Duh-duh duh-duh snap snap…
The Addams Family have inspired books, dolls, video games, the most popular pinball machine of all time, and even a musical. Originally though, they were the recurrent subjects of cartoons by Charles Addams, featured in The New Yorker between 1938 and 1964. They became the stars of a selection of short-lived TV shows, both live-action and animated, between 1964 and 1977. And then they disappeared from view for over a decade, until a 1991 movie raised them from the dead.
Recently disgraced producer Scott Rudin, working with Orion Pictures, was the driving force behind that revivification. After demurrals from Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, Rudin eventually hired Barry Sonnenfeld—who until that point had just been working as a cinematographer—to direct. Sonnenfeld has spoken frequently about his intensely stressful time at the helm, rife with health and personnel problems.
Orion went bankrupt halfway through the shoot, making life even harder for the nervous novice. The movie was sold to Paramount, who had far less faith in The Addams Family than the original studio; according to Sonnenfeld in a recent Variety interview, Paramount president Stanley Jaffe watched 10 minutes of footage and deemed it “uncuttable and unreleasable.” Yet the film was cut and was released, and the bottom line proved pleasing—The Addams Family became the eighth highest grossing cinema release of 1991.
The movie follows the apparent reappearance at the Addams’ mansion of Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd), who’s been missing in the Bermuda Triangle for the previous 25 years. Unbeknownst to the genuine Addams family, “Fester” is an imposter who just happens to be the doppelgänger of their missing uncle, and—at the behest of his mother (Elizabeth Wilson)—is after the Addams’ fortune. Over the course of the story, he falls in love with his fake family, and thus served as an ideal vessel to reintroduce them to the world after their long time out of the spotlight. Which is not to dismiss Lloyd’s own performance, a fireworks display of facial convulsions that are odd and funny and entrancing. No one gurns quite like Christopher Lloyd.
The vast majority of the action takes place within the grounds of the Addams’ mansion, and wildly creative production design establishes it well and truly as a universe unto itself. Every new reveal of a facet of the Addams’ abode proves delightful, from the well-populated graveyard with its collection of dementedly shaped tombstones, to the lake that exists somewhere within the mansion’s deepest bowels.
Among the occupants of that legendary home are disembodied hand Thing (Christopher Adams), doleful giant Lurch (Carel Struycken), and séance-conducting witch Grandmama (Judith Malina). Young Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci) is often to be found literally torturing her amenable brother Pugsley (Jimmy Workman). While she’d appeared in a couple of movies before, Wednesday was Christina Ricci’s breakout role; she was only 10 during the shoot, and her assured grasp of The Addams Family’s cheerfully ghoulish spirit is still impressive today.
More than anything though, it’s Raúl Juliá and Anjelica Huston as Gomez and Morticia who give The Addams Family its passionately unhinged heart. It feels almost outrageous that a couple so overtly and constantly ravenous for each other, who are not shy about alluding to their “adventurous” private exploits in public, are the center of a family movie—outrageous in the very best way. Achingly elegant and always game, Huston and Juliá are irresistible together. Their chemistry could power a small country.
The Addams Family was a financial hit, but far warmer reviews would greet the 1993 sequel, Addams Family Values. As such, the first movie has garnered a reputation as something of a dress rehearsal for its widely beloved sequel—it’s the latter film, after all, that features a typically wonderful turn from Joan Cusack as a “black widow” with her sights set on Fester, and Wednesday’s infamous summer camp coup. The subplots of Addams Family Values are polished and satisfying; in contrast, The Addams Family is narratively scrappy. Rather than advancing the story, scenes are often just vignettes that end on a morbid punchline, which adds to the film’s overall sense of disjointedness. The ending was rewritten completely when the cast, led by Ricci, teamed up to petition Sonnenfeld and the producers that the original didn’t make sense, and the replacement does have the slapdash feeling of a last-minute addition.
Flawed as it is, The Addams Family has an infectious joie de vivre that makes it easy to love. Sonnenfeld’s film has a far better grasp of tone than it does of narrative—the humor can be goofy, but it never gets hokey; the (fitting) cartoonishness of the family is grounded by the genuine warmth of their affection for one another. While the storytelling is a little lackluster, the strength of characterization, and the full-throated commitment of the peerlessly charming cast, is anything but.
Tragically, Raúl Juliá died soon after the release of Addams Family Values, aged just 54. Another film with the Sonnenfeld cast was already in doubt after the sequel’s box office didn’t match its critical reception; without Juliá, the appetite was quashed completely.
In the years since, the world’s favorite gothic brood have been subject to a continuing stream of attempted reincarnations. A 1998 direct-to-video movie, Addams Family Reunion, switched out the main cast, and was met with both shrugs and scorn. There was another short-lived TV show, and most recently, two tepidly received animated features. In 2022, decades after turning down the opportunity to direct The Addams Family, and years after his plans for a stop-motion movie fell through, Tim Burton is finally putting his stamp on the franchise in the form of a Netflix series, Wednesday. Time will tell if it was worth the wait.
For now, the 1991 film and its sequel are still the high watermarks when it comes to the onscreen adventures of the Addams family; it’s hard to imagine another cast surpassing Sonnenfeld’s for their joyful, unselfconscious, wholehearted commitment to the gleefully strange material. Thirty years after The Addams Family premiered, stepping through the gates of the Addams’ mansion, and hanging out with the wonderful weirdos who dwell within, remains as enticing a prospect as ever.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI Podcast Review and Paste.