Middling Munsters

I am a huge fan of The Munsters, and count the 60’s sitcom as one of the formative influences on my macabre-loving career. I also enjoy Rob Zombie’s music (and many of his movies), so when word dropped that he would be adapting the series as a feature film, I was definitely intrigued. But also concerned: that Zombie’s graphic and grungy grindhouse aesthetic would make for a bad mix with the innocent silliness of the original series. So I ‘ve been nervously anticipating the release of the film (now streaming on Netflix) for months. My thoughts after finally screening it here on the eve of the October holiday season:

The Look: Initially, I worried that it would feel jarringly weird to watch The Munsters in color after decades of viewing the series in black-and-white syndication. But I found myself wowed by Zombie’s visuals; the colors he splashes across the screen are eye-poppingly vibrant. The scenes set in Transylvania present a mesmerizing blend of oldtime Universal-Horror vibe and modern neon glitz. And the scattering of Easter eggs evoking classic horror films (e.g. Nosferatu) provide an unexpected treat.

The Main Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie will never be mistaken for Meryl Streep, but she’s eerily endearing here in her turn as Lily Munster. Daniel Roebuck gives a spot-on portrayal of the Count role popularized by Al Lewis; it’s Roebuck’s performance that evokes the original sitcom most closely. My biggest issue is with Jeff Daniel Phillips’ Herman. The look of the character is fine (although at times his facial expressions of dismay make him seem painfully constipated), but he fails to capture the goofy charm of Fred Gwynne (a comedic genius whose embodiment of Herman might be one of the most underrated performances in TV history).

The Plot: Much of the film is centered on the Frankensteinian creation of Herman, and his courtship of/marriage to Lily. The problem, though, is that there’s not a lot of recognizable conflict driving the action (perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, as Zombie has never been a tight plotter as a screenwriter). There are too many superfluous characters and extraneous scenes that lead nowhere and make the film’s nearly two-hour runtime seem sluggishly paced. Also, the Munster clan’s coming to America doesn’t occur to the very end of the film, and as a result their iconic Gothic mansion barely appears (the scene of street celebration of Halloween on Mockingbird Lane is terrific, though, making me wonder if the film should have focused more exclusively on the holiday). The film’s ending, involving a sudden turn of fortune for the Munsters, is abrupt and unsatisfying. The Munsters, with its problematic plotting, seems to just stop rather than properly conclude.

The Humor: Granted, audience sensibilities have evolved since the 60’s, and the same old wig-flipping gags would feel outdated today. Still, the film’s humor (which includes a couple of questionable forays into the risque) reflects poorly on the original series. There are some chuckle-worthy moments, for certain, but never an elicitation of riotous laughter. The comedy is mostly strained, and occasionally downright lame (the ostensible jokes involving Jorge Garcia’s Floop character are painful to behold).

The Verdict: Munster purists won’t be pleased, but Zombie does deserve credit for attempting to put his own stamp on the adaptation, rather than just offering a by-the-numbers retread. His own adoration of The Munsters cannot be questioned. That being said, this vehicle (speaking of which, Zombie’s failure to feature the Dragula is surprising) proves passably entertaining at best. Unlike the classic sitcom, the film is not one that viewers will rush to re-watch over and over for years to come.


Dark Carnival Extended: “The Watchers”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]


“The Watchers” (1945)

Bradbury’s narrator, Steve, works as personal secretary to William Tinsley, a captain of the kitchenware industry who wields a “flyswatter as scepter.” Tinsley is strangely obsessed with killing any and every insect in his midst. His pesticidal mania doesn’t stem from a basic phobia; he believes that insects (all living animals, in fact) are planted bugs, agents of surreptitious surveillance who report back to some mysterious governing force that Tinsley can only label “They.” Tinsley, who “refuses to talk when there’s an insect in the room,” intones to Steve: “We are being watched constantly. Is there ever a minute in our lives that passes without a fly buzzing in our room with us, or an ant crossing our path, or a flea on a dog, or a cat itself, or a beetle or a moth rushing through the dark, or a mosquito skirting around a netting?” The story offers another sinister turn of the screw when Tinsley realizes that there are more evil/infinitesimal entities to fear: microbes.

