Two fantastically kooky movies were book-ended by two TV movies that were mostly just ooky.
The latest adapation of Charles Addam’s iconic cartoon strip is headed to theaters this weekend. While it sports an all-star cast including Charlize Theron and Oscar Isaac, it has big shoes to fill. The original adaptation, featuring John Astin and Carolyn Jones as Gomez and Morticia was a cultural milestone. It cemented a craze for B-movie horror icons recast as comic characters, a trend that would lead to The Munsters, Bewitched, and a million cameos from Universal monsters in cartoons like Scooby Doo in the late 1960’s. Since that fateful premier, four movies featuring Addams’ creations have gotten movie treatments – two theater releases and two television specials. Here we’ll run down how the mysterious and kooky family has aged in cinema.
The Addams Family Franchise.
Halloween with the New Addams Family (1977)
The Addams Family – Gomez (John Astin), Morticia (Carolyn Jones), Uncle Fester (Jackie Coogan) and their manservant Lurch (Ted Cassidy) – await the arrival of their extended family to celebrate Halloween. Gomez’ brother, Pancho Addams, arrives first to take over the role of head of the household while Gomez heads to a special meeting of his fraternal order of the Serpent in order to celebrate a promotion. Unfortunately, the promotion is a ruse to lure him away so two thieves can infiltrate the mansion and steal its wealth.
This made for TV movie has much of the charm of the series. All of the original cast, except for the actress who played Grandmama, return. Wednesday and Pugsley are now young adults, with Wednesday becoming a classical musician and Pugsley serving as an apprentice witch doctor in Africa. While it is great to see the old cast together, barely missing a beat from their antics in the 60’s, nostalgia is pretty much the only reason to watch this.
The story rehashes many of the set-ups from series episodes, and confounds with the proliferation of characters. Pancho is basically a Gomez clone and doesn’t offer any new wrinkles to the story. There are two new children, Pugsley Jr. and Wednesday Jr., and you have to look at outside notes to even know whose kids they are. Once again, they just occupy the same material as their older siblings. To top it all off, the crooks cook up a scheme to replace Gomez and Morticia with body doubles, so you end up with way too many doppelgangers to keep the fucacta story straight.
Fans of the black and white series will find some charm in spending another Halloween with the old guard, but Halloween with the New Addams Family doesn’t actually do anything new to warrant a special.
The Addams Family (1991)
Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) have spent 25 years looking for Gomez’ brother, Fester (Christopher Lloyd), after the brothers had a big fight. The family’s shady accountant owes money to a con-artist who has an adopted son who looks just like Fester. The two hatch a plan to substitute their man into the family so he can learn where Gomez keeps the legendary Addams riches.
The story isn’t really breaking the mold, instead adapting the running gag of crooks trying to fool the morbid but good-natured Addams family. The turn comes when, after decades of trying, the crooks actually succeed! The Addams Family is forced to move out into the real world, and they’re as hilariously unsuited to it as you would expect. The script is elevated by fantastic visuals and a pitch-perfect cast.
This was Barry Sonnenfeld’s first directorial gig, before hits like Men in Black and Get Shorty made him a big name. He leans way in here, lavishing the project with gorgeously creepy sets, excellent visual effects, and tons of imagination. The Addams Family gives Beetlejuice a run for the money as the greatest creepy comedy of all time.
For all of the macabre imagery, the amazing cast captures the lovable quirks of Charles Addams’ characters and the campy joviality of the original series. Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston have terrific chemistry; it is delightful to see Julia’s boundless energy channeled by Huston’s cool as a cucumber demeanor. Christopher Lloyd brings tremendous physicality to Fester, while also embracing the tragic role of an outsider among a tribe of outsiders. Christina Ricci redefines Wednesday, going from a minor supporting character to a scene-stealing little devil. She would be rewarded with the central focus of the sequel for her effort.
The Addams Family deserves to be on everybody’s Halloween classics list. Sonnenfeld’s vision jumps off the screen and is brought to life by fantastic performances up and down the board. Hell, it even features a great theme song from M.C. Hammer!
