**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+
starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Daniel Roebuck, Richard Brake
written and directed by Rob Zombie
by Walter Chaw Rob Zombie only makes movies about families, and he does it with a wife he loves. It's the kind of relationship John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands shared: the iconoclastic, combative director and his muse, living examples of a creative partnership built on mutual respect, come hell or high water. I call Rowlands Cassavetes's "muse," though I think closer to the truth is that their movies feel like watching great jazz musicians play off each other. Without exactly equating one of the greatest independent filmmakers of all time with Rob Zombie, I think Zombie and Sheri Moon Zombie go to some interesting places together they couldn't get to on their own. I can't claim Zombie's for everyone--hell, Cassavetes ain't for everyone, either--but he works on a specific wavelength where if you're hip to it, if you fall into his groove, for his part he never loses the beat. I didn't get it when I first saw House of 1000 Corpses, but from a second viewing of The Devil's Rejects on, I've been ride or die with Zombie. Unlike most, when it was announced he was tabbed to do a reboot of "The Munsters" (which has turned out to be a prequel to the TV series), I was not only not surprised, given his penchant for family stories--I was excited. I wish it were better.
And by better, I mean I wish it were something Zombie's films have not been up to now--that is, I wish The Munsters were a satire conspicuously, outspoken and socially conscious, like the Allan Burns and Chris Hayward television series that inspired it. I say Burns and Hayward, but the heart of "The Munsters" was provided by producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, a writing team who worked together for 12 years on the radio program "The Amos' n Andy Show" and stuck around for the first two seasons of its television run in the early '50s. A racial burlesque indulging in the most dire stereotypes about the Black community, the TV version's cancellation is credited to protests and advertiser boycotts sparked by a strong condemnation from the NAACP. Later that decade, Connelly and Mosher created "Leave it to Beaver", possibly the most ethical and well-written series of television's Golden Age. Told from the child's POV rather than the parent's, it presented an egalitarian view of parenting while using anecdotes from Connelly and Mosher's personal lives as grist for the first season's plots and even, on occasion, dialogue. "Leave it to Beaver" was a staple of my childhood in its endless syndicated afterlife. I love it still. The fourth episode of its second season, "Beaver and Chuey," is a foundational half-hour for me wherein young Beaver befriends the new kid, Chuey, the son of a Mexican diplomat who, it turns out, doesn't speak a word of English. None of the family does, and puckish Eddie Haskell reveals the community hubbub is about how "stuck-up" the family is because they refuse to mingle--unaware of the language barrier preventing them from doing so. It's a far cry from the grotesque minstrelry of Amos' n Andy, and I've always wondered if "Leave it to Beaver" wasn't an attempt to make amends to some extent, to demonstrate growth. "The Munsters", appearing a year after the end of "Leave it to Beaver", is unambiguously a reaction to the rigidity of the social strictures defined by shows like "Ozzie and Harriet", "Father Knows Best", and even "the Beav" itself.
While the show's premise was cartoonish (a family of Universal Monsters takes root in suburban America), its two-year run--punctuated by a feature film, Munster, Go Home!, that gave audiences their first glimpse of the characters in colour--is indicated by more than its share of startlingly progressive storylines and attitudes. The pilot episode, "Munster Masquerade," sees the asshole boyfriend (Linden Chiles) of the Munsters' "normal" niece, comely Marilyn (Beverley Owen), inviting the family to his snooty parents' masquerade party. Upon winning an award for his suit-of-armour costume, Munster patriarch Herman (Fred Gwynne), a patchwork Frankenstein's monster in the Universal style, is unmasked to the delight of drunken partygoers, who proclaim that he's wearing a mask under his mask. Marilyn takes offense at what she sees as an unkindness towards her family and breaks up with Tom. In the next episode, "My Fair Munster," a bigoted neighbour, Mrs. Cribbens (Claire Carleton), talks with the mailman (John Fiedler) about how the Munsters are driving down property values and expresses fear of a rise in criminality in their neighbourhood. Other noteworthy highlights: "A Walk on the Wild Side" deals with a public hysteria over an "unsavoury" character (Herman) taking walks in a public park; "Tin Can Man" sees child services pay a housecall because little Eddie (Butch Patrick) is failing science; "Herman the Great" has Herman moonlighting as a professional wrestler who, despite his monstrous strength, throws every bout because he can't bear to hurt opponents who are in financial straits worse than his. Herman's goal in taking on a second job? To begin to save for Eddie's college fund. Every episode of the first season underscores the decency of the Munsters at odds with how the world sees them. They perceive Marilyn (played from episode 14 on by former beauty queen Pat Priest) to be terribly deformed and seek to protect her from the prejudice of others; when they feel as though they've wronged someone, they take ownership of it and make amends. And then, in episode 19, "Eddie's Nickname," Herman says this to his bullied son:
The lesson I want you to learn is it doesn't matter what you look like. If you're tall or short; or fat or thin; or ugly or handsome--like your father--or you can be black, or yellow, or white. It doesn't matter. What does matter is the size of your heart and the strength of your character.
