>> Friday, November 18, 2011

Should you have ever believed that there couldn’t possibly be any more entertainment barrel yet to be scraped, remember this: NBC has just approved a pilot for a remake of "The Munsters." Yes, the sitcom about a wacky monster family, a show that has been off the air since 1966, is returning at last. Naturally, this new version will "have a darker and less campy feel" than the Vietnam War-era original. Well, that makes it sound awesome. And NBC is the network that put "Community" on ice while giving "Whitney" a pickup — so I, the viewer, trust their taste implicitly!

It might be a hopeful sign that the show will be overseen by Bryan Fuller, who created the imaginative, not completely awful "Pushing Daises." Less hopeful: Fuller is also developing a show based on "Silence of the Lambs." This undoubtedly essential "Munsters" update comes in the midst of an unprecedented glut of reboots and reimaginings, all thick with the promise that No, really, this will be very different. It will creepy and full of action and with a feminist theme. You know what’s really different? A stinkin’ original idea.
-Mary Elizabeth Williams
"Stop the remakes!",
Salon, November 18th, 2011
(formatting in original, links removed)

I think I'm going to have to go back on something I've said in the past: I know I've griped about remakes before, but I really think Salon's Ms. Williams has really missed the boat this time, possibly (probably) because she hasn't seen some of the top secret internal documents that have been leaked to Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets concerning these really promising re-imaginings. I want you to know that I'm risking getting sued, here, and this post may result in this blog being removed from the Internet, but I'm willing to run the risk simply because I think the few hours this post is allowed to remain up before the lawyers at Comcast and GE come after me ought to build up fan appeal to the point that people aren't just excited by what Mr. Fuller has in store for us, but are demanding it.

What Ms. Williams especially doesn't know is how far along these projects really are, especially Mr. Fuller's bold new take on The Silence Of The Lambs. As I'm sure many people will recall, Jonathan Demme's 1992 film was a tense, dark, horrific thriller focusing on FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who is given the daunting task of using a caged serial killer (Anthony Hopkins) to catch a loose serial killer (Ted Levine) who is abducting and skinning young women. While edgy and innovative by the cinema standards of two decades ago, the film is long in the tooth and could use a major polishing.

While most sequels and reboots fail, it's worth noting that some of the most successful ones are those which take the basic concept of the original and transform it by changing the basic style or context. E.g. James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien retains the idea of parasitic extraterrestrials with extensible jaws, but instead of trying to merely imitate the isolated "haunted house in space" conceit worked by Scott, Cameron modeled his film after classic war movies, resulting in a highly-effective and engaging film that both follows the original while enhancing and expanding its universe; indeed, many folks prefer Cameron's retooling to the original. In a similar vein, director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan took the basic ideas and settings laid out by writer/director George Lucas in the movie Star Wars--there's a war going on, and it's happening in space--and asked what that scenario might be like if it had characters and dialogue. Their answer remains many folks' favorite film in what would eventually become a trilogy, indeed providing such a definitive response that George Lucas would find it unnecessary to ever make another movie again in his entire life other than the two "Indiana Jones" films he co-created with his old friend, Steven Spielberg.

The original Silence Of The Lambs was a stark, largely humorless thriller built around the relationship between Starling and Hannibal Lecter (a breakout character who would go on to appear in hundreds of sequels of his own); where do you go with that? The answer might be obvious, but that doesn't make it any less winning.

Silence Of The Lambs, the TV series, hearkens back to classic Silver Age sitcoms like The Odd Couple, mining the still viable vein of "mismatched buddies" humor, throwing in a twist reminiscent of such "roomies with a secret" comedies as Three's Company and Bosom Buddies. Clarice Starling (Dakota Fanning) is a young FBI secretary fresh out of college who has just arrived in The Big City full of hopes and dreams. But with rents being what they are in this economy, she finds herself looking for a roommate; happily, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Sean Hayes) has an extra room to sublet in his strangely-huge Brooklyn apartment! But he also has a big secret he's keeping from the landlord, Mr. Crawford (Matthew Perry). What on Earth could it be?

Clarice, naturally, assumes that Hannibal's secret is that he's gay, but of course anybody familiar with the original movie will probably guess that Hannibal's secret is that he's a psychopathic cannibal who lures young men into his home and eats them. Mr. Crawford, meanwhile, can't figure out what's constantly wrong with the drains and is frequently popping in to announce his latest hypothesis to explain the piles of strangely-stained and torn clothing that keep appearing in the basement furnace room ("Squirrels," he theorizes in the pilot episode. "They've chosen my building to hide their human disguises when they go back to the park to panhandle in the morning." Perry's brilliant delivery is what sells the line.)

Anyone wondering if cannibalism is a suitable basis for humor may be unacquainted with Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd or Monty Python's lifeboat sketch. A better question is whether Fanning, a movie actress largely known as a child star, can carry a television sitcom (even with the help of TV vets Perry, Hayes and special guest appearances by Ted Danson as Hannibal's cross-dressing friend, Bill). The answer, happily, is yes. Fanning's spit-take when she notices that Hannibal has roasted a leg of "lamb" that's still capped with a tennis shoe at one end is priceless, and she manages a wonderful bit of physical comedy in which she and Hayes try to keep the shoe from being noticed by an oblivious Perry with a flair recalling the brilliance of Lucille Ball. (Although it also has to be confessed that a subsequent setup, in which Fanning tries to explain away a bloody spatula by claiming Hannibal was making red velvet cake--thereby forcing Ted Danson to climb out of a fire escape wearing high heels and a party dress made from a missing girls volleyball team to find a red velvet cake at nine p.m.--falls flat, largely due to some excessive mugging by Hayes.)

