Case Number 04934: Small Claims Court

THE MUNSTERS: THE FIRST FAMILY OF FRIGHT

Image Entertainment // 2004 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // August 4th, 2004

The Charge

Hanging some frightening flesh on Universal's bare bones.

The Case

Based on Universal's classic monster properties, The Munsters is one of the best remembered sitcoms of the 1960s; a smash hit that transplanted a ghoulish family of creature feature stars to suburbia. Debuting in 1964, the series balanced wholesomely silly schlock with enough clever satire of traditional family shows like Father Knows Best to appeal to kids and adults alike. But the humor of The Munsters is really attributable to the outstanding cast: silver screen beauty Yvonne DeCarlo and Car 54, Where Are You? veterans Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis. Thanks to syndication, The Munsters has remained in the public eye since it first aired, and fans were excited when Universal finally announced their plans to bring out the first season on DVD as a bare bones box set.

Wait a minute -- a bare bones release for one of the most popular sitcoms of all time? Well, Image Entertainment to the rescue. Hitting store shelves on the same day as the Munsters: The Complete First Season is The Munsters: The First Family of Fright, two discs of supplemental material meant to cash in on Universal's dreadful omission. The first DVD contains the meat of the presentation, four 45-minute documentaries culled from A&E's Biography, while the second disc features another hour of extras surprises. Let's have each defendant line up and state their case to the court:

* "The Munsters: America's First Family of Fright"
This very thorough documentary does a fine job of capturing the history of the series, as well as the show's cultural impact. Even though it only ran two years before it was ousted by the next pop phenomenon, Batman, the mountain of Munsters merchandise once available attests to the show's importance in the TV landscape of the 1960s. Offering a bit of a taste of the individual biographies to come, this documentary continues to trace how the show became a slave to its own popularity even past its cancellation, resulting in two films, Munster, Go Home and the original cast's swan song, 1981's The Munsters' Revenge. Overall, a well put-together and informative presentation.

* "Fred Gwynne: More than a Munster"
A truly bad title for an otherwise enjoyable, if bittersweet, documentary. Harvard educated Gwynne joined the cast of Car 54, Where Are You? as Officer Francis Muldoon opposite Joe E. Ross, a role that eventually lead to his casting as the childlike Herman Munster with his old Car 54 co-star, Al Lewis. Despite many personal setbacks and an inability to escape the role of his lumbering alter ego, Gwynne also made his mark as a painter and an author of children's books until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1993. A solid overview, although a little overdramatic in the typical style of the show.

* "Yvonne DeCarlo: Gilded Lily"
This Canadian-born actress made the leap from the chorus line to feature films with the help of her distinctive, exotic beauty. Her big break came as Sephora, Moses's wife in The Ten Commandments, and she later accepted the part of Lily to pay hospital bills after her husband, stuntman Bob Morgan, was almost killed on a movie set. With a lack of major tragedy in her life, the show tends to focus on DeCarlo's many high-profile romances.

* "Al Lewis: Forever Grandpa"
After taking jobs in circus sideshows and burlesque theaters, Lewis landed the role of Officer Leo Schnauser on Car 54, Where Are You?. He became fast friends with Fred Gwynne, developing a chemistry that is obvious in The Munsters. Unlike the other biographies, this documentary seems to focus more on Lewis' colorful life after The Munsters -- his ownership of a Greenwich Village restaurant called "Grampa's," and his later candidacy for the Governor of New York. This is the best of the three individual biographies, which lacks the lurid roller coaster ride of highs and lows that most of these biographies favor.

* Pilot Episode: "My Fair Munster"
The second disc kicks off with three different version of the show's roughly ten-minute pilot in which Grandpa mixes up a love potion for Marilyn. The first adaptation features an extremely scratchy color opening before it switches to black and white. Lewis and Gwynne are here, but Happy Derman plays an extremely feral Eddie, and Joan Marshall stars as Herman's wife, the Morticia-like Phoebe. They are both very bad. The second version is the same, only completely in black and white with about two extra minutes, mostly of Grandpa flicking switches in his lab. The final take is just the same script re-shot with Yvonne DeCarlo and Butch Patrick, but it is far superior to the earlier test. Even Herman's makeup looks more convincing, and you can see Gwynne starting to develop some of the schtick he would use in later episodes.

* Unaired Main Title Sequence
Based on the original pilot's titles, this version features DeCarlo and Patrick instead of their predecessors, but for some reason wasn't included in the third pilot presentation. It's offered here with an alternate Portuguese title: "Os Monstros."

* "Seven Wonderful Nights"
A promotional special for the upcoming CBS season hosted by Buddy Ebsen, this two-minute segment features just a few scenes from the original pilot. Ebsen dances.

* CBS Network Promos
There are a few items in this extra-an ad for the "Seven Wonderful Nights" special and three commercials for the show with clips from the first season.

* "Wayne & Schuster Take an Affectionate Look at the Monsters"
This is another rehash of scenes from the pilot episode commented on by the popular Canadian comedy team. It runs four minutes in total.

* "Marineland Carnival"
Here's an interesting 60-second promo for a Munster-hosted CBS special that has Herman feeding dolphins and gazing at aquariums.

* "Big G, Little O"
Probably the highlight of the second disc is this Cheerios commercial that features Herman tossing Eddie through the roof.

* Munster, Go Home Theatrical Trailer
After the show ended, the Munsters appeared in Munster, Go Home, a Technicolor film meant to introduce the sitcom to overseas audiences. The movie is a lot of fun, and so is this trailer, which proclaims the film as "frightfully funny."

* Munster, Go Home TV Spots
The previously mentioned trailer re-edited into 60 second spots.

* Syndication TV Spots
Three one-minute commercials that feature a few highlights from The Munsters's two-year run.

* Universal Newsreels
The Munsters' basement laboratory set makes an appearance in a newsreel about the Universal studio tour, and Gwynne and Lewis are seen riding in the George Barris-designed Munsters Koach on a promotional appearance for their movie and in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

* "It's What's Happening, Baby"
In this rather uninteresting TV appearance, Herman Munster learns to snap his fingers from Beatle booster Murray the K.

* "We Don't Knock"
Show host Lenny Clarke interviews a diehard Munsters fan, who shows off his vast collection of memorabilia.

Not a bad little selection, in all. The only real problem with this DVD is the overlap. There are a few minutes of repeated footage in each of the A&E biographies, and much of the included "rare" film can be found on the second disc. The Cheerios commercial, the Munster, Go Home trailer and the Marineland Carnival promo can all be seen in pretty much their entirety in the documentaries, so their inclusion later is certainly less exciting. Finally, the pilot episode, which also appears on Universal's set, pops up so frequently in this release that I'll be glad not to see it again.

The recently produced documentaries on the first DVD all feature crisp transfers and strong soundtracks. The second disc, made up of almost entirely vintage black and white material, generally looks satisfactory save for the expected source artifacts. The only poor quality segments are the color introduction to the first pilot presentation, and the video-shot Murray the K sketch, which seems particularly warped.

Although some enjoyment is to be derived from this DVD set on its own, it's really meant as a complement to the box set. If you were planning on picking up Universal's set but were disappointed about the lack of extras, The Munsters: The First Family of Fright may be just what you're looking for.

Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile
Studio: Image Entertainment
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* None

Accomplices
* IMDb: A&E Biography: The Munsters
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0376458/combined

* IMDb: A&E Biography: Al Lewis: Forever Grandpa
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0310602/combined

* IMDb: The Munsters
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0057773/combined