Rewatching "The Munsters" in preparation for Zombie's film, I substituted a Chinese family for the heroes of the piece--and the absolute kindness of the show, arriving as it does at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, came more clearly into focus. It's no surprise to me that Rob Zombie, née Robert Cummings, connected strongly with it. The Massachusetts-born child of carnies, Zombie eventually became a production assistant on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" and modelled his stage persona and ethos for his band White Zombie on "Alice Cooper, Steven Spielberg, Bela Lugosi, and Stan Lee." "The Munsters"' message of inclusivity, clothed in high camp and a certain reverence for iconic horror imagery, is all over Zombie's work. I think the problem with his The Munsters is that it ironically does precisely what it set out to do: it shows how Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips) meets and falls in love with Lily (Sheri Moon Zombie) in their native Transylvania, and then how the couple moves with Lily's dad (Daniel Roebuck) to 1313 Mockingbird Lane in California.
Gone, until the last 20 minutes, are the characters' run-ins with bigots in an exclusionary and homogenous society. Gone is the satire of popular modes of mass-disseminated, culturally-prescribed programming. What remains is a trio of dedicated performances from the leads: Sheri Moon Zombie as a "middle-aged" Lily finding her soulmate after a series of duds; Phillips as a "newborn" Herman bursting with enthusiasm; and Roebuck as the Count, a bitter old vampire concerned about his kid and the choices they've both made that's caused them to be stuck in place for literal centuries. Sheri Moon Zombie captures role-originator Yvonne De Carlo's disarming sense of delight, and Phillips nails Fred Gwynne's self-confidence and general mien while lacking his miraculous warmth. Rob Zombie shoots it in the lurid sideshow colours of his House of 1000 Corpses, abuses Dutch angles, and is able to express his love for these creatures but not communicate why it is they were important to a generation of outcasts. I think it's probably a result of Zombie having so successfully inhabited his "psycho-billy" persona for so long that he's maybe lost touch with the pain of exclusion. The Munsters, then, is a celebration that requires previous knowledge--perhaps even an intimate one--of the wonder of the material it's setting up.