The bottom line, though, is that Silence hits its marks seven or maybe six times out of ten. There's also a fine self-referential self-awareness that hasn't really been seen on television since the cancellation of Arrested Development. (After finally getting Mr. Crawford to leave, Hayes and Danson sit down to cold cuts and Hayes asks Danson why he came back. "Sometimes," he replies, "you want to go where every meal knows your name." "Cheers," Hayes tosses back, pouring Danson a glass of fine Chianti.)

If the solution to making Silence viable is to go from dark to light, the logical thing for Fuller to do with The Munsters is to go light to dark. Details remain sketchy, and the pilot wasn't made available to Giant Midgets, but we were given a copy of the show bible, and it looks like Fuller means to go full-Whedonesque with The Munsters. Where the original series strove to answer the question that has bothered fans of speculative fiction since the publication of Dracula in 1897--What would happen if a Dracula married a Frankenstein?1--the rebooted Munsters wonders how a struggling blue collar family of Frankenstein/Draculas can survive in a world that challenges not only their basic values but their very existence.

The original series, some may recall, tended to give short shrift to the show's least-interesting, blandest character, Marilyn Munster, who apparently, somehow, in some inexplicable and implausible fashion, appeared to be a normal human in spite of the only logical conclusion possible, that the intermarriage of a Dracula and a Frankenstein should produce a Wolf Man like the young Eddie Munster (the possibility that Marilyn was the product of some extramarital affair or prior marriage was never, so far as I know, explored by the original series). The emphasis in the new series' bible on Masonic conspiracies and a Jesuit order of monster-hunting nuns, however (whiffs of Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Slayer order) seem to confirm that Marilyn will have a larger role in the reboot, a role that may put her at odds with her family on a frequent basis.

More controversial to Munster devotees will be the apparent decision to make little brother Eddie into a new kind of creature, "a Drakenstein" [sic], who sometimes transforms into "a hair-covered, bloodthirsty, half-mindless beast in the presence of electronic [sic] activity like lightening [sic] and high-voltage towers". What I would say before any angry fans "storm the castle" with torches and pitchforks, so to speak, is that the "female Starbuck and Boomer" decision in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica was similarly controversial, but undeniably worked and ultimately improved upon the original characterizations.

Another potentially controversial alteration, although it has some interesting ramifications, is the provocative decision to change Herman Munster's origin so that he is no longer a creation of the original Dr. Frankenstein, but the creation of the enigmatic Grandpa Munster, who may have manufactured a grandson-in-law as part of a complex and ancient plot in which his own descendants are elements of a twisted breeding program. (Considering that the idea of a vampire "turning" his own granddaughter is rife with all sorts of incestuous and Electral implications already, we're in some pretty heady psychosexual territory.)

The series bible suggests that Herman will return, for better or worse, to the wordless/monosyllabic roots portrayed in the old Universal Studios films starting with 1931's Frankenstein and 1935's Bride Of Frankenstein. Quite a departure from Fred Gwynne's characterization, to be sure. The writers are instructed to leave some ambiguity as to whether Herman's speech defects are the product of the massive infusions of electricity required to periodically recharge his heart, the use of a deranged criminal's brain in his creation, damage during the installation of the brain, or some other cause. It is possible, the writers are told, that Herman is smarter than he appears and more observant and aware of how he's being used than his inarticulateness lets on. The bible also calls attention to something attentive readers may have noticed just now: yes, Herman's electrical nature and reliance on routine high-voltage recharges to remain animate complicates his relationship with his son, Eddie, who becomes a blood-famished wolflike beast whenever he's in the presence of electrical activity.

We know little about Lily Munster, except that it's clear that the new Munsters picks up on the idea suggested largely in the Hammer Studios' Dracula films that it takes more than a simple staking to kill a vampire, and removal of a stake allows a vampire to regenerate. Lily, we're told, has been staked several times in the past and her own grandfather routinely stakes her and de-stakes her as punishment when she complains about being forced to marry "that grunting creep with his sewn on... part...s"(!!). The Freudian symbolism and possible misogyny run amuck, methinks. It's also strongly implied--answering that old unanswered question from the original show--that Marilyn isn't Herman's daughter at all, and most likely will be revealed to be half-Mummy(!!), though writers are cautioned "the showrunner may select a different classic universal [sic] monster by the end of Season One i.e. [sic] a Creature From The Black Lagoon or maybe a Hunchback."

I am frankly less-optimistic about the Munsters reboot than I am about Silence Of The Lambs, but I've been wrong before and am trying to retain a cautious optimism notwithstanding the fact that some of The Munsters' tropes are wearing a little thin these days (Whedonian supergirls, for instance) while other ideas simply don't appear to be fully thought-out (Lily Munster selects her victims from a tanning salon she works at part time, despite the fact this seems like a singularly stupid occupation for a vampire to hold, for what I hope are all sorts of obvious reasons; hopefully, someone will notice the problems and the script will have been changed by the time the pilot went into production).

1Much as certain biological questions could be raised but not answered in the years between the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's work on inheritance and the revelation of the physical structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953, questions about the interbreeding of Draculas and Frankensteins couldn't be definitively answered until Curt Siodmak's screenplay for The Wolf Man went to theatre screens in 1941.


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