The 1960s was a boom period in the United States for fantasy-themed situation comedies. For a while, it seemed that the standard domestic comedy show was a thing of the past, as varying networks aired shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Mr Ed, My Favorite Martian, The Addams Family and, of course, The Munsters.
The Munsters was created by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, who had previously scored big with Leave It to Beaver. The show featured the titular family, who lived at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Although they behave like any regular suburban family, they are anything but. Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) is a Frankenstein’s Monster-type creation (with make-up fashioned in the famous Universal Frankenstein series – possible because Universal also produced this series). His wife Lily (Yvonne De Carlo) is a gothic vampire, as is her father Grandpa (aka Sam Dracula, played by Al Lewis). Son Eddie (Butch Patrick) seems to be a cross between a werewolf and a vampire (Herman should demand a DNA test!) while daughter Marilyn (Beverly Owen for the first 13 episodes, Pat Priest thereafter) seems to be completely normal.
The half-hour format show was shot in black and white (though a 15 minute test pilot episode, with a different cast, had been shot in colour and revealed the characters – Marilyn aside – to have a blue-green tint to their skin, something than perhaps explains the shocked reaction to Lily and Grandpa, who look eccentric but not unhuman in the monochrome series).
Shooting in black and white allowed more investment in production values – the Munsters’ home is an impressively decrepit set, and their two cars – The vintage hearse-like Munster Koach and the speedster coffin the Drag-U-La – are pretty spectacular. The show also had one of the best theme tunes of the era, a surf-guitar number by Jack Marshall (lyrics were written by Bob Mosher but not used).
The Munsters premiered on September 24th 1964 – one week after The Addams Family. The parallels between the two shows were remarkable – each centred on a household of ‘monsters’ who inadvertently shock and horrify the people they come into day to day contact with. Living in crumbling mansions stuck in the middle of modern suburban areas, the families seem blissfully unaware of the fact that they are ‘different’.
Within that context, however, the two shows were decidedly different in tone. The Addams Family, based on the cartoons of Charles Addams, were less overtly ‘monstrous’ – sentient hand Thing and hirsute Cousin It aside, the family seemed decidedly eccentric and morbid, but also recognisably human, unlike The Munsters, who were based around the classic Universal monsters. And although not as cruel as the source material, The Addams Family had a more biting humour. The Addams didn’t seem to care about fitting into ‘normal’ society, and existed as an insular unit, the humour coming from the people who would visit their home each week. You got the impression that this family might well be capable of doing terrible things for their own amusement. The Munsters, on the other hand, were far less threatening. They might be Frankensteinian monsters, vampires, werewolves etc., but they are good-natured and harmless.
In fact, the characters fit closely the standard family sit-com set-up of the time (and, indeed, of today). Herman Munster is the bumbling, child-man husband, who needs the wise head of his wife Lily to get him out of trouble. Grandpa is both the irascible older relative and Herman’s partner in buffoonery, always coming up with mad schemes. And the kids – well, they are just the kids, there to provide the odd storyline involving school teachers or juvenile morality tales, but otherwise fairly disposable. The character of Marilyn, the beautiful blonde who the family all think of as homely and unattractive, is a neat twist, but the show rarely knew what to do with her apart from providing the odd boyfriend to be shocked by her family.
Given that The Munsters was, in many ways, a one-joke concept, you might expect the show to become boring, and given that it only lasted two seasons, it does seem that audiences finally tired of the repeated gag. But remarkably, the episodes often raised themselves beyond the simplistic idea of a monster family scaring unsuspecting normal people. Moreso than The Addams Family, who were too damn strange to ever engage in standard sit-com plots, the Munsters were able to have family crises, misunderstandings and regular sit-com silliness. Their strange appearance didn’t really matter in those instances. In a way, this was the blessing and the curse of the show. On the one hand, it gave the opportunity for a wider variety of plotlines; on the other, it meant that the Munsters were not all that different from any other family comedy characters of the time. The only real horror movie elements were the assorted schemes by Grandpa that involved assorted unsuccessful mad scientist concoctions. It was this mix of the absurd and the banal that gave the show its charm. And in showing that people who seem so very different are actually just the same as everyone else, the show made a subtle – possibly unintentional – stand against intolerance at a rather turbulent time in American history.
Although not a success on its original run, The Munsters would build an audience in syndication and was also popular in other countries such as the UK. Appearing at the height of the 1960s ‘monster boom’, it was inevitably a hit with younger viewers (and was certainly more accessible for them than the more adult humour of The Addams Family). Inevitably, the show has never quite been allowed to die. A series of increasingly unsatisfactory follow-ups, reboots and re-imaginings have – rather sadly – doing their best to stomp on the original show’s charm and legacy.
Following the cancellation of the series, the cast (with the exception of Pat Priest replaced by Debbie Watson) were reunited for the 1966 feature film Munster, Go Home!
Directed by Earl Bellamy – who had also helmed several TV episodes – the main attraction is that, unlike the series, it is in colour, so we finally get a better take on why visitors to the Munster’s house on Mockingbird Lane were freaked out even by Lily (Yvonne De Carlo), who never looked that creepy in monochrome; here, we see that she, and the rest of the family, have a decidedly ghoulish skin tone. The film also, intriguingly, gives us the first chance to see the Frankenstein Monster in colour, even if it is in the form of Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) – and yes, his skin actually is green. And the film does make it clear that Herman actually is the Frankenstein Monster, something that the TV show kept rather ambiguous.
