitar number by Jack Marshall (lyrics were written by Bob Mosher but not used).
The Munsters premiered on September 24, 1964 – one week after The Addams Family. The parallels between the two shows were remarkable – each centred on a household of ‘monsters’ who inadvertently shock and horrify the people they come into day-to-day contact with. Living in crumbling mansions stuck in the middle of modern suburban areas, the families seem blissfully unaware of the fact that they are ‘different’.
Within that context, however, the two shows were decidedly different in tone. The Addams Family, based on the cartoons of Charles Addams, were less overtly ‘monstrous’ – sentient hand Thing and hirsute Cousin It aside, the family seemed decidedly eccentric and morbid, but also recognisably human, unlike The Munsters, who were based around the classic Universal monsters. And although not as cruel as the source material, The Addams Family had a more biting humour. The Addams didn’t seem to care about fitting into ‘normal’ society and existed as an insular unit, the humour coming from the people who would visit their home each week. You got the impression that this family might well be capable of doing terrible things for their own amusement. The Munsters, on the other hand, were far less threatening. They might be Frankensteinian monsters, vampires, werewolves etc., but they are good-natured and harmless.
In fact, the characters fit closely the standard family sitcom set-up of the time (and, indeed, of today). Herman Munster is the bumbling, child-man husband, who needs the wise head of his wife Lily to get him out of trouble. Grandpa is both the irascible older relative and Herman’s partner in buffoonery, always coming up with mad schemes. And the kids – well, they are just the kids, there to provide the odd storyline involving school teachers or juvenile morality tales, but otherwise fairly disposable. The character of Marilyn, the beautiful blonde who the family all think of as homely and unattractive, is a neat twist, but the show rarely knew what to do with her apart from providing the odd boyfriend to be shocked by her family.
Given that The Munsters was, in many ways, a one-joke concept, you might expect the show to become boring, and given that it only lasted two seasons, it does seem that audiences finally tired of the repeated gag. But remarkably, the episodes often raised themselves beyond the simplistic idea of a monster family scaring unsuspecting normal people. Moreso than The Addams Family, who were too damn strange to ever engage in standard sit-com plots, the Munsters were able to have family crises, misunderstandings and regular sit-com silliness. Their strange appearance didn’t really matter in those instances. In a way, this was the blessing and the curse of the show. On the one hand, it gave the opportunity for a wider variety of plotlines; on the other, it meant that the Munsters were not all that different from any other family comedy characters of the time. The only real horror movie elements were the assorted schemes by Grandpa that involved assorted unsuccessful mad scientist concoctions. It was this mix of the absurd and the banal that gave the show its charm. And in showing that people who seem so very different are actually just the same as everyone else, the show made a subtle – possibly unintentional – stand against intolerance at a rather turbulent time in American history.
While the series started out well, it quickly lost viewers and after two seasons, was cancelled – the costs of the makeup and sets ensured that it was never going to last unless the ratings were huge. But over the years, it would build an audience in syndication and was also popular in other countries like the UK during the 1970s. Appearing at the height of the 1960s ‘monster boom’, it was inevitably a hit with younger viewers (and was certainly more accessible for them than the more adult humour of The Addams Family). Inevitably, the show has never quite been allowed to die. A series of follow-ups, reboots and re-imaginings have ensured that the idea would be brought back to life almost as often as the Frankenstein monster himself.
To help sell the defunct series worldwide, a feature film was shot in 1966, immediately after the series ended, and although not a hit – and, like many a TV spin-off, it rather stretched the point somewhat – the film remains an interesting and entertaining addition to the original Munster canon.
Starring most of the original cast – with Debbie Watson replacing Pat Priest as cousin Marilyn – Munster, Go Home feels very much like an extended version of the original series. Directed by Earl Bellamy – who had also helmed several TV episodes – the main attraction is that, unlike the series, it is in colour, so we finally get a better take on why visitors to the Munster’s house on Mockingbird Lane were freaked out even by Lily (Yvonne De Carlo), who never looked that creepy in monochrome; here, we see that she, and the rest of the family, have a decidedly ghoulish skin tone. The film also, intriguingly, gives us the first chance to see the Frankenstein Monster in colour, even if it is in the form of Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) – and yes, his skin actually is green. And the film does make it clear that Herman actually is the Frankenstein Monster, something that the TV show kept rather ambiguous.
The film sees the family inheriting Munster Hall in England, with Herman becoming Lord Munster. And so the family – Herman, Lily, Marilyn, Grandpa (aka Sam Dracula, played by Al Lewis) and wolf boy Eddie (Butch Patrick) take the SS United States to Merry Olde England and the county of Shroudshire to take up residence.
