‘The Munsters’ Review: Rob Zombie’s Update of the ’60s Family-of-Ghouls Sitcom Is Just Tacky and Slapdash Enough to Be Likable

In “The Munsters,” the director Rob Zombie makes a game attempt to pass off his amateurishness as attitude. It’s like watching a Tim Burton film with the cheekiness turned up to 11 and the film technique dialed down to 2. Yet “The Munsters,” the family-of-ghouls ’60s sitcom that Zombie is adapting, was such a ticky-tacky piece of gothic bat-house surrealism that the movie, broad and slovenly as it is, works more than it doesn’t. The film is a lot like its hero, Herman Munster: benignly dim-witted, Day-Glo in color, top-heavy with tomfoolery, lumbering in one direction and then the next, always cracking itself up in an innocently aggressive monster-mash way.

“The Munsters” debuted in 1964, in the middle of the age of theater-of-the-absurd American sitcoms, yet the show, if anything, was less corny, less obvious, and lighter on its feet than this overstuffed update/reboot, with its Famous Monsters of Filmland cameos and contempo catch phrases. Instead of taking all his cues from the show, Zombie, who wrote the script (you can feel his joy in giving Herman the groan-worthy vaudeville one-liners he delivers as if they were gems), has dreamed up the Munsters’ origin story. (As if anyone was asking for that.) It’s all about how Lily (Sheri Moon Zombie), a maiden vampire with two-tone hair and an undead glow, living with her vampire dad The Count (Daniel Roebuck) in a Transylvania castle of psychedelic chintz, recovers from her life of bad dates with bad monsters — we see one with Orlock, the rat-man bloodsucker of “Nosferatu,” played by Richard Brake as the cuddliest of creeps.

Lily wakes up from the doldrums when she first sees the creature who has been stitched together in a lab by Wolfgang (also played by Richard Brake), the movie’s Dr. Frankenstein character (it devotes far too much time to his generic neurasthenic British seething). Herman, with green skin, black lips, a flat head, and the body of a 7-foot-tall linebacker, is a numbskull, a geek, and (as The Count puts it) a creampuff, but he thinks of himself as a hipster; he speaks in phrases like “That sounds boss, man!” Lily meets him after he plays a punk-rock gig in S&M leather (“People say I have a bad attitude — I don’t. I just have a personality…YOU CAN’T HANDLE!”), and for these two it’s panting love at first sight.

The best thing in the movie is Jeffrey Daniel Phillips’ performance as Herman, the milquetoast clown Frankenstein. Phillips expertly channels the great Fred Gwynne, nailing the sitcom Herman’s haw-haw-haw guffaw, his dyspeptic frown, the bull-in-a-china-shop brute strength that erupts in spite of himself, and something that’s tricker to capture — Herman’s quality of inner delicacy. Herman has been updated to the rock ‘n’ roll era, so he now thinks he’s cool. But that’s just part of what makes him, all over again, a nerd in a monster’s body. And it’s the source of his comic schizophrenia. He can’t make up his mind whether he’s a rock star or a loser.   

On your black-and-white TV set, there was a terrific joke nestled under the dusty Universal gothic-fright sets and make-up of “The Munsters” — namely, that Herman Munster and his clan looked like something out of a nightmare, but it never occurred to them that they were anything but the most ordinary family on earth (because, in fact, they were). Rob Zombie spends a lot of time forgoing that joke, showing us instead how the Munsters got to be the Munsters. For a while, the film is fairly scattershot, since the whole burlesque jape of monsters who are harmless in a high-kitsch way has already been done to death; it’s now literally kids’ stuff. After “Vampirina” and the “Hotel Transylvania” films, “Beetlejuice” and “Coraline,” the “Thriller” video and “Dark Shadows” and the “Addams Family” industrial complex (not to mention “Young Frankenstein,” the “Citizen Kane” of the genre), baroque comic ghouls have become so standard that there’s nothing left to the joke. It’s been wrung as dry as the Mummy’s bandages.

You really feel that when Herman proposes to Lily and she says, “Oh, Hermie! You’ve made me the happiest ghoul in the world!” Or during a love montage set to Herman and Lily onstage singing (wait for it) “I Got You Babe,” with Herman in a Sonny mustache. Rob Zombie is a celebrated rock star; surely he, of all people, could have found a song to express the ironic wholesomeness of the duo’s Munstersdom that was less been-there-sung-that, less tepidly on-the-nose.

But the film comes alive when Herman, caught in a real-estate swindle, idiotically signs away the ownership of Lily’s castle, leaving them all homeless and flat broke. Now there’s something at stake. The castle looks like a set, but then everything in the movie does — even Paris, where Lily and Herman go on their honeymoon and find the sea monster they name Spot in a sewer. As Lily, Sheri Moon Zombie has a winning vivacity, though I wish she’d underplayed a few of her lines. Daniel Roebuck plays the Count (i.e., Grandpa) as the cantankerous villain of the piece — he despises Herman — until the family is forced to pull up, uh, stakes and move to Hollywood, where a real-estate broker, played by Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, is only too happy to unload the graveyard monstrosity that is 1313 Mockingbird Lane.

At the end, when Herman walks out of his new monster mansion and freaks out as he confronts his neighborhood of freshly scrubbed suburban normality, the film seems to be setting up a standard ghoul-out-of-water comedy. Let’s give credit to Rob Zombie for not making that movie, although it sure does look like he’s priming us for the sequel. “The Munsters” didn’t exactly follow Zombie’s game plan; it went straight to streaming and has been greeted with some withering reviews. But given the movie’s agreeably slapdash debauched spirit, a sequel is far from out of the question. I predict we will end up knowing if that’s a scary thought.   

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