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.

Advertisements

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.

Kindred: the Embraced (1996) – The 1990s that You May Have Chosen to Forget!

The 1990s was a weird period for television horror. It started with the magnificent kookiness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991), continued the gloriousness of The X Files (1993-2002) and managed to achieve a monumental hat-trick with Buffy, The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). But it also brought us some other stuff, like Kindred: The Embraced (1996)

This last show was so 1990s but also such a mess. If one remembers the other three with a sense of misty-eyed nostalgia, Kindred: The Embraced profoundly reminds one that the good old days only seem so in retrospect, and that nostalgia is when one remembers the good bits and forgets the bad bits. Nostalgia like remembering old romances, in which one has forgotten why one ever split up. But just because one can’t remember why one split up, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t very good reasons.

So what we have is an Aaron Spelling produced television horror series that lacks the camp fun of Satan’s School for Girls and tries to mix the ‘attitude’ from Spelling’s masterwork, Dynasty (1981-1989), with the atmospherics of Twin Peaks, while throwing in a lot of Godfather-style underworld politics … but with no clear rationale. The result is a cocktail but not a tasty and intoxicating one. Instead, its not exactly sickly but is still a rather unappealing concoction. It is not exactly that the flavors clash but rather that something vital is missing, something that would bring them together and make them work in harmony.

Instead, what we get is lots of stylish people giving one another huge amounts of attitude (the Dynasty bits), lots of atmospheric lighting, lots of ominous noises and dirge-like music (the Twin Peaks bits) but nothing whatsoever actually happens. Even the action sequences seem to be strangely languid, so that people bust into flame or jump through windows in slow motion to the sound of melancholy music…

To the extent that there is a plot, it starts with C Thomas Howell as a maverick cop called Frank (warning no cop show thrills on offer here!), who is trying to nail underworld king, Julian Luna (get it? Luna = moon = creature of the night…) Frank is also having an affair with one of Julian’s ex-lovers but, unbeknownst to him, both she and Julian are vampires.

Anyhow, this poor woman falls in love with Frank – don’t ask me why – and their relationship threatens the vampire world so she has to be punished. This vampire underground is full of rules: no vampire must tell a human that vampires really exist; no vampire can harm a human; or take more blood from a human than is strictly necessary for their survival, etc. etc. Are these vampires, vegetarians or party-poopers? But having transgressed these rules, Frank’s lover decides to accept her fate and spontaneously combusts; but only after she makes Julian promise that, if she accepts her punishment, he will protect Frank from the vampire underworld.

Her crime is that, by revealing her true nature to Frank, she has threatened the fragile existence of the vampire underworld, which survives through the ‘masquerade’, i.e, through the deception or conspiracy that keeps their non-human existence a secret from the human world. It is typical of the show that the vampires don’t call this a secret, or a conspiracy, but rather use a pompous term like ‘masquerade’.

But Julian also has other problems to deal with. He is the prince of the vampire underworld and is struggling to maintain a precarious peace between its numerous vampire clans – this is where the Godfather-style politics comes in. In other words, Julian is trying to protect vampires and humans from one another, but Frank doesn’t understand this and hates Julian – Frank believes that Julian is just a run of the mill untouchable gangster but his attitude doesn’t change much when he realizes that Julian is also a vampire.

So basically, Julian has his work cut out protecting Frank, while Frank tries to destroy him, and while his vampires confederates all want to destroy Frank. Nightmare!

And all the while, Julian just keeps trying to make everyone see, especially Frank, that humans and vampires can co-exist. Of course, it would have been better, if the humans and the vampires had waged all out war against one another … well, better for us as viewers and for the survival of the series, which only lasted for eight seemingly interminable episodes.

But it is not simply that there isn’t much in the way of narrative that undermines the show, it is also the absence of anything resembling appealing characters. Frank is simply annoyingly stupid and one can sense Julian’s irritation that he has sworn to protect the fool – you can also sense that he would just love to tear the idiot’s throat out. But that doesn’t really make Julian much more interesting. In my book, vampires need to come in one of two types. They either have to really enjoy what they are doing, or they have to suffer a deep sense of self-hatred at their monstrous existence. It doesn’t much matter which, but they have to love or loathe their condition.

But Julian is neither type. He clearly doesn’t love his condition, and exists to police the joyless rules of the masquerade; but he doesn’t seem to sufficiently hate his existence either. Instead, he seems to accept his lot with the dull resignation of a institutional manager. You can sense his frustration with trying to get his subordinates to see sense and to act responsibly, but he gives off an aura of bored weariness rather than an existential despair or horrified self-hatred.

Of course, Kindred: The Embraced has its pleasures, although I must admit that I can’t think of many at the moment, but it functions much more powerfully as a kind of anti-nostalgia. Watching it is less like remembering the beautiful moments from a doomed love affair, and more like re-living all the frustrations, embarrassments and rows that led to the inevitable break up.