The Munsters – Come Home

Sorry to have been away so long – its been a busy year with major changes going on. But I am back now and ready to talk about a show that I wish would also return.

The Munsters started life in 1964, and although it only lasted a short time before cancellation, it proved a success in syndication, which ensured its longevity. I remember seeing it both as a youth in the 1960s, when it was shown on the BBC and, in later life, as a student, when it was shown on Channel Four, in those early days when it recycled a lot of old cult shows… The Human Jungle was another great example that I might talk about in the near future.

The series is a sitcom about a family who find themselves caught up in comic situations on a weekly basis but, unlike other family comedies, this family was made up of monsters. Dad (Herman) looks like Frankenstein’s monster, recreating Jack Pierce’s classic make up from the Universal classics; Mum (Lily) is a vampiric female, with a ghoulishly pale face and a white streak through her long black hair, like Elsa Lanchesters’s bride of Frankenstein. Grandpa looks like Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula, and Herman and Lily’s son (Eddie) takes after Grandpa, even to the extent of featuring a widow’s peak. Only daughter Marilyn breaks from type, and is supposed to be a glamorous and attractive young woman, but she is the figure for whom the rest of the family feel sorry. They see her as an ‘ugly duckling’, and Herman often comments sadly on her ‘plain’ looks.

Of course, the central joke is that while they view themselves as normal and Marilyn as strange, the rest of the world sees things the other way around and continually misread the family, such misreadings being the root of many storylines. In this way, the series is a fish-out-of-water comedy that shares more in common with The Beverley Hillbillies than with The Addams Family, both of which were running at the same time. And I should add that while I love The Munsters, I was never very fond of either The Beverley Hillbillies or The Addams Family, although I did love the film versions with Christina Ricci.

But whatever the neighbors think, our sympathies are clearly with the Munster family, who are lovable and good-hearted, while the figures of ‘normality’ within the show are often presented as small-minded or mean-spirited. Indeed, if ‘normality’ is a problem, and the monster is sympathetic, the show can be seen as a response to the discourses of conformity within the period, and the family are not only associated with working class but also ethnic identity, at a time when conformity was about the celebration of middle class affluence and ethnic groups were being encouraged to assimilate. Herman not only has the body of a manual laborer but carries a lunch box to work each morning, while Grandpa is played by Jewish comedian Al Lewis. Similarly, Lily is played by Yvonne de Carlo, who, as her stage-name suggests, was associated with a rather non-specific notion of ethnic and exotic femininity.

Anyhow, what I want to know is this: if The Addams Family (and seemingly everything else) can have a film series reboot, why can’t The Munsters. It seem high time that The Munsters came home.

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Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special Part II: Let’s Do the Timewarp Again, If You Insist!

So, last week I noted that one of the interesting things about Strictly‘s Halloween night special was its sense of the key horror monsters and sub-genres, but it seems that I didn’t elaborate enough. So, let me be a bit clearer.

If this year was all very ‘Tim Burton’, the central feature is less about the director of Edward Sissorhands (and mate of David Cameron), but rather about a version of the Gothic that brings together the classic Universal monsters with fairy-tales and folklore.

As a result, there isn’t much Jigsaw (from Saw) or Freddie (from Nightmare on Elm Street) or Jason (from Friday the 13th) or even Michael Myers (from Halloween). In fact, there was a marked absence of serial killers altogether. Not even Norman Bates or Hannibal Lector get a look in.

Instead, Frankenstein’s monster was on hand to usher the dancers off stage, but Leatherface was nowhere to be seen.

Similarly, while last year was relatively free of the Tim Burton touches, it relied on the same conception. There was a Scooby Doo dance routine, and an mad scientist number. The classics were also evoked through a performance that featured circus freaks, and another with a hint of vampirism. Even when series winner, Louis Smith, gave us a zombie dance, it was less Night of the Living Dead and more the return of the Graveyard Ghoul. In other words, his zombie was a monster that was more closely associated with folklore than cinema. It is therefore striking that other routines also included another corpse-bride-type ghoul, a sinister warlock and a rather sexy Little Red Riding Hood, featuring Girls Aloud’s Kimberley Walsh simultaneously attracting and rebuffing a sexually predatory wolf – or at least that was my reading of what was going on…

Nor were things so different this year. The association with black magic and zombies cropped up again in a voodoo-themed dance, while there was an absolutely baffling (to me) number involving scarecrows (okay so there are a few horror stories involving scary scarecrows, but these scarecrows were hardly scary and I wouldn’t say that the scarecrow had a particularly strong association with horror or Halloween … maybe its just me).

