There’s really not that much different between a jump-scare and a punchline. Both require tension, setting the stakes just high enough to interest the audience and building up anticipation for that sudden, exciting release. Of course, one will leave you laughing, and one will leave you screaming (and then maybe laughing once the danger is gone), but that similar arc of emotion ties the two genres together. The horror-comedy plays with this dynamic, making the scary so ridiculous that it becomes absurd.
Charles Addams created the characters for The Addams Family for The New Yorker in 1938. As a horror-themed comedy, The Addams Family exists as a parody of the ideal American family. This idea pops up in cultural differences, such as the Addams coming from old money, rather than being a self-made breadwinner/homemaker household. However, the most obvious difference about the Addams is their love of the macabre. Morticia and Gomez celebrate dreary weather and bad behaviour, such as cheating at card games. The children Wednesday and Pugsley’s idea of play often involves beheading dolls and trying to kill each other with crossbows and knives.
The public, the average suburban families the Addams interact with are constantly shocked by their antics. However, the Addams are not evil, just different. In fact, because most of the stories about the Addams have them as the focus, even despite their bizarre behaviour, the audience roots for them, rather than their neighbours. Sometimes, the Addams do what polite society may secretly want to, but don’t out of fear or…legal reasons, like punish those annoying carollers or let the rude girl drown.
The family grew to be a household name during the run and subsequent re-run of the first television series starting in 1964. The Addams further solidified their status as a famous fictional family through cameos in other series, such as Scooby Doo, and with cult classic films such as 1993’s Addams Family Values.
In October 2019, Gomez (Oscar Isaac), Morticia (Charlize Theron), and the rest of their kin were once again updated and released for some Halloween-esque family fun. That lighthearted macabre and mischievousness is a large part of the Addams family’s charm. The trouble with rebooting the family, however, is how to maintain that uniqueness. What is weird to a family in the 60s may be quite different than for a family in 2019. What might make people scream and/or laugh in the 60s may differ for a 2019 family.
In the most recent reboot of The Addams Family, the film opens with the family (minus children) being chased with torches and pitchforks out of their original country. They then move to their famous mansion, this time in New Jersey, a nod to the original creator’s home. For the next thirteen years, enough time for Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) to be born and grow to preteen age, the family lives in isolation under the impression that outside of their property is nothing but marshland. Little do they know, the marshland has been drained and a planned suburb helmed by a home designer obsessed with her idea of ‘perfect’ has sprung up in its place. The pastel-coloured town is called “Assimilation” and features a young cheer squad that sings about the negatives of being yourself. It’s pretty clear what the message of the film is going to be with just those details.
The Addams Family 2019 is definitely more of a kids film than a family film, with its blatant messaging about accepting differences. The horror elements are generally more slapstick or gross rather than out-and-out violent or shocking. Nonetheless, the Addams are still the Addams. Morticia uses her mother’s ashes in her makeup. Wednesday has nooses at the ends of her braids. Pugsley drinks from a public water dish for dogs. They’re still the out-there close knit family we’ve known for years. It’s difficult to see how this film isn’t redundant except for some cute Halloween-esque gags and the introduction of the Addams to a new generation.
But what do the horror-comedy elements have to say, exactly? Does it add anything new? The filmmakers certainly updated the story for today’s audience. Of note is the way the characters interact with technology. There is a gag in the film where Parker (Elsie Fisher), the daughter of the home keeper, has her phone taken away as punishment, and she complains that she hasn’t been able to post a picture of her lunch in several days. Eyeroll. It is also interesting that the filmmakers made the decision to explicitly depict the Addams as first and second generation immigrants. This provides for an easy, if not heavy handed, allegory to current political issues.
Ultimately, this commentary on technology becomes the crux of the film’s conflict. The homemaker in charge of the town does not like the Addams. She uses the town’s message board to spread cruel rumours about the family. Most of these rumours suggest that the Addams are going to hurt the townspeople. Assimilation, not knowing that the Addams pretty much keep to themselves, latches onto the idea and forms an angry mob. In a series of reactions to the rumours, one citizen calls attention to the concern here: “I believe everything I read online.”
This conflict is silly and made sillier as the mob marches towards the Addams mansion with a torch app launched on their phone. After some attacks and retaliation, eventually the townspeople see that the Addams, though different, are just a family who don’t mean any harm. We get to see our happy ending.
Other themes pop up throughout the film, such as Wednesday’s teenage rebellion in the form of wearing pink instead of her iconic black. There’s also a tradition vs. new ideas plot line involving Pugsley passing a family rite of passage, which concludes with a marrying of the two. All in all the film really hits home that different is good, and those who fight against difference are wrong or misinformed. The spookiness of the Addams Family is used to emphasise that message.
Now, this movie was released in a post-Nightmare Before Christmas, post-Edward Scissorhands, post-Addams Family world, where these images are quite common in pop culture, even for young kids. The traditional Addams family aesthetic just can’t be used as it was, and the solution in the film is to use it more as set-dressing for a typical children’s film plot with added tech critique rather than take a more interesting risk.
The Addams Family 2019 uses the trappings of the classic horror-themed comedy to teach a clear lesson about accepting differences to children. The film is lighthearted fun, and the Addams cartoonish differences make the lesson easy to digest. It can be heavy-handed at times, but overall it’s a fun, somewhat forgettable romp with only the guise of the classic series.
by Krysten Jackson
Krysten Jackson is a Chicago-based writer and hot chocolate enthusiast. She spends most of her time thinking about storytelling and weird language quirks. Follow her journey to figure out what Twitter is @applekrys