Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Munsters' Scary Little Christmas (A Shitmas Post from Jason M. Williams)

“It’s a munsterpiece!” the back of the DVD box proudly proclaims.  I didn’t check the dictionary, but I’m pretty sure munsterpiece is a made-up word.  I assume that it’s supposed to mean a work that is a masterpiece and also features the Munsters.  This movie does have Munsters in it.  As for a masterpiece, well, it’s pretty far from being one of those.  That’s not to say The Munsters' Scary Little Christmas is awful.  In fact, it’s actually not bad at all.

The idea of anyone other than Fred Gwynne playing Herman should be enough to send shivers down the spine of any Munsters purist.  That hasn't stopped anyone from trying, though.  In the late eighties, The Munsters were given the "next generation" treatment in The Munsters Today, which I already regret even mentioning.  In the mid-nineties Universal took another stab with two made-for-TV Munster movies.  Here Come the Munsters was broadcast on Fox during Halloween of 1995.  The story was a bit of a reboot, with the Munsters moving to Mockingbird Heights from Transylvania at the behest of cousin Marilyn.  A departure from Munster mythology for sure, but not quite a cause for gathering torches, pitchforks, and angry villagers.

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Scary Little Christmas debuted during the holidays the following year.  In it, we find the Munsters, who have been completely recast from the previous movie, settled in to their new digs at 1313 Mockingbird Lane.  Christmas rolls around and poor Eddie is down in the dumps, longing for Christmas at home in Transylvania.  As you would expect, the rest of the family catches wind of this and springs in to action to make sure Eddie has the best Christmas ever.  Their plans involve inappropriate decorations, the misuse of Grandpa’s magic, and the kidnapping of Santa Claus.  Because of course it does!

It should come as no surprise that the movie opens with carolers on the doorstep of the Munster mansion.  Can you guess what happens next?  No, The Addams Family doesn't pour the contents of a bubbling cauldron on them.  If you said that Herman opens the door and they all run away screaming, though, you'd be spot on.  Predictable, I know.  Well, what if I told you that Herman then proceeds to do an impromptu James Brown dance?  Would you believe that?  I wouldn't blame you if you didn't, but it does.  And it's every bit as cringe-inducing as you could imagine.  But don't hit that stop button just yet.

From there we meet Eddie, doing what he does for the fast majority of the movie: being mopey and sad.  Granted, many episodes of the classic Munsters series revolved around Eddie being bummed about something, but here he just comes across as helpless and (quite literally) declawed.  It's like he's walking around with The Smiths' Christmas album stuck in his head.  He's a total Debbie Downer.  Or Eddie Downer, as the case may be.  In a moment of complete sadness and desperation, he feeds Spot his letter to Santa.  Oh, Eddie. It gets better.

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And here's where the family goes into Holiday crisis mode.  Herman's solution is to make sure Eddie has the absolute best present possible - a Marquis de Sade Dungeon Action Playset (hell, I want one of those for Christmas).  Of course he can't afford it and can't get an advance at the funeral parlor, so he takes on several odd jobs in search of the extra cash.  This includes, but is not limited to, gift wrapping, blood donation, and nude modeling.  Yep, nude modeling.

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Lily's solution is to get Eddie involved in preparing the Munster mansion for the Homeowner's association holiday decorating contest.  Enter the nosey neighbor Mrs. Dimwitty (played by the great Mary Woronov), who has won the contest the past five years running.  Needless to say, the Munsters don't use the most traditional of decorations (i.e., a snowman-decapitating guillotine), but the hip and trendy judges of the contest fawn all over their avant-garde choices and Mrs. Dimwitty feels the threat of losing her bid for a six-peat.

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Grandpa, meanwhile, heads to his lab to conjure up some snow so that Eddie can have a cold, white, Transylvanian Christmas.  It never quite works, though, and one of his spells inadvertently transports Santa Claus to Mockingbird Lane.  Pending disaster alert: if Santa is stuck in Southern California, he can't possibly deliver presents to all the children of world by Christmas morning!  Along for the ride are two of Santa's elves.  But these aren't ordinary elves. They drink beer, they ogle women, and they really want to have the night off.  So while the Munsters are trying everything they can to get Santa back on his sleigh, the elves are trying to sabotage them to ensure that they'll be able to enjoy mud wrestling, naked beaches, and rubbing tanning lotion on surgically enhanced supermodels. Their words, not mine.

I don't want to completely spoil the movie (you are going to watch it, right?), but let me just summarize by saying that before it's all over Santa gets turned into a giant fruitcake. 

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Despite how all of that may sound, the end result is surprisingly watchable and fun. The giddy spirit and tone of the original series are mostly intact.  While a lot of that is due to the script and execution, the entire thing would fall apart without the right cast.  When you’re dealing with iconic characters like these, you can either try something completely different or do your damnedest to copy the original.  It's rather unfortunate that the cast of Here Come the Munsters was replaced this go-around, especially given that Edward Herrmann (Max from The Lost Boys) made for a pretty spot on Herman.  Sam McMurray takes on the boots and bolts here.  While you may not recognize his name, you would almost certainly recognize his face from small roles in just about everything ever.  (Appropriately enough, he was Clark Griswold's coworker, Bill, in Christmas Vacation.)  He does a solid Herman, absolutely nailing many of Fred Gwynne's ticks and mannerisms.  The movie rests on his (heavily padded) shoulders, and he manages to hold it up quite well.

The rest of the cast rounds out nicely.  The late Sandy Baron is far from a spitting image of Al Lewis, but he's got the voice down and does the character justice.  Ann Magnuson doesn't take any risks with Lily, playing her precisely like Yvonne DeCarlo.  Bug Hall (who previously filled the shoes of Alfalfa in The Little Rascals) plays poor sad sack Eddie.  He doesn't have the pep of Butch Patrick, but the movie never really gives him the chance to show it.  It serves the story, though.  He's the Eddie Munster we need, not the Eddie Munster we deserve.

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I would love to sit here and tell you that they've shat on the legacy of the Munsters and ruined Christmas in the process, but I really can't.  It's hard to be cynical about a movie that doesn't have a cynical bone in its body. While I wouldn't call it a munsterpiece, Scary Little Christmas isn't the complete disaster it could have (and probably should have) been.

- Jason M. Williams ( )

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