In 1964, Universal Television produced a new CBS sitcom from producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, the creators of the wildly-popular Leave It to Beaver. The show, titled The Munsters, would depict the home life of a family of monsters. It would satirize the ideal suburban American family found in the sitcoms that preceded it, such as the aforementioned Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Donna Reed Show. While the show’s premise was original when it was initially pitched, competing network ABC was soon busy crafting their own similarly-themed macabre sitcom The Addams Family. (The two series would run concurrently for the next two years with The Munsters narrowly edging it out in the ratings.) The series reunited Car 54, Where Are You? costars Fred Gwynne (as Herman Munster) and Al Lewis (as his father-in-law, Grandpa, whose surname is inexplicably Munster also). The rest of the Munster clan was rounded out by Yvonne De Carlo (Herman’s wife, Lily), Beverly Owen and later Pat Priest (niece Marilyn), and Butch Patrick (son Eddie).
In 1964, in a time slot showdown against ABC’s new color series Batman, the show’s ratings plummeted, leading to its eventual cancellation. Seeing potential for The Munsters in syndication, Universal quickly went to work on a theatrical feature based on the series. They decided that the film, Munster, Go Home!, would be shot in Technicolor whereas the series itself had been in black-and-white (save for a single season two episode, “Family Portrait”).
While a television series being revived as a feature film is hardly an anomaly, Munster, Go Home! would have an advantage other reunions don’t have. Because Universal went into production almost immediately after the cancellation (actor Butch Patrick believes it was “about a week” after shooting wrapped on the series), the resulting film would be crafted by much of the same team responsible for producing the series. Yet despite these returning elements, the film would be a watered-down version of The Munsters. Intended as an introduction for international audiences to these monstrous residents of 1313 Mockingbird Lane, Munster, Go Home! would cram virtually all of the backstory information given in the series’ two-year run into its ninety-six minute running time.
The original cast returned with the exception of Pat Priest, who was replaced by actress Debbie Watson. The studio’s decision to release Priest, whom they considered old for the role at 29, shocked the rest of the cast and left the actress devastated. “Debbie Watson was being groomed by Universal for a television series called Karen, on which she was the star,” Butch Patrick explains. “I think they wanted to gain some publicity for their new ingenue, so it was a sort of strategic thing. And also, she was younger.”
The remaining cast was happy to be reunited, but quickly found the experience to be different from what they were accustomed to. Patrick recalls, “There’s an entirely different structure to shooting a series and shooting a feature, just in the daily operation, the preparation, the cameras… Everything is different. It’s a much slower process. When you’re working on a series, you can knock out a twenty-four minute episode in a three day period. But with a movie, instead of shooting eight minutes a day you’re shooting more like two-and-a-half to three minutes a day.”
The first choice to direct the film was series regular Gene Reynolds, but Reynolds was fired early in production. The reason why isn’t clear. Butch Patrick believes Universal might have believed Reynolds’ television aesthetic was not translating to film. “Maybe they looked at the dailies and didn’t feel they were getting what they wanted,” Patrick says. The job of director was then handed over to Earl Bellamy, who had previously helmed multiple episodes of the series. “Earl Bellamy was one of the favorite directors we had had on the series,” explains Patrick. Despite Bellamy’s extensive career in television, Munster, Go Home! would be one of three theatrical films he would direct that year. The others, Gunpoint and Incident at Phantom Hill, written by The Searchers scribe Frank S. Nugent, were westerns.
The film would feature cameo appearances by a number of actors, including Richard Dawson, Terry Thomas, and Richard Pine, as well as legendary actor John Carradine, who had appeared previously on the series as Herman’s boss, Mr. Gateman. Here he would appear as a different character. “I had known John for a few years by that point,” remembers Patrick. “He was a great old guy. He had that stoic character actor look, and then later on when I had the chance to look back at some of his older films like The Grapes of Wrath, I was really impressed by the longevity of his career.”
The film’s opening sequence is jarring for those already acquainted with The Munsters. The series’ infectiously-catchy theme (later reworked into Fall Out Boy’s dreadful 2015 hit song “Uma Thurman”), is replaced by a more pedestrian piece of music, also by composer Jack Marshall. Here the Munsters looked quite different in vibrant color, their skin now a greenish-bluish tint. The opening credits are also different in that they feature creepy blood-red splash titles like a Hammer film. (The film would play up this “it-looks-like-a-real-horror-movie” theme throughout.) None of these things were particularly bad, but the film completely lost the feel and texture of the television series, and in essence its charm, which was a questionable move considering this was supposed to be a vehicle with which to introduce the show to a new audience. Because of this, it ‘s not surprising that the film would a box-office disappointment (although it would stand to reason that a failed television series with poor ratings adapted into a feature would result in a failed movie with equally poor ratings).