The film sees the family inheriting Munster Hall in England, with Herman becoming Lord Munster. And so the family – Herman, Lily, Marilyn, Grandpa (aka Sam Dracula, played by Al Lewis) and wolf boy Eddie (Butch Patrick) take the SS United States to merry olde England and the county of Shroudshire to take up residence.
Inevitably, the England they encounter is a ridiculous pastiche of cockneys and upper class twits, though how much of this is a deliberate nod to the Universal horrors of the Thirties and Forties is anyone’s guess. Chief among the latter group are the dastardly English Munsters, led by Lady Effigie (Hermoine Gingold) and her children, Grace (Jeanne Arnold) and Freddie (Terry-Thomas). Thomas is clearly having a ball playing a villain who is dastardly even by his standards, hamming it up wonderfully as he schemes to get rid of the new arrivals and claim the title of Lord Munster for himself.
Mixed into this is a tale of counterfeiting, a romance for Marilyn (the long running joke being that the family assume this beautiful girl to be the most homely member of the family) and a road race that fills up the final act and introduces the Drag-U-La racing car. This final half hour feels rather like a Disney comedy of the era – think The Love Bug and its like. This is no bad thing, and it makes the movie rather more fun than it ought to be.
With John Carradine as a decrepit butler, a few amusing in-jokes (like Herman referencing Fred Gwynne’s earlier TV hit Car 54, Where Are You?) and a light touch that doesn’t try to expand the basic Munsters concept too much, this is pretty good fun, and a nice coda to the TV series.
1973 saw the animated film The Mini-Munsters, a cheap cartoon aimed at the Saturday morning kiddie audience. Al Lewis was the only returning cast member.
In 1981, the adult Munsters cast were reunited by Universal Studios for the TV movie The Munsters Revenge, a generally ill-advised attempt to relaunch the show that pitted them against waxworks replicas of themselves. The film has its moments but its not as fun as the original TV series.
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However, in 1988, The Munsters Today did revive the concept, with an all-new cast – John Schuck (Herman), Lee Meriwether (Lily), Howard Morton (Grandpa) and Jason Marsden (Eddie). Marilyn was portrayed by Mary-Ellen Dunbar in the unaired pilot, and by Hilary Van Dyke thereafter. Despite poor production values – the show was shot on videotape – and weak storylines, this revived version actually lasted until 1991, clocking in 72 episodes – more than the original run!
In 1990, Atari released the Midnight Mutants computer game featuring Grandpa helping fight werewolves and zombies.
1995 saw another TV movie (and another new cast) for Here Come the Munsters.
Opening with the family living in Transylvania but growing tired of the local peasants attacking their castle (the portrayal of Romanians here is as basic as the portrayal of the English in Munster, Go Home!), they decide to head off to America, thinking that Cousin Marilyn (Christine Taylor) has invited them over.
The opening scenes hint at a darker version of the Munsters – there is no doubt that they have been killing the locals, either to supply Herman (Edward Herrmann, appropriately!) with body parts or to supply blood for Grandpa (Robert Morse). There definitely seems to be an Addams Family movie influence in these scenes, with Lily (Veronica Hamel) more darkly glamorous and Eddie (Mathew Botuchis) more feral.
However, on their arrival in America, the film takes a lighter tone, and instead becomes a none-too-subtle, but surprisingly biting satire on immigration – or more accurately, the demonising of immigrants by politicians. It turns out that Marilyn’s invitation was to help find her father and Herman’s brother in law, Norman Hyde (Max Grodenchik), who has mysteriously disappeared. At the same time, the family find themselves a target for populist right wing politician Brent Jekyll (Jeff Trachta), who is running on a ‘send ‘em back where they came from’ ticket. Unless you have no knowledge of horror characters, you can probably see where this is going…
Of course, you have to get used to a new cast playing the familiar family, but that’s less of an issue than you might expect – everyone fits the roles well, and the film pays a nice tribute to the original cast by having De Carlo, Lewis, Patrick and Priest make a came appearance (Gwynne had died two years earlier).
The supporting cast includes cult favourite Mary Woronov, and the direction by Robert Ginty – The Exterminator himself! – is solid, if unflashy. The result is a film that is a lot more enjoyable than it has any right to be, and a worthy addition to the Munsters legacy
A year later – with yet another cast – The Munsters Scary Little Christmas appeared.
In 2004, fans were understandably perturbed to discover that the notorious Wayans Brothers – of Scary Movie fame – were planning a new Munsters film. However, the project failed to appear. Instead, 2012 saw Mockingbird Lane, a new ‘re-imagining’ of the story developed by Bryan Fuller. Darker, ‘edgier’ and less comedic than the original series – and so, you might think, missing the point entirely – the show toned down the visual look (Herman now looks like a regular, if scarred, human). The production was a troubled one and sat on the shelf until October, when NBC aired the Bryan Singer-directed pilot as a Halloween special, before announcing that the show would not be picked up as an ongoing series.
Oh, and there is, of course, the inevitable naughty movie pastiche, This Ain’t The Munsters.
Outside the TV series and films, The Munsters inspired assorted merchandise. The most notable was the Gold Key Comic book that ran from 1965 to 1968. The Munsters also appeared in a one-page strip in British weekly TV Century 21. There were Aurora model kits, toys based on the cars and the characters and an unpopular 1989 video game. The catchy theme tune has been covered several times by various rock bands, as well as used in mash-ups (mixed with Peaches and The Strokes) and referenced by the likes of Rob Zombie (in his song Dragula). The whole series – and original cast movies – have all been released on DVD and hopefully soon on Blu-ray.
In 2022, Rob Zombie is about to unleash another reboot via The Munsters feature film. Can he capture the old magic? We shall see…
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA