By Steven Wandling
Writer-director Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects, House of 1000 Corpses) turns his eye toward something surprisingly different than his usual grim tales of sadistic serial killers and Satanic witches bringing forth the birth of the Antichrist. Rebooting a classic-sitcom The Munsters may seem like a drastic departure for the filmmaker, with many wondering if audiences were about to be subjected to something obscene or grotesque that would forever stain their childhood memories of the original series. Quite the contrary, Zombie delivers a fun, family-friendly Halloween throwback that exists as a fitting love letter to the 60s hit show while at the same time ushering the characters into a vibrant colorful world that should bring a whole new generation of monster kids to the party.
The Munsters goes somewhere entirely new with an origin story, and although this film definitely exists in its own universe it ends up somewhere that closely resembles the lives of these characters as audiences remember them from the original series. Zombie shows that the Munsters was always more than just a fish-out-of-water story by starting the film in their own ancestral Transylvania filled with the undead and all sorts of supernatural creatures similar to them. Much like his Halloween reimagining, the first act delves farther into the characters backstory as a way of showing them in a different light than audiences are used to, and adding more context to them as people by showing them in an earlier part of their lives when they are not yet the fully formed characters that were presented in the series.
The beautiful, neon-lit sets are filled to the brim with eye-popping kitsch and fun spooky decorations that exist somewhere between a live-action Halloweentown from Nightmare Before Christmas and Disney’s Haunted Mansion theme park ride. The Munsters are not yet the Munsters that we know and love. Lilly is single at home with her father, the future grandpa known here as the Count. Herman isn’t even born (er, made) until Dr. Wolfgang (Richard Brake) and his Igor-like assistant Floop (Jorge Garcia) go graverobbing and in a hilarious birth of Frankenstein riff, give life to the newly-christened undead Herman Munster (Jeff Daniel Phillips).
Zombie, like other auteurs before him such as David Lynch (Lost Highway, Twin Peaks) and John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom), has a tight group of artists and creatives working on both sides of the camera that he counts as frequent collaborators. In this way, The Munsters falls right in line with the rest of his filmography. This provides a sense of comfortable familiarity to longtime fans of Rob Zombie’s work, who have been flocking to cinemas and tv screens for two decades, and allows the movie to be free from the type of negative Internet buzz that plagues casting announcements of existing franchises. Each of the three co-leads really does a fantastic job of embodying the spirit of the franchise. They aren’t doing impressions, they’re bringing their own interpretations and leaving their own stamp on these characters.
Jeff Daniel Phillips (3 From Hell, Lords of Salem) injects a sense of punk rock bravado and a wide-eyed sense of wonder that the older more established Herman as played by Fred Gwynne (Pet Sematary) in the original Munsters had tempered after some years on Mockingbird Lane. Here, we see him from the moment of creation and get to laugh along as he surfs through Transylvania as a leather jacket clad proto-punk rocker with an attitude and an outsized ego until Lilly knocks on his door, and he’s in love at first sight. The feeling is mutual. Lilly seeks Herman out after seeing him paraded around on a morning news program.
Sheri Moon Zombie (The Lords Of Salem, The Devil’s Rejects) gives one of her best characters to date via her vampy and kooky portrayal of a young Lilly looking for love. It’s fun that Cassandra Peterson (Elvia, Mistress of the Dark) shows up in a major cameo because Moon-Zombie brings a healthy dose of classic late-night television horror hostess attitude to the role. Classic organ-filled long shots are reminiscent of Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space) OG horror host immortalized Vampira. Rob Zombie’s creative collaboration with his wife continues to bear much fruit as her Lilly has no problem holding the center of the film.
Veteran character actor Daniel Roebuck (The Fugitive, The Late Shift) relishes every second he gets to embody the Count and future Grandpa Munster. Roebuck takes a lot of influence from classic comedic giants from Don Knotts to the Marx Brothers that give his performance a wise-cracking edge that perfectly embodies the spirit of The Munsters without resorting to any cheap impersonation. The attention to detail in the costume design and set pieces are as detailed and lush enough to rival a Wes Anderson (Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore) production. There is an attention to detail that harkens back to Zombie’s first directorial effort, House of 1000 Corpses. Some of the sets within the Count’s castle, filmed on location in Budapest during the height of the pandemic, have the same roadside spook-show attraction aesthetic.
Rob Zombie has stated that Universal nixed the idea of a black-and-white movie early on, which allowed him to create the technicolor world he has describes as a “cartoon come to life.” This statement informs everything, from the aesthetic, score, performances and humor of the film. The Munsters finds a balance between brining longtime fans of the franchise along for Rob Zombie’s unique vision while at the same time winning over his own fans for something more light and family-friendly. This is a perfect movie to watch with and for monster kids. The Munsters is the perfect gateway drug into horror for parents and adults to share with their kids and loved ones this Halloween season, while also allowing one of today’s most visionary genre filmmakers to explore his love and vision of the franchise.
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