Rob Zombie’s ‘The Munsters’ Is A Fittingly Ridiculous Tribute To Campy Spookiness [Review]

There has always been a certain dark irreverence and cartoonish bizarreness to musician-turned-director Rob Zombie’s cinematic outings, as prominently seen in his earliest horror sagas “House of a Thousand Corpses” and its sequel “The Devil’s Rejects.” Take, for example, Captain Spaulding (played by the late Sid Haig), a central carnivalesque figure in these gory narratives who imbues them with deviant humor. This crass clown and the colorfulness of the other violent characters ensure we know that, as morally depraved as most of Zombie’s films are, he doesn’t take the madness in them particularly seriously.

That he has now resurrected the “The Munsters” in over-the-top fashion for his latest project seems completely in alignment with those previously established sensibilities that hanker back to classic genre pictures and series. Zombie not only adores the monstrous clan and the bygone campy spookiness they embody, but he has studied the wacky tone of the original show first aired in the 1960s and revived over the years in several TV movies.

READ MORE: Rob Zombie Says Working With The Weinsteins On The ‘Halloween’ Remake Was A “Miserable Experience”

Compared to the recent popularity of their most direct competitor, “The Addams Family,” a property which just in the last few years has spawned two animated features and a new Netflix series, “The Munsters” had been left to collect dust for years. With his loving tribute, produced for Universal’s home video label, Zombie opts for an origin story tracing how the ghoulish lovers Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips), a Frankenstein-like man, and vampire Lily (Sheri Moon Zombie) met and eventually migrated from Transylvania to Los Angeles.

Aesthetically, this take on “The Munsters” looks as if it had been shot at an amusement park’s haunted house during their annual Halloween event, but though that may sound derogatory, this world of practical artificiality matches the source. Supernatural characters in Zombie’s Transylvania all exist as actors in conspicuous costumes, adding to its hyper tactile and self-aware playfulness that derides realism. There’s a nostalgic charm to seeing the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Count Orlok as just people in suits or makeup.

At no point does Zombie try to hide the seams of his creation. The low-fi depiction of the kooky protagonists and their inherently absurd universe features bright neon lights and other flamboyant flourishes in the production design and cinematography such as the use of lively zooms or how Lily’s immediate attraction for Herman is expressed by replacing her background with a projection of swirling hearts. In fact, using more noticeably sophisticated VFX would seem out of place in this kitschy otherworldliness.

READ MORE: ‘3 From Hell’: Rob Zombie Gives Fans Exactly What They Want In This Brutal, Offensive Finale [Review]

The commitment to the sitcom quality of the images, as opposed to pursuing more cinematic lighting, may seem too visually off-putting for some viewers. If we considered how 1991’s “The Addams Family” movie was executed, the difference is pronounced. But one might guess what we perceive as technical or craftsmanship “shortcomings” derive both from the limited budget afforded to a project never meant to screen theatrically and Zombie’s own vision for the production value. So even if he’d had access to more resources, the result might not differ much from what it is today.

Perhaps more surprising is that the filmmaker maintained the innocence and endearing lack of awareness of the beloved characters. Considering his career behind the camera thus far, that Zombie made a family-friendly story in line with the original incarnation speaks to his intent to not deviate much from it. And yet, while only a few jokes land with better timing than most, “The Munsters” packs substantial hilarity because it surrenders to the silliness of the concept without including anachronisms or attempts at sophistication.

What has always made Herman Munster so disarmingly stupid is his ridiculous self-confidence paired with dramatic over-reactions, and in that regard, Phillips succeeds at evoking the irreplaceable Fred Gwynne. The winsome smile and unwarranted debonair demeanor come across in Phillips’ interpretation, even if, unfortunately, Zombie loses the thread of Herman’s fame as a performer and his friendship with hunchback Floop (Jorge Garcia) in order to connect his plot with the larger arc as the family starts anew in Hollywood.

Sheri Moon Zombie, her husband’s recurrent collaborator, does the same with Lily and her graciously elegant hand gestures as she holds her dress and speaks in a uniquely affected voice. Since Phillips, Zombie, and Daniel Roebuck as blue-skinned The Count do so well in these parts and they have all worked with Rob Zombie on multiple occasions prior, one wonders if perhaps the writer-director has been planning “The Munsters” for so long that they were unofficially cast for these roles long before he got a green light. Almost as if everything they had done together had led them to this ultimate endeavor.

Though intellectually faithful to its source, where Zombie’s “The Munsters” finds room for some slight reinvention or notable touches is in how much the film appears influenced by the days in which horror hosts, individuals on public broadcast channels who often dressed as uncanny entities (often mad scientist and wizards), would introduce generations of kids watching without permission in households across America to plenty of B-movies.

Their cheaply conceived sets and attires were part of their curious appeal. Zombie introduces one such character in the form of Zombo (also played by Phillips) and brings the legendary Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira, for a cameo late in the film.  

For the most part, the comedy in Zombie’s “The Munsters” is low brow, the vibrantly gaudy locales could pass for displays found inside of a Spirit Halloween store, and the acting rejects subtly like bloodsuckers do garlic, all of which often feel exactly as they are supposed to be. Zombie is an artist that operates on a strange wavelength has likely made his most sincere work to date, fulfilling the brassy exhumation of these weirdos. [B-]

“The Munsters” is available on Netflix now.

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