It was 1938 when Charles Addams started drawing for The New Yorker the cartoons that have made him legendary, depicting the utter inversion of the Norman Rockwellesque happy all-American family. His characters certainly had many of the same attributes (notably a devotion to the family itself), but they resembled horror-movie figures and delighted in gloom and misery, for themselves and for others. One of his best drawings simply depicts a couple exchanging what for them count as sweet nothings: “Unhappy, darling?”—“Oh yes, yes!”
That gag actually makes it into Barry Sonnenfeld’s film, though Addams’s work generally was a little darker than the movie and the TV renditions of the family that had preceded it: a 1964 series (debuting a week before the conceptually similar The Munsters) and several other small-screen appearances during the 1970s.
Still, the big-budget 1991 film successfully captures the spirit of the Addams’s, a family for whom “loathsome” is a term of fondness. They’re only normal to the extent they are (mostly) not supernatural or magical beings, and are certainly not evil in a conventionally villainous sense. They just want the world—including their own lives—to be awful. When one of them has a breakdown it’s manifested in eating snack food while watching Gilligan’s Island, the epitome of slobby American male normality. Being normal is, for them, the nightmare.
Yet their pleasure in foulness is so genuine and uncomplicated, and their affection for each other so evident, that they’re alluring as characters. And this first film helmed by Sonnenfeld (who was previously a cinematographer for directors including the Coen Brothers) captures their likability, thanks in large part to strong performances in the lead roles.
All of Charles Addams’s major characters are there: paterfamilias Gomez (Raul Julia), his wife Morticia (Anjelica Huston), their children Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), Morticia’s hag-like mother (Judith Malina), Lurch the butler (Carel Struycken) and Thing, a disembodied hand which acts as a family pet. Cousin Itt (John Franklin), familiar from the 1960s TV show, though he didn’t appear in Addams’s original cartoons, also makes a cameo.
But the plot hinges on Uncle Fester—or rather, on Gordon (Christopher Lloyd), the thuggish but rather infantilised adult son of loan shark Abigail (Elizabeth Wilson) who’s persuaded by one of her creditors (Dan Hedaya) to impersonate Fester, an Addams family member who disappeared after an argument with Gomez 25 years earlier, leaving behind his disconsolate pet vulture. Posing as Fester, Gordon shows up on the doorstep of the Addams’s cobwebby mansion and is welcomed by some, but doesn’t quite convince all of them…
Confused already? You probably will be, for not everything in the movie makes sense, especially the final revelation (likely because of the numerous rewrites it underwent). But it doesn’t really matter because, as many critics at the time observed, The Addams Family is essentially a collection of gags loosely strung along a narrative. It’s driven by humour and the wacky characters Addams created, not by its rudimentary and shaky plot.
The jokes are both visual and verbal, and many of them are all the more effective for being rather predictable. An opening shot of jolly Christmas carollers inevitably cuts to the Addams’s preparing to pour boiling oil on them; the horror tropes (haunted books, a moving painting, an elaborate and noisy clock, Lurch playing the organ) become a gag in themselves.
Many of the better laughs aren’t so heavily signalled. For example, Morticia carefully trimming the flowers off roses before placing the stalks in a vase, or the children expectantly holding up an antenna during a thunderstorm. Grandmama labours in the kitchen with Gray’s Anatomy alongside The Joy of Cooking, while kids excitedly read Wounds, Scars and Gouges.
Some of the dialogue, meanwhile, is as pitch black as Charles Addams’s vision, even if the storyline doesn’t quite dare to go so far. “I’ve smoked since I was five… mother insisted.” Or my favourite, “you could have any woman you wanted, dead or alive.”
All this is witty enough and, to the film’s credit, the wit rarely flags, but it’s the cast who keep it truly engaging. Though it was Huston’s ice-cold Morticia who received a Golden Globe nomination, the real star is Julia’s Gomez, somewhat reimagined as a courteous old-school gentleman who seems to come from a much earlier era with his slicked-back hair and pencil moustache, his enthusiasm for fencing, and his wind-up gramophone. The fierce, erotic passion between him and Morticia (Cara mia! Mon sauvage!) is as believable as it is absurd, something which can be said for many of the performances here.
A wonderfully deadpan Ricci gets many of the best lines, and she stands out particularly well in scenes where she’s put opposite Lloyd’s gurning, gesticulating Gordon/Fester—who’s a kind of rotund, bumbling Nosferatu. Wilson as Abigail also excels in the movie’s only really villainous role, especially where she is (for reasons as contrived and unimportant as anything else in the plot) exaggeratedly impersonating a German doctor.
The Addams Family did well at the box office (grossing $191M from a $30M budget), although critical reception was mixed. Janet Maslin in The New York Times, for example, praised “ingenious casting, droll production design, spirited direction and dazzling camera tricks”, but like many others observed that the film is essentially a collection of one-liners on the same theme. And that’s true—it is all a variation on one big joke, albeit an almost outrageously ambitious one (a family that has completely flipped accepted notions of the good and the bad). But it’s carried off with sufficient verve, canny timing and attention to detail that it manages to sustain feature length, and even if each fresh witticism is just a new twist on the established theme, it’s difficult to think of a single one in the movie that doesn’t work.
Indeed, the concept was successfully extended to a second feature, Addams Family Values (1993), also directed by Sonnenfeld, which was a bigger critical success and yet flopped at the box office (grossing $48M and costing $47M). But it surely influenced the Hotel Transylvania and Despicable Me franchises of later years, which perhaps in turn inspired the Addams Family to move into CGI animation themselves since 2019.
You can’t really help but love The Addams Family, as well as the Addams family themselves, and if somehow you manage to hate it, or them, nothing would please Gomez, Morticia, and the rest of the clan more.
Cast & Crew
director: Barry Sonnenfeld.
writers: Caroline Thompson & Larry Wilson (based on characters by Charles Addams).
starring: Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd & Christina Ricci.