Zombie ran into the same issues with his 2007 remake of Halloween, offering a backstory for Michael Myers that's only compelling with foreknowledge. Partial explanation for why his sequel is so extraordinary an emotional experience: he spent the first film setting the stage for the consequences of the second. There's a scene in The Munsters where Lily goes to see Herman perform with his band at a club. She sits by herself near the back and Herman puts on an incredible show: uninhibited, rocking, electric (to borrow one of the show's favourite gags, calling back to Herman's laboratory birth). The exuberance of it, the innocence of the next scene when Lily asks for a date and Herman tries, unsuccessfully, to play it cool--all of that is about to be doused by the reality of their marriage being mocked and assaulted in America. They are immigrants in the TV show, shunned, feared, constantly Othered, and yet resolutely moral and fair, even good-natured and happy, in the face of everything. But it's got to cut and, on occasion, it does. The film is before all that, when everything is still hopeful and possible for them; the series is the story of their coming back to earth. Should Zombie get a sequel to The Munsters, it could potentially be as devastating as his Halloween II or The Devil's Rejects--these follow-ups where innocence mellows into noxious experience. As it is, The Munsters is not as curious a film in Zombie's filmography as it might appear on the surface. It's another piece about a family of "weirdos" who find one another; another picture indebted to the new archetypes of our movie-drunk history; and another sleeper that will get a lot of hate for a while before people eventually turn the dial around to the right frequency. I'll watch anything Zombie does with interest. He honours what he loves, and he loves his friends, monsters, music, and especially his wife. He has a specific sense of style and an undeniable flair. And he doesn't give much of a shit if you like it or not.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Universal brings The Munsters to Blu-ray day-and-date with its streaming debut on U.S. Netflix. I have no idea if the movie was shot on 35mm or digital (at the very least, some drone shots were captured digitally), but the 1.78:1, 1080p presentation feels TV-ready, with either authentic or faux-grain messing up the image just enough to tone down its antiseptic qualities. The colours are intentionally garish and seemingly taken to the knife's edge of what SDR can deliver in terms of saturation. Mint-green in Munster, Go Home!, Herman's complexion gets a Grinch-ian makeover here, for what it's worth. Contrast is rich, boasting deep blacks and bright whites, although shadows are sometimes chalky and lacking in detail. (Sharpness is otherwise exemplary.) While The Munsters probably isn't going to be anyone's demo disc, the psychedelic giallo palette is captivating and a refreshing change of pace. When the movie's trailer debuted online earlier this year, there was some concern the film would sound like it was recorded underwater; it does not. No doubt the lack of Dolby Atmos or DTS:X will be a letdown to some, but the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is sufficient to the demands of a comedy with music and horror elements. The songs, diegetic and otherwise, have a punchy clarity, and the sci-fi din during Herman's creation scene is gratifyingly immersive, down to the insistent groan of electricity in the subwoofer. Dialogue is consistently clear and full.
Writer-director Rob Zombie records a feature-length commentary that begins with Zombie jubilant over the presence of the old-fashioned Universal logo in front of his film--the same logo that appended The Bride of Frankenstein and other classic horrors. He says while shooting The Munsters, he began to fantasize about making a Universal monster movie, then realized he was already doing that. This is a dense, discursive monologue that, within a minute or two, has drifted to the subject of whether actor Dave Thompson left "Teletubbies" (on which he played Tinky-Winky) in disgrace. He is not joking, by the way. Zombie reacts with awe at some of the things the movie gets away with despite its PG rating and notes that he re-christened Grandpa "The Count" because the film takes place before there was an Eddie Munster. Much of the main cast, we discover, essayed multiple roles to cut down on the number of personnel amid COVID. Zombie cites some unlikely aesthetic influences (such as Pillow Talk) and admits that he took advantage of the Steadicam--a piece of equipment he normally eschews--because he had an unusually skilled operator at his disposal. I love that he felt it more appropriate to reference the Glenn Strange Frankenstein's "vibe" when Herman first appears as opposed to that of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein. It's a ridiculously arcane distinction to draw--but I can totally see it.
Also on board is "The Munsters: Return to Mockingbird Lane" (62 mins.), a fly-on-the-wall making-of documentary that takes us from pre-pandemic make-up tests for the three leads through to the final day of production in Budapest, by which time everyone is wearing masks and observing COVID protocols. I loved Zombie determining the bangs on Herman's wig are too long (the character really does blossom to life after they snip them), and there's an impressive timelapse of Mockingbird Lane being built from the ground up on the backlot of Mafilm Studios in Hungary. Most of the crew is, in fact, Eastern European, including production designer Juci Szurdi and DP Zoran Popovic. It's somewhat surprising to learn how much of The Munsters was shot on enormous sets--not that they're unconvincing on camera, just that we live in a world where virtual soundstages cater to filmmakers dabbling in the fantastic. (I like that they had to be careful when lighting exteriors not to interfere with air traffic.) An interlude showcasing wardrobe tests reveals the impressive mobility of Herman's bulk (we're a long way from Karloff's backbreaking costume here), as well as how utterly unrecognizable Sheri Moon Zombie is in real life. I guess because the film has a semi-permanent home on Netflix, the disc isn't packaged with a digital copy.
110 minutes; PG; 1.78:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Spanish DTS 5.1; English SDH subtitles; BD-50; Region-free; Universal