For better or for worse, Rob Zombie’s feature-length version of The Munsters is just about what you would expect. It’s not quite as bad as I expected… but it’s not great. Based on the 1960s TV show of the same name, it still maintains much of the classic goofiness and kitsch, but with an extended length that is tiresome.
An “origin story” of sorts, the film starts before Lily (Sheri Moon Zombie) meets Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips). She is still living in her Transylvania castle with her father, the Count (Daniel Roebuck) (who will always be Grandpa to me). She goes on a date with Mr. Orlock (Richard Brake), who unsurprisingly looks like the vampire from Nosferatu, but he doesn’t make Lily’s blood run ice-cold. Meanwhile, a mad scientist, Dr. Wolfgang (also Richard Brake), and his hapless helper Floop (Jorge Garcia) create a Frankenstein’s monster-looking creature, whom Floop names Herman Munster (“Like the cheese”). He was supposed to be created with the brain of the smartest man in the world, but instead, he was created with the brain of the dumbest man in the world, his brother Shecky, a terrible stand-up comedian. This explains Herman’s non-stop litany of dad jokes.
Anyway, Wolfgang shows his creation off on TV, Lily sees Herman, and it’s love at first sight. She goes to find him at a club, where Floop is trying to turn him into a rock star. It is love at first sight for Herman, too, and after a whirlwind romance, the two wed. Before the wedding, though, Lily’s troublemaker of a brother, a werewolf (?) named Lester (Thomas Boykin), shows up and gets Herman to sign over the deed to the castle to pay off his gambling debts to Zoya (Catherine Schell), a gypsy who used to be married to the Count.
And that’s about it. There is no real conflict. There are no stakes. I have a lot of problems with this as a “movie.” It just kept going. The ending felt so abrupt. It’s the kind of thing that you don’t realize is so bereft of conflict or twists until you are summarizing it, and you get to the end and realize that you are still basically describing what, in most films, would be act one.
The Munsters could have easily been 45 minutes. It’s jammed with lots of unnecessary scenes, many of which are short and poorly edited to create a jarring narrative. For example, there is a scene where the Count tries to create the perfect man for Lily when he doesn’t like Herman, but he messes up the spell and creates a chimp-man. The whole scene is about five minutes, with no payoff and no point. The whole Zoya/Lester side story feels like it was forced in to give a reason behind the move from Transylvania, but without any real payoff. And frankly, I don’t remember Lily ever having a brother Lester in the TV show. I assume this was to set the story that she has the DNA to have a werewolf baby when she and Herman eventually have Eddie… but it doesn’t actually account for where the werewolf DNA to have Lester came from!
Forgetting all the narrative mumbo-jumbo and structural things that we normally look for in a film, there are some good things about The Munsters. For example, it is visually stunning to look at. Every scene is bathed in neon lights of blue, red, green, and purple. Not subtly, either. These colors work for the over-the-top set design, with every corner of every scene crammed with creepy props or clever signage. Under almost anyone else, it would be overwhelming, but somehow, Zombie makes it all work. Maybe it is all the colors; it makes everything seem almost like a comic book.
I found Sheri Moon Zombie as Lily to be fine; nothing special, but not terrible. Daniel Roebuck was similarly fine as the Count; he wasn’t as jokey as TV’s Grandpa. The true standout, however, was Jeff Daniel Phillips as Herman. He was as goofy and doofy as the Herman I grew up with on TV, and he had dad jokes that made me laugh out loud. He was the perfect Herman Munster. A special shout-out has to go to horror royalty Cassandra Peterson, who was delightful as the Munster’s realtor, and Dee Wallace who had a bit part as a TV announcer. Original The Munsters stars Butch Patrick (who played Eddie) and Pat Priest (who played Marilyn) had voiceover cameos in the film as well.
Ultimately, The Munsters is not a good movie. But it is great fodder to put on in the background of a Halloween party. It is best when used as a visual asset; something you may only want to catch a couple of minutes of dialogue from, but otherwise, it’s best left as background imagery.