Inevitably, the England they encounter is a ridiculous pastiche of cockneys and upper-class twits, though how much of this is a deliberate nod to the Universal horrors of the Thirties and Forties is anyone’s guess. Chief among the latter group are the dastardly English Munsters, led by Lady Effigie (Hermoine Gingold) and her children, Grace (Jeanne Arnold) and Freddie (Terry-Thomas). Thomas is clearly having a ball playing a villain who is dastardly even by his standards, hamming it up wonderfully as he schemes to get rid of the new arrivals and claim the title of Lord Munster for himself.
Mixed into this is a tale of counterfeiting, a romance for Marilyn (the long-running joke being that the family assume this beautiful girl to be the most homely member of the family) and a road race that fills up the final act and introduces the Drag-U-La racing car. This final half hour feels rather like a Disney comedy of the era – think The Love Bug and its like. This is no bad thing, and it makes the movie rather more fun than it ought to be.
With John Carradine as a decrepit butler, a few amusing in-jokes (like Herman referencing Fred Gwynne’s earlier TV hit Car 54 Where Are You?) and a light touch that doesn’t try to expand the basic Munsters concept too much, this is pretty good fun and a nice coda to the TV series.
Except, of course, that this wasn’t the end.
In 1973, a Saturday morning cartoon series, the Mini-Munsters appeared (with Al Lewis being the sole cast member of the original series to lend his voice to the show), and in 1981, there was a full-blown revival in the form of the TV movie The Munsters’ Revenge, broadcast on the NBC network. This was one of several one-off revivals of hits TV shows from the past that would emerge as TV movies in the 1980s, banking on both familiarity and the popularity that the original shows had built through syndicated reruns over the years. The film reunited the main cast – Gwynne, Lewis and De Carlo all return, with Eddie now played by K.C. Martel and another new Marilyn in the form of Jo McDonnell. Gwynne was dismissive of the film, saying that the script was awful and admitting that he’d only done it for the money, and this resurrection has few admirers. But it’s actually a lot better than you might expect, and does a decent job of capturing the innocent, juvenile silliness of the original series.
Here, we first meet the Munsters as they visit a wax museum to admire dummies of themselves in the Chamber of Horrors (as ever, the family seem unaware of their own monstrousness, which makes the fact that they happily accept being shown as monsters a bit curious). We quickly discover that these wax dummies are, in fact, robots, under the control of Dr Diablo (Sid Caesar), who is using them in a series of robberies that will culminate in the looting of Egyptian artefacts from a museum on Halloween night. When Herman and Grandpa are framed as the people behind the initial series of robberies, the pair have to escape police custody in order the clear their names and make it home in time for the Munster family’s Halloween celebrations.
The film is very much based around the double act of Herman and Grandpa – Lily Munster often feels like an afterthought here, having little screen time, and a new character – the visiting cousin Phantom of the Opera (Bob Hastings) is given more to do. On the plus side, Marilyn is more of a rounded and substantial character here, playing a major part in the efforts to clear the Munster name.
Let’s not pretend that this is a lost classic – it’s too slight and has little of the style of the original series. But there’s a lot of fun here if you are not too fussy, and it’s always good to see the original cast in action. Caesar – who seems to be improvising much of his dialogue – overacts wildly, and how much you’ll enjoy that depends on how much you like to see Caesar doing his schtick – I didn’t mind it as much as some people seem to, but I can understand how many viewers might find him irritating. But this isn’t exactly subtle comedy, and somehow his wild mugging seems to fit nicely.
Interestingly, the make-up for the whole family, Herman included, is now a pallid grey, which makes more sense I guess. The look of the film in general is pretty dull as well, compared to the vividness of the previous film, which is probably why so many people find it a disappointment – The Munsters seem to need either black and white or vivid colour to really work.
If this movie was a testing ground for a full series revival, then we have to say that it was a failure. Viewing figures were not great and there seemed little appetite from anyone – cast included – to carry on. But the idea would not go away, and so in 1988, the series was revived. The Munsters Today saw John Schuck as Herman, Lee Meriwether as Lily, Jason Marsden as Eddie, Howard Morton as Grandpa and Hilary Van Dyke as Marilyn, and was positioned as a direct sequel to the original series, with an opening episode that showed how Grandpa had invented a ‘sleeping machine’ in 1966 that meant that people could sleep without ageing, and had accidentally put the entire family into a state of suspended animation until 1988 when they were revived. After this, the show follows the regular Munster format.
Like most USTV of the era, it was pretty flat, the comedy was overly broad and the production values rather low – but the show was popular enough to run for 73 episodes over three seasons, making it more successful than the original show – however, while the 1960s series remains much loved even now, this revival found few admirers and is barely even remembered today.
In fact, even by 1995, it was forgotten enough for yet another revival to be tried, in the form of the TV movie Here Come the Munsters.
With an all-new cast, this is something of an ‘origin’ movie, opening with the family living in Transylvania but growing tired of the local peasants attacking their castle (the portrayal of Romanians here is as basic as the portrayal of the English in Munster, Go Home), decide to head off to America, thinking that Cousin Marilyn (Christine Taylor) has invited them over.