Opening a dark new window onto the everyday, “The Watchers” is quintessential Bradbury. Just as Steve is infected with Tinsley’s “apprehensive awareness,” the reader can’t help be haunted by the specter of the paranoid premise (Bug Brother is Watching Us!). The story is infested with disturbing visuals, such as the description of Tinsley’s father, who was accidentally(?) killed by his own gun in a hunting accident, and whose corpse was overrun when his young son returned with belated help: “The entire body, the arms, the legs, and the shattered contour of what was once a strong, handsome face, was clustered over and covered with scuttling, twitching insects, bugs, ants of every and all descriptions, drawn by the sweet odor of blood.” The imagery grows even more grotesque when Tinsley (and later, Steve) falls sudden victim to a “rotting fetid combination of disease.” Unsettling in idea and execution alike, “The Watchers” ranks as one of the most horrific pieces Bradbury ever composed. Perhaps the reason it wasn’t installed in the original edition of Dark Carnival (I would’ve liked to have been a fly on the wall if Bradbury ever articulated his rationale for the exclusion) is because its unremitting gruesomeness threatened to overshadow the rest of the collection’s contents.


Burton Bastardization

The new film Raven’s Hollow (now streaming on Shudder) no doubt conveys autumnal ominousness (e.g., supernaturally gusting leaves, human scarecrow sacrifices). Not only in its title, but also in its very plot–which has West Point cadet Edgar Poe investigating a series of bizarre murders in the remote, specter-haunted New York village of Raven’s Hollow–the film evokes Tim Burton’s 1999 classic Sleepy Hollow. Unfortunately, such parallels only accentuate how much Raven’s Hollow pales in comparison to its illustrious Gothic-horror predecessor.

Whereas Sleepy Hollow is steeped in charming ambience and wicked wit, Raven’s Hollow proves bleak and joyless. The film gets off to a gripping start, but then bogs down in a sluggishly-paced, folk-horror-style plot (involving a legendary local entity called the Raven). The cast, led by William Mosely as Poe and Melanie Zanetti as Charlotte Ingram (echoing Christina Ricci’s role as romantic interest/suspected witch Katrina Van Tassel in Sleepy Hollow), gives largely lethargic performances. The climax underwhelms, in terms of both its revelations and its visuals. Suspect use of CGI creates the feel of a made-for-Syfy movie, aligning Raven’s Hollow more with the ridiculous (2007”s Headless Horseman) than the sublime (Sleepy Hollow).

Disappointing on several levels, Raven’s Hollow employs facile allusions to the work of Edgar Allan Poe throughout (e.g., a stable hand who is named Usher just because; a mutilated body that is hidden under the floorboards for no reason really relevant to the plot). Also, the film’s positing that Poe’s experiences in Raven’s Hollow inspired him to produce his masterpiece poem decades later is unconvincing and arguably nonsensical (considering the actual content of “The Raven”).

Raven’s Hollow gets the fall season of spooky viewing off to a lackluster start. Hopefully, there will be much better fare to sample in the weeks ahead–and also later this year, when another film featuring Poe as a young cadet/murder investigator (The Pale Blue Eye) lands in theaters and streams on Netflix.


Dark Carnival Extended: “The Poems”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]


“The Poems” (1945)

The poet David stumbles upon a strange ability to capture reality, a talent that extends far beyond the common conception of verisimilitude: “Somehow, David had caught up, netted, skeined, imbedded reality, substance, atoms–mounting them upon paper with a simple imprisonment of ink!” His poetry proves “too perfect”–it actually erases from existence what it describes, leaving nothing but an “unnatural blank-spaced silence.” Basking in the glow of his meteoric rise (literary critics hail him as “the greatest poet who ever lived”), the hubristic David ultimately precipitates his own downfall. Like some mad scientist, he begins to experiment with dogs and cats, sheep and even people as the subjects of his poetry. But when David proclaims his intention to write about the universe itself (“I’ll dissect the heavens if I wish, rip down the worlds, toy with suns if I damn please!”), his horrified wife Lisa takes clandestine yet drastic steps to dissolve their marriage.