Addams Family Values (1993)
Gomez and Morticia welcome a new Addams into the world, mustachioed baby Pubert. After Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) rebel and try to dispose of their unwanted sibling, they get packed off to summer camp. A new nanny (Joan Cusack) is hired to watch Pubert, but she is actually a gold-digging black widow, looking to seduce Fester and steal his inheritance.
OK. So stealing the Addams’ inheritance is going to be a series fixture it seems. This film doesn’t quite match the sheer energy of the first film, often repeating many of its bits and themes, but it still manages to shine in a lot of places. I’m sure Sonnenfeld saw how popular Ricci made Wednesday, so she becomes the linchpin of most of the best jokes. She utterly destroys the camp she is sent to in a delightfully malevolent manner, while also dabbling in a suitably twisted first romance. Her and Pugsley’s schemes to kill Pubert are Pee-Wee Herman levels of Rube Goldberg insanity.
Julia and Huston are still great together, but have much less to do. Lloyd’s Fester is flattened out, no longer having the internal conflict of the first film to flesh out his motivations. He’s just a patsy…but still brings his A game when it comes to physically selling all of the hilarious death traps Joan Cusack devises for him. Cusack sinks her teeth into the role, as she often plays demented characters with real verve.
There are echoes of the greatness of the first film to be found in Sonnenfeld’s sequel. Some characters grow, while others fade into the background. The set designs are a bit toned down but still inventive, and the CG that made Thing fun in the first film wind up making Pubert engaging in this one. Addams Family Value is best enjoyed as a one-two punch with the first film, rather than a stand-alone experience.
Addams Family Reunion (1998)
Gomez (Tim Curry) wants to connect with his roots and signs up for a shady ancestry-by-mail service. Of course the service screws up, sending the family to an Adams Family (one d) reunion instead. There, they run afoul of the affluent, yuppy Adams siblings, who are all trying to kill their curmudgeonly father (Ray Walston, TV’s My Favorite Martian). Gomez and Morticia (Daryl Hannah) hit it off with the grumpy old man. The scheming siblings think these distant relatives are after his money too, so connive to put them out of the picture.
This project tried to capitalize on the renewed interest in the franchise from the Sonnenfeld films, and to serve as a launchpad for a new TV series. While the effort got slagged at the time, falling well short Sonnenfeld’s films, it’s not all bad.
Tim Curry always gives 110% to his projects. His effort even seems to increase in proportion to how doomed the project is. He finds a middle ground between Raul Julia’s smoldering energy and John Astin’s eccentric, avuncular mannerisms. He is the centerpiece of several excellent bits, mostly involving the fact that Gomez is apparently an effortless master of any sport or game of chance he plays. And he loves back-flips. A lot.
Daryl Hannah is mostly just window dressing, though I thought she caught hints of Huston’s Morticia and grows into the role as the film progresses. Patrick Thomas’ Fester is beat for beat the Uncle Fester from the original TV series, with little innovation. The children are largely forgettable. Ray Walston is funny in his irritability, but as it is the only note for the character it wears thin.
The story tries to juggle three plots at once. It is a bold choice, though it rarely works well. While our Addams crew are out of place in the posh Palm Springs resort, one set of straight-laced Adams are mistakenly sent to the Addams’ mansion, where they suffer every mishap imaginable. At the same time, Fester, Thing, and Lurch (Carel Struycken, the only cast member reprising a role from the motion pictures) are chasing down a demented chihuahua Fester created that turns into a rabid monster when it hears the phrase “good boy.” These side plots recreate some of the feel of the original series, which is a smart move for a pilot movie, but slow the pace and highlight the threadbare budget. The mansion looks good, but most of the effects used to bring it and the dog to life are hokey as all hell.
Addams Family Reunion is largely forgettable instead of actively awful. Tim Curry courageously throws himself into the picture with a heroic effort, but the “glorified TV episode” nature of the picture can’t be saved. There’s some fun bits, mostly centered around a gymnastic Gomez, but there’s hardly enough to justify taking a cinematic road trip to attend this family reunion.