These opening scenes hint at a rather darker version of the Munsters – there is no doubt that they have been killing the locals, either to supply Herman (Edward Herrmann, appropriately!) with body parts or to supply blood for Grandpa (Robert Morse). There definitely seems to be an Addams Family movie influence in these scenes, with Lily (Veronica Hamel) more darkly glamorous and Eddie (Mathew Botuchis) more feral.
However, on their arrival in America, the film takes a lighter tone, and instead becomes a none-too-subtle, but surprisingly biting satire on immigration – or more accurately, the demonising of immigrants by politicians. It turns out that Marilyn’s invitation was to help find her father and Herman’s brother-in-law, Norman Hyde (Max Grodenchik), who has mysteriously disappeared. At the same time, the family find themselves a target for populist right-wing politician Brent Jekyll (Jeff Trachta), who is running on a ‘send ‘em back where they came from’ ticket. Unless you have no knowledge of horror characters, you can probably see where this is going…
The political subtext of the film is rather unexpected, and rather welcome in a film like this, even if it is laid on a bit thick – every friendly person the family meets is a foreigner, every dreadful person a born and bred American, and of course, the Munsters themselves represent every immigrant trying to get by in a new country. The Daily Mail would hate this film.
Of course, you have to get used to a new cast playing the familiar family, but that’s less of an issue than you might expect – everyone fits the roles well, and the film pays a nice tribute to the original cast by having De Carlo, Lewis, Patrick and Priest make a cameo appearance (Gwynne had died two years earlier). The supporting cast includes cult favourite Mary Woronov, and the direction by Robert Ginty – The Exterminator himself! – is solid, if unflashy. The result is a film that is a lot more enjoyable than it has any right to be and a worthy addition to the Munsters legacy.
It was popular enough to spawn a sequel a year later, though 1996’s The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas would see yet another new cast – apparently, Edward Hermann had demanded a pay increase for returning to the role, and the producers instead decided to recast everyone from the family, though Mary Woronov makes a return as their nosy neighbour.
This episodic effort is a much more lightweight affair that opens with Eddie (Bug Hall) being disillusioned with Christmas as he fails to fit into life in Los Angeles, and the rest of the family (Sam McMurray as Herman, Ann Magnuson as Lily, Sandy Baron as Grandpa and Elaine Hendrix as Marilyn) decide to cheer him up by decorating the house, and inviting other family members like the Wolfman, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon over for a Transylvania Christmas. Along the way, they somehow transport Santa into their home three days before Christmas, which leads to the main plot as they try to work out how to send him home in time for Christmas, while his rebellious and oddly lecherous elves plot to stay in LA and ogle Marilyn.
It’s a weird film, mostly juvenile and very silly, but with some definite adult gags from the horny elves. There’s more sentimentality than you might want, and the film never really goes anywhere – it’s more like a series of skits that are tied together. But if you are feeling indulgent, or perhaps full of the holiday spirit (or more likely spirits), then this might not be an entirely awful experience. I’ll admit to chuckling once or twice, and there’s something sweetly traditional about this very clichéd festive tale. Longtime Munster fans might baulk at the cast – Grandpa looks particularly cadaverous – though both Herman and Lily manage to feel like reasonable facsimiles and Woronov, in a small role, is a lot of fun. And it’s probably the only Christmas film where you’ll see Santa transformed into a Christmas pudding, and his sleigh pulled by a gang of bikers.
After this, it seemed as though the Munster revivals had run their course, but you can’t keep a good idea down for long. Rumours of a new film from the Wayans brothers floated around in the early 2000s, much to the dread of pretty much everyone, though the idea seems to have fizzled out. But 2012 saw Mockingbird Lane, a new ‘reimagining’ of the story developed by Bryan Fuller. Darker, ‘edgier’ and less comedic than the original series – and so, you might think, missing the point entirely – the show toned down the visual look (Herman now looks like a regular, if scarred, human). The production was a troubled one and sat on the shelf until October, when NBC aired the terrible Bryan Singer-directed pilot as a Halloween special, before announcing that the show would not be picked up as an ongoing series – much to the relief of everyone.
And that might’ve been the end… except that there is never an end to The Munsters, it seems. It’s a concept too good – and a title too ingrained in the collective pop culture memory, apparently – to let go. Rob Zombie’s new movie – aimed squarely at kids, it seems – has had what we might call ‘mixed’ reviews – either you love it or you hate it, with no point in between. It does, at least, respect the original nature of the show even if the execution hasn’t pleased everyone. And that feels the most important thing – we don’t need a reinvention, a modernisation or a radical reboot of the show. Accept it for what it is and don’t screw with the formula. It might be that no one gets it right anymore – perhaps the original series is too ingrained in our collective memories to allow any other version to really have a chance – but as long as they don’t turn it into a smug, ‘dark’ alternate take, I’m happy to give any new version a chance.
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