The film’s plot is one of the weaker Munsters storylines. One would probably expect the feature version to use a stronger storyline, but producers chose to trot out a throwaway scenario in which the family travels to England (likely an attempt to attract Hammer fans) after Herman is named a Duke and is bequeathed the full estate and title of his late uncle, Lord Cavanaugh Munster. The film immediately informs us that this will be a ridiculously overblown version of The Munsters, where the creaky jokes are sillier and broader than ever. And here, the inadequacies of these jokes are amplified by the film’s lack of an accompanying laugh track. Without the series’ laugh track manipulating viewers to chuckle at things that aren’t funny, the jokes fall flat.
Once Herman learns of his inheritance, he immediately destroys all of the furniture in the room in a joyous fit. “I used to think there would always be an England,” quips Grandpa, “but now I’m not so sure.” The family then travels to Europe via ocean liner (complete with stock footage of a ship at sea). Onboard, high-seas hijinx ensue, and Grandpa, in a failed attempt to cure Herman’s seasickness with a homegrown concoction, finds himself transformed into a wolf. This absurd scenario leads to Grandpa being detained by crewmembers and Herman having to free him from captivity.
Meanwhile, in England, a group of Herman’s long-lost relatives have begun fiendishly plotting to acquire his royal title and newly-inherited estate. These relatives, Aunt Effigie Munster and her two offspring, cousins Freddie and Grace, decide they will kill off Herman with a ticking bomb disguised as an apple (yes, that is an actual thing that happens). After the murder attempt fails, it is decided they will attempt to frighten the family back to the United States. These evil, plotting English Munsters are aided by their faithful creepy butler Cruikshank (Carradine).
There is much discussion of the “secret of Munster Hall” among the townsfolk of nearby Shroudshire, who fear the n’er-do-well Munster brood. The locals frequently gather at the pub and discuss the family’s 300-year history of poisoning pets and general no-good deeds. During one such discussion, the door flings open and fog dramatically rolls in, making way for a highly-theatrical grand entrance by Grandpa, seeking directions to Munster Hall.
When the American Munsters finally descend upon Munster Hall, they find the countryside estate to be large and looming with lightning striking all around, its creepy appearance straight out of a Hammer picture. “Did you ever see anything so beautiful in your entire life?” marvels Herman. Lily refers to the residence as her “dream house,” and hip-speaking Eddie dubs it as “weirdsville” and a “cuckoo pad.”
Once inside, Herman and Lily are treated to an assortment of ghastly sights and sounds designed to scare them away. These include maniacal cackling, the sounds of dragging chains, an animated skeleton, and a corpse hanging from the rafters. This, of course, does not achieve the desired effect. Instead, Herman and Lily are overjoyed by these occurrences, with Lily remarking that Herman’s relatives have made them feel at home.
Herman’s new title soon goes to his head, and the hulking oaf humbly explains, “I’m not a governor. I never even made alderman. I’m a simple man, a man of the people. You may call me Lord.”
When “ugly” niece Marilyn finds a lover in handsome socialite Roger Moresby, it is revealed that there is an age-old rivalry between the Moresby and Munster clans. After Roger’s father, Squire Lester Moresby, expresses his disdain for all things Munster, Effigie, Freddie, and Grace (in cahoots with a mysterious counterfeiter known only as “the Griffin”) decide to use this to their advantage. They will use Herman’s sense of familial honor to convince him to race Roger Moresby at the local speedway. There they plan to have Herman killed in an “accident,” making it look as though Roger is responsible.
Herman arrives at the race in a souped-up race car made out of a coffin and dubbed “Dragula.” Just before the race, Roger is knocked unconscious and replaced by the Griffin himself, hiding his identity beneath a driver’s helmet. This leads to multiple attempts by the Griffin to kill the unsuspecting Herman, but all of them fail. In the end, the Griffin is unmasked in a Scooby Doo fashion, and it is revealed that the mysterious counterfeiter is actually Freddie’s would-be wife, who is also Cruikshank’s daughter. Homesick Herman and Lily decide England is no place for them, and they donate Munster Hall to the town before returning to the United States.
As that final departing scene was being filmed, members of the cast wondered if they would ever see one another again. This was an emotional time for the actors. “I don’t think I’ve ever done a movie or TV shoot where the last scene on paper is actually the last scene in the shoot,” Patrick recalls. “But it was in this case. It was very surreal. It was an evening shoot and they had simulated snow down the street. The last shot was actually us all jumping in the Munster car in front of Munster Hall and driving away. Then they said, ‘cut, print, that’s a wrap.’ There were tears and a lot of hugs. It was all a congratulatory thing. It was very surrealistic and sad because it just had a finality to it that was very defined.”
Munster, Go Home! would be released theatrically on June 15, 1966. Its box-office performance was disappointing and the famous clan would not be reunited onscreen until 1981 when they would return for the telefilm The Munsters’ Revenge. Despite its poor box office and the fact that Patrick believes the Munsters may have been less effective in this “longer, drawn-out format,” he still considers Munster, Go Home! a success. “It was a hokey, campy, yuk-yuk kind of film,” he says. “It was fun and I think it did what it was supposed to do. It’s become a staple at Halloween time and a lot of people really seem to enjoy it. And in introducing the series around the globe, I’m sure the movie has made a lot of money for Universal over the years.”