Leave it to a creative genius like Bradbury to think up such a story about the wonders–and dangers–of the imagination. Appropriately, the image-rich prose here (“The paper was a square, brilliantly sunlit casement through which one might lean into another and brighter amber land”) approaches the quality of poetry. In its concerns with the uncanny power of inking, the story also prefigures the classic tale “The Illustrated Man.” “The Poems” is certainly dark enough in import; perhaps the only thing that makes it an imperfect fit with the contents of the original Dark Carnival collection is its predominantly vernal (rather than autumnal) vibe.


Mob Scene: Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass (which evokes both Salem’s Lot and Storm of the Century) is not only the best Stephen King miniseries not actually based on one of King’s works. This convention-reworking vampire narrative also presents an extensive variation on an angry mob scene.

Deliberately paced and highly philosophical (pondering existential questions such as the meaning of life and what happens when we die), the series works as a slow burn, but builds to a blazing climax over the final episode and a half. Midway through the penultimate episode, “Ch. VI Acts of the Apostles,” the faithful of Crockett Island trek toward St. Patrick’s Church (during a slyly arranged, island-wide blackout) for the titular Easter vigil. They carry candles and sing hymns, the image of their peaceful procession forming a stark contrast to the fiery chaos that is about to erupt.

As the mass begins, Father Hill reveals that he is actually the rejuvenated Monsignor Pruitt, and explains that the cause of the miraculous revitalizations that have spread through the congregation came from sampling the blood of an angel (a winged, vampiric creature that the religiously-minded Pruitt has mistaken as holy). The next phase of the revival now involves the parishioners willfully imbibing poisoned communion wine, dying and then being reborn into earthly immortality shortly thereafter. A successful demonstration convinces many of those gathered to partake, and that’s when proverbial hell breaks loose. The gun-toting sheriff tries to stop his son from poisoning himself, but is tackled to ground by a group of mass attendees. When another protagonist picks up the gun and shoots Pruitt, the dark angel flies down the aisle and snatches her off. Oh, and the undead arise as bloodthirsty savages, impulsively pouncing on their unpoisoned brethren.

The spillage of the macabre mob from the church precipitates most of the action of the concluding episode, “Revelation.” Under the cover of night and the blackout, the vampire brood swoops across the island, attacking nonmembers of St. Patrick’s and violently converting them. The so-called pious have become the monsters here; these riotous villagers, interestingly, also happen to be the ones wielding the torches. Directed by the maniacal, Book-of-Revelations-quoting church member Bev, they toss Molotov cocktails and burn the innocent out of their homes. But the zealot is overzealous in her scheming, and every structure on the small island ends up razed, so that the vampiric congregation (whose plan is to boat off the island in the coming nights and spread their ghastly gospel on the mainland) has nowhere to take shelter come dawn. The monsters end up torched after all, not by vigilante villagers but rather the rising sun.

Midnight Mass divided audiences when it premiered last fall on Netflix, as many viewers found the show too slow-paced and talky (characters are prone to long monologues/homilies). Over time, though, this clever and thought-provoking series might come to be regarded as Flanagan’s masterwork. I found it absolutely gripping, and loved it from its mysterious opening episodes to its wild mob scene climax.


Dark Carnival Extended: “Bang! You’re Dead!”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]


“Bang! You’re Dead!” (1944)

Fair-haired Johnny Choir plays at war, running and laughing, ducking and dodging, pointing and yelling “Missed me!” and “Gotcha!” He’s unquestionably young at heart but maybe not quite right in the head: Bradbury’s twist is that Johnny is an actual U.S. soldier fighting in Italy during World War II. As his army buddy Private Smith says, “As far as I can figure, he thinks this is all a game. He never grew up. He’s got a big body with a kid’s mind in it. He doesn’t take war serious. He thinks we’re all playing at this.” Johnny’s strange outlook seems to work like a good luck charm, protecting him from enemy fire as he moves recklessly. This amazes the fear-gripped Smith, and bemuses another soldier named Melter, who eventually takes a shot at Johnny himself, then tries to tear through his mental armor by revealing that they are in fact fighting a war. Hurt by the news, Johnny stumbles off, and is soon wounded by a German artillery shell. He survives the head injury (which likely will wipe away the memory of Melter’s spoiler), and at tale’s end he (along with Smith) is scheduled to be discharged and sent home to America. The rotten Melter fares much worse, though, after desperately trying to mimic Johnny’s tactic: he ends up strafed with machine-gun fire while running down a hill “screaming about being a kid again.”

