A very personal confession -- as a young boy, when I was perhaps eight or nine, I used to dream I was wandering around the Munster's house at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Glued as I was to the afternoon line-up on Channel 50, a UHF station out of Detroit, in my slumber I'd also sometimes dream I was aboard the Robinson's Jupiter 2, or stranded on Gilligan's Island, but there was definitely something especially beguiling about that Munster house. The staircase that opened up to Spot's lair (Spot being the Munster's fire-breathing "pet"), Grandpa's gadget-filled dungeon, the hallway telephone locked away in a secret panel inside an upright casket. As any youngster with a passion for monster movies will tell you, the Munsters had just about the neatest house in the whole world. (And it seems I'm not the only one who thought so -- thanks to reader William Sullivan for this link to two real Munster fans.)
Looking at the show now, with 30 years hindsight, it's pleasing to report that The Munsters: The Complete First Season (1964-65) holds up quite well. Indeed, it's one of the very few "classic" shows from the '60s that today's jaded, video-gamed out eight-year-olds might enjoy even now.
For the uninitiated, The Munsters is a half-hour comedy about a family of monsters -- middle-class suburbanites oblivious to the fear they generate throughout their neighborhood. There's Frankensteinian father Herman (Fred Gwynne); his vampire bride of a wife Lily (Yvonne De Carlo): her father, The Count, better known as Grandpa (Al Lewis); Herman and Lily's wolfboy son Eddie (Butch Patrick); and "unfortunate" niece Marilyn (Beverley Owen in the first 13 shows, Pat Priest thereafter).
The Munsters was the creation of producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher (with Allan Burns and Chris Hayward), who were just coming off a six-year run on Leave it to Beaver, the seminal '50s family sitcom that doesn't get enough credit for its clever and often perceptive writing. (And which was filmed just a few doors away from The Munsters on Universal's backlot; the Cleaver home can be seen near the end of the same block.) The Munsters, which originally aired on CBS, is usually compared to The Addams Family, another monster comedy that ran concurrently on ABC. But where that show's humor was rooted in the Addams's gleefully antisocial behavior, the Munsters fancied themselves as everyday Americans, like the Cleavers, and scripts relied on jokes and slapstick instead of eccentricity and anarchy.
In its first season, the lion's share of shows were written by Connelly and Mosher, or by the team of Ed Haas and Norm Liebmann. Most simply adapt standard sitcom stories, filtering puns and sight gags through the monsters-as-suburban family premise, until the humor is played out. Although the formula was exceedingly repetitious, audiences didn't seem to mind, partly because the jokes and sight gags were, for the most part, quite funny. When Herman cautions Eddie about playing with a gigantic mousetrap, and Eddie gets his nose caught after fiddling with a giant piece of cheese, Herman's line is obvious but effective: "I told you to keep your big trap shut!"
Some shows are slightly more ambitious and topical, casting the Munsters as outsiders (read: minorities) on their block, viewed with fear and scorn by their neighbors. There are other occasional attempts at this sort of thing, but it's always slight and never central. In one episode, Herman sells some land to a missile site, assuring Eddie "these kind people are working on a missile which, in times of trouble, is going to solve all our problems by blowing up the world."
The show seemed to attract guest stars with sharply-defined personalities or those with eccentric personae best-suited to the Munsters' universe. Paul Lynde and John Carradine became semi-regulars; in its first season The Munsters were also visited by Harvey Korman, Richard Deacon, John Hoyt and Don Rickles.
The show's first year, particularly its first few episodes, find the cast adjusting their characters and makeup -- makeup which starts out somewhat crude then becomes more streamlined and cartoonish. Herman starts out as a standard sitcom father type, but gradually the character evolves into a kind of giant kid/doltish patsy. This help solidify the show's popularity with children, but also turned Herman into a one-dimensional character that made the series much less appealing to adults. When Beverley Owen, quite good as Marilyn, left the show after 13 episodes (to get married and move back to New York, reportedly), she was replaced by Pat Priest. Unfortunately, with this cast change Marilyn was quickly delegated to the background, becoming a minor, uninteresting character whose sole function seemed to be feeding straight lines to the rest of the cast.
What really makes the show work, however, are the performances and its superb production. The Munsters was produced at a time when single-camera TV shows looked like mini-movies, and this was no exception. With all the makeup (supervised by Bud Westmore), the on-set mechanical effects, elaborate sight gags, and whatnot, that the cast and crew somehow managed to crank out 38 shows its first year is just short of miraculous.
That great Munster house and its feast of neat-o props was the work of art directors Raymond Beal, Henry Larrecq, and John J. Lloyd, with set decoration by James M. Walters. Also adding enormously to the atmosphere is the series' wonderful music, a perfect and unique blend of horror-comic themes by Jack Marshall, especially that great electric guitar and organ-dominated title track.
Video & Audio
In short, The Munsters looks wonderful. Shows have been beautifully transferred at a consistently high bit rate, and are not time-compressed or edited. Early shows have especially good blacks and are very sharp, while later shows, mostly by design, are more grayish owing to the less atmospheric lighting. Anyone who grew up watching the show will want to freeze-frame shots to examine the meticulous art direction -- and to finally get a good look at Spot under those dark stairs. Menu screens helpfully offer plot synopsis and episodes are cross-indexed. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
Although early reports on this title mentioned that it would include the big-screen Munster, Go Home! (1966), that feature is nowhere in sight. Instead, the only extra is the series' original pilot film, which was also included on Image's now cancelled The Munsters -- America's First Family of Fright. The pilot, as presented here, is in pristine shape, a vast improvement over the somewhat dog-eared condition of the show on Image's disc.
People seem to either love or loathe The Munsters. If you don't like the show, these DVDs aren't going to change your mind, but for fans, this set comes as a real treat.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.