When it comes to Gateway Horror, it’s hard to cite a better example than The Munsters. Based on tropes and characters from the Universal Monster films, this adorable family of misfits has entertained audiences for nearly 60 years. That’s why it’s no surprise that they also survived numerous reboot and remake attempts. While the last of these projects is Rob Zombie’s upcoming film adaptation, there’s an oft-overlooked incarnation of America’s scariest neighbors that I think deserves more attention.
Of course, I am referring to Bryan fuller‘s Mockingbirds Way, a dark and humorous re-imagination of The Munsters produced by NBC.
Originally broadcast as a Halloween special in 2012, Mockingbirds Way was actually the failed pilot episode for a proposed revival of the iconic sitcom, this time reimagined as a gothic drama with a humorous twist. The basic setup remains the same, with the Munster family moving into their iconic mansion and dealing with curious neighbors and supernatural diversions, but the layout is completely different. Drawing inspiration from Fuller’s previous work on morbid comedies like Dead like me and Grow daisies, Mockingbirds Way attempted to apply an even darker coat of paint to the generally cheerful family, playing with their monstrous qualities while updating the characters for a new generation.
From the opening scene, which reveals Eddie Munster (cook mason) in a less cuddly version of his werewolf form, it’s clear that Mockingbirds Way was ready to remix familiar characters in order to tell a more modern story. Unaware of his inherited bloodthirsty tendencies, Eddie isn’t the only one undergoing a cutting-edge makeover. Jerry O’Connell (Scream 2, Piranha 3D) takes over from a decidedly sexier Herman Munster, looking more like an undead model than a cheerful imitation of Boris Karloff. While Jerry retains the tender (quite literal) heart of the character, this version of the series sees him struggle to come to terms with the darker side of the family.
Played by Development stopped favorite Portia de RossiLily Munster has also undergone a visual overhaul. While Mockingbirds Way Retaining her characterization of a loving but fiery-tempered housewife, this version of Lily leans heavily on the alluring vampire trope (although costume design sadly abandons Yvonne De Carlo’s gothic outfits). Marilyn, Lily’s niece (Wakefield Charity) is the only character who appears to have been directly transplanted from the original series, with ’60s-style manners and a matching wardrobe. Ironically, these idiosyncrasies make her stand out alongside her misfit relatives, although it is clear that others are disappointed with her “condition” as an ordinary human.
The family is also joined by the legendary Eddie Izzard, who achieves a very memorable performance as a wise grandfather. Heavily implied to be Count Dracula himself (he even bakes D-shaped cookies for the neighbors), Izzard’s interpretation of the geriatric vampire simply takes Al Lewis’s sardonic personality traits and dials them up. ‘to 11, which makes him the most entertaining character of the bunch. . From his garish outfits to his nonchalant approach to bloodshed, Grandpa’s sarcastic remarks and vampiric outbursts are clearly the glue that holds this special together.
While a single 40-minute episode doesn’t allow for the kind of character development that made the original series so successful, Mockingbirds Way had a lot of potential for traditional sitcom stories like dealing with prejudice and family drama, as well as tongue-in-cheek tributes to classic horror films. I especially enjoyed Herman’s mock introduction, which frames his figure like a square-headed Frankenstein monster to reveal a slightly scarred father figure as he steps into the light.
It’s a shame the production didn’t allow for more practical effects, as intricate elements like Eddie’s werewolf form and the revealing companion dragon are portrayed through low-budget digital images. It’s also worth noting that Grandpa sometimes transforms into a winged bat-like creature when he’s about to feed, resulting in some remarkably dated infographic examples. There are a few shots of Izzard in bat makeup, which adds to the fun factor, but the difference in quality makes those moments even more shocking.
The locations also come to life with a clever mix of CGI and great settings, though they blend together pretty well. As in the original show, the 1313 Mockingbird Lane Residence is a character in itself, with its lavish hallways and decorations that pair well with the special’s colorful costumes and even more colorful characters. This gives the program a stylistic edge that we wouldn’t see again until Fuller started working on NBC. Annibal, another show that would adapt established characters and take them in unexpected directions.
Ultimately, I think the inflated runtime is what really keeps Mockingbirds Way reach its full potential. This particular mix of horror and sitcom tropes would work much better in 22-minute bursts rather than hour-long drama, and I think that’s what really killed the pilot. It’s also possible that audiences just weren’t ready for that particular brand of tongue-in-cheek horror on the small screen in 2012, with network executives complaining about the excessive violence and inconsistent tone. Either way, this would be the last time we would see the Munster family in nearly a decade.
Even if Fuller’s approach to humor isn’t your cup of tea, I think it’s safe to say that Mockingbirds Way is one of the strangest and most loving portrayals of the Munster family since its inception in the ’60s. Which is why I would say it’s still worth revisiting today as a TV oddity, although it wasn’t popular enough to warrant a full show. While I’m still excited to see Rob Zombie’s take on the iconic family, I would have loved to watch a full season of Fuller’s modernized Munsters, if only to see more of Eddie’s absurd suburban Dracula. Izzard.