“Bang! You’re Dead!” proves quintessentially Bradburian in theme, contrasting the “innocent wonder” of youth and adult experience, vivid imagination and harsh reality. Johnny’s psychological defense mechanism–regressing himself to the playful days of his Midwestern youth–hints at the terrible, traumatic nature of war. Nevertheless, the story features an emphatically happy ending, which frees Johnny from military service and paves the way for him to “go on believing the world is a good place.” Perhaps this ultimate light-heartedness (contra the other stories in the table of contents) is exactly what dissuaded Bradbury from including the piece in the first edition of Dark Carnival.


Dark Carnival Extended: “The Sea Shell”

In a recently-concluded retrospective, I explored the contents of Dark Carnival (marking the 75th anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s debut collection). And now tonight brings an addendum….The 2001 Gauntlet Press reissue of Dark Carnival offered bonus reading: a quartet of weird tales that Bradbury did not include in the 1947 edition. Over a series of four posts, I will look back at those stories, considering how they might have fit if chosen for the first publication of the book.

“The Sea Shell” (1944)

11-year-old Johnny Bishop, bedridden with an unspecified illness, “wants to get out and play, badly.” The frustration over his confinement is alleviated when the family doctor gifts him with the titular object (which seemingly sounds a call from the remote Pacific: “The ocean! The waves! The sea!”). Now, “whenever the afternoons stretched long and tiresome, he would press [the sea shell] around the lobe and rim of his year and vacation on a wind-blown peninsula far, far off.” The sea shell stirs the wanderlust of Johnny, a Midwesterner who only knows of the ocean through movies. Johnny’s mom chides him for his “impatience with everything in life. you must have things–right now–or else.” In response, Johnny reasons, “If I wait too long, I’ll be grown up, and then it won’t be any fun.” Apparently, Johnny decides not to wait until he gets over his sickness to get out of the house. Lured by “the singing chant of boatmen faintly drifting on a salt sea wind,” Johnny uses the sea shell as a magical portal to an actual seaside adventure.

“The Sea Shell” presents some distinctly carnivalesque imagery: Johnny’s bed quilt is described as “a red-blue circus banner,” and after Johnny’s bewildered mom finds him missing but hears (via the sea shell) him frolicking in the ocean, the bedroom whirls around her like “a bright swaying merry-go-round.” But the story isn’t terribly dark, playing out more as an offbeat fantasy tale (in which Johnny ends up in a happy place). For this reason, and because Bradbury did include a much darker tale (“The Emissary”) centered on an ill, bedridden child, “The Sea Shell” was perhaps wisely omitted from 1947’s Dark Carnival.


Horripilation Compilation

Unabashed admission: I’m a complete geek for books, TV programs, or streaming series that gather, rank, and analyze the best that the horror genre has to offer. Projects such as The Book of Lists: HorrorHorror: 100 Best BooksHorror: Another 100 Best BooksBravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and Eli Roth’s History of Horror. So it’s no shocker that I have been eagerly anticipating the new Shudder series, The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time, whose first episode debuted this week.

101 Scariest clearly emulates the format of Bravo’s 100 Scariest, combining commentary with classic horror film clips. But 101 also one-ups its predecessor in a few regards. The role of talking head is embodied by various writers, actors, directors, and film scholars, whereas the Bravo countdown mixed in a lot of pop cultural personalities and joke-cracking comedians (figures with questionable connection to the genre) into its cast of commentators. 101 also seems committed to offering more serious analysis of the films under discussion, addressing not just the nature of the scare but also considering the construction of the particular movie scene containing it.

It will be interesting to see how 101‘s completed list ultimately compares to that compiled by the 2004 Bravo show (and its follow-ups, 30 Even Scarier Movie Moments [2006] and 13 Scarier Movie Moments [2009]). Perhaps I will pursue such comparison in a future post.

An eight-episode series, The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time streams a new installment every Wednesday on Shudder up until Halloween.

Official Trailer:

Peter Straub (1943-2022)

Sadly, the horror genre has lost one of its giants. Peter Straub passed away today at the age of 79.

A consummate prose stylist, Straub authored such classic novels as Ghost Story, Shadowland, Floating Dragon, and Koko. He also co-wrote (with Stephen King) the dark fantasy epics The Talisman and Black House.