There was a female vampire from Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and a rather fabulous ‘lady from the lake’ routine, in which the clothing was suggestive of ghosts and/or the walking dead, but that was about it. In another dance sequence, ghostly, cobweb-covered portraits became animated, which is always nice, and we got yet more cases of graveyard dead. There was Dave Myers from the Hairy Bikers doing the Monster Mash in make up that made him look like Michael Keaton from Beetlejuice; and another Tim Burton film was referenced in a routine that drew heavily on Mars Attacks! But as so often happens most of the references in the other routines went straight over my head. Quite what the shirtless rugby player had to do with Halloween completely escaped me.  But then, just when we were feeling a bit confused, Susanna from the Breakfast News was chased by a werewolf, just to reassure us that we knew where we were again.

And of course everything is done with a sense of campy dress up which is less Tim Burton and more Rocky Horror.

Terra Nova – Beware, Corporations Are Stripmining Your Past!

Terra Nova is a science fiction series with monsters. Sometime in the future, the ecosystem has gone kaput but a rift in time has handily turned up which allows people to travel back millions of years to when dinosaurs ruled the earth but American corporations (a far more vicious predator) have not yet been invented. So when Chicago cop, Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara), falls foul of the law (his family decide to have a baby in defiance of the new quota system), he manages to escape into the past along with his family and a host of other ‘pilgrims’.

Given that time travel only works one way in this series (until a plot turns up that allows it to work both ways), he can’t be sent back to the future where he pay can for his crimes and the authorities in the new Jerusalem find that his skills as a cop come in very handy: nobody in the future, it seems, had thought of sending cops into the past but have rather thrown all their energies into sending back scientists and soldiers…

Anyhow, once in the past, the Shannon family settle down to a nice life (this is a Spielberg production), although luckily there are some issues to disrupt their idealized domestic arrangements. First, the past into which they have been dropped is full of dinosaurs, many of which are unfamiliar and/or unpredictable, so there are lots of opportunities for them to munch on the humans and threaten the homestead. Second, there is a political conflict going on in the past. The settlers are led by tough military man, Nathaniel Taylor (the wonderful Stephen Lang), who is in conflict with the ‘sixers’, a group of rebels who live outside the compound and are trying to undermine it. Worse still, his estranged son is out there too, and he is writing on rocks!!! Honest, I kid you not – it is really mysterious.

Of course, with Stephen Lang in the role of Taylor, his intentions are already deeply suspect. After all, Lang is an actor that has built his reputation by playing psychopaths and his casting in the show is clearly supposed to remind one of his evil commander in the mega-hit, Avatar. Taylor’s suspect character is also emphasized by the casting of O’Mara as Shannon, given that the younger actor has a history of Oedipal time-travel narratives and played Sam Tyler in the American version of Life on Mars, in which he was pitted against Harvey Keitel’s Gene Hunt.

But (SPOILER ALERT) it soon transpires that Taylor is not a bad man, and is actually trying to protect Eden from the sixers, who are in league with evil corporations back in the future (along with Taylor’s wayward son): the corporations plan to strip the past of its resources and ship them into the future. Clearly, this is not a show that has any interest in the paradoxes of time travel.

Of course, the irony here is that the show is itself a virtual strip-mining of the past. It is a Frankenstein’s monster that has been made up out of earlier objects of popular culture, as are many of Spielberg’s projects. There are bits of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, bits of Avatar (except that here there are good and bad colonialists – pilgrim family settlers are good and strip-mining corporations are bad – but more of that later), and of course the homestead, the sixers and the new Eden start looking a lot like something out of a western. Oh, and Jim is a Chicago cop, so a lot of the plots are straight out of a cop show.

Furthermore, as should have become abundantly clear, the whole thing is a literal rip-off of the American story itself. Terra Nova is the new world; the pilgrim settlers are, well, pilgrim settlers; the new world is an explored Eden that doesn’t feature the pesky problem of the ‘indians’ – this time, the settlers have really got there first and have laid claim to virgin land that really hasn’t already been settled by others.

Of course, I am not complaining about the show’s plundering of the past – what text doesn’t work with the languages that surround it – but it is all a bit too obvious and contrived. Great popular culture makes the old into something new again; this makes something old into something that is all a bit too familiar. In both senses of the word. If it is too reminiscent of other things, this is partly because the show all a bit too comfy and cosy. In fact, unlike the western, in which the frontier is both opportunity and danger, and often feels quite bleak and tough, the world of Terra Nova, despite its monstrous dinosaurs and rebel sixers, all feels a bit to easy.

And of course part of the reason for this is that the show is far too concerned to operate as a family show. Its plots are all about the Shannons as a family, and even Taylor starts looking increasingly like a rather cantankerous grandad. In fact, it starts feeling a lot like Lost in Space, the TV series not the bewildering film version. Well, Lost in Space without all the weirdness that the Robinson family was forced to confront!