I had the opportunity to meet Straub a few times over the years, at different conferences and book readings. His imposing (physical and literary) stature could be intimidating at first, but he proved very approachable and personable. Erudite yet never arrogant. A class act all the way.

Rest in peace, Peter. Our Macabre Republic mourns your loss.



Dracula Extrapolated: Dracula Untold

Exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text.


What if Dracula deliberately chose to become a bloodsucker, but for noble reasons?

Hollywood has a long history of romanticizing Bram Stoker’s gruesome vampire, transforming him into a debonair yet debauched Gothic hero-villain. But 2014’s Dracula Untold (less a horror vehicle than a dark fantasy action film) skews Stoker’s original characterization even further, by making Dracula the actual protagonist of the piece. A brave (if sometimes ferocious) warrior, a devoted family man, and determined defender of his countrymen, he is clearly cut from heroic cloth here.

Fresh from starring in The Hobbit films, Luke Evans portrays the Transylvanian prince Vlad (Drscula Untold perpetuates the error of equating Stoker’s fictional creation with the historical Vlad the Impaler), “Son of the Dragon. Protector of the Innocent.” That latter title is put to the test, by the imperial evils of the Ottoman Turks. Unsatisfied with tributes of silver, the sultan Mehmed demands the surrender of 1000 Transylvanian boys (who will be enslaved and trained as fighters for the Turks). For good measure, Vlad’s own son Ingeras must be given to Mehmed to raise. Vlad violently refuses, sparking a war with the empire (which is already geared to march across Europe).

To save his homeland and its inhabitants from an imminent bloodbath, Vlad seeks out a monster previously encountered atop Broken Tooth Mountain. This “Master Vampire” (chillingly embodied by Charles Dance–Tywin Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones) has been trapped in a cave there by the same Faustian bargain that granted him his dark powers. He agrees to let the desperate Vlad taste-test the vampiric lifestyle, but is careful to spell out the conditions of the transaction: “If you can resist [drinking blood] for three days, you will return to your mortal state.” If not, Vlad will become “a scourge on this earth, destined to destroy everything [he] hold[s] dear” (and the Master Vampire will be freed from his prison, to take vengeance against the demon that tricked him long ago).

Vlad takes unholy communion, goes through his momentary death throes, and is reborn as a nosferatu superhero. He now has the promised “strength of a hundred men. The speed of a falling star. Dominion over the night and all its creatures. [The ability] to see and hear through their senses. Even heal grievous wounds.” The Turk-decimating Vlad practically forms a one-man battalion, someone who also possesses the neat ability (the film makes fine use of CGI) to morph into a horde of bats.

The premise of Dracula Untold incites some interesting narrative conflict, as Vlad has to fight not just the Turks but also time (his battles each night must be won by sunrise) and his own unnatural urges. Even as he leads his people in rebellion against the Turks, he struggles to keep his vampiric traits secret from them. When he fails to do so, his countrymen–with classic cries of “Kill the monster!”–put his tent to the torch. This angry mob scene concludes with a unique twist, though, as the not-so-easily-dispatched Vlad emerges from the fiery ruins to verbally chastise the ungrateful uprisers.

Of course, Vlad can’t quite make it through the requisite three days of fasting, but even his eventual slaking of his terrible bloodthirst is given a heroic spin. His dying wife (who was tossed over a cliff by Mehmed’s minions) convinces Vlad to drink her vital fluids, so he will be strong enough to go rescue their son (who has been captured by Mehmed). This sets up a climactic swordfight with the sultan, who cleverly levels the battleground by strewing silver coins (a baneful drain on Vlad’s vampiric powers) beneath his feet. Nonetheless, the undead swashbuckler overcomes adversity and emerges victorious (with the villainous Mehmed suffering some satisfying bloodshed).

For Dracula purists, Dracula Untold might steer Stoker’s original storyline too far off course. Still, the film (directed by Gary Shore, from Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’s script) deserves credit for its commitment to offering a new take on the hoary figure. Fast-paced and filled with frightfully-framed fight scenes, it’s a quintessential popcorn flick. Entertainment-hungry viewers won’t regret gnoshing on this one one bit.