The Addams Family is an icon of happy madness, morbid fun, and macabre amusement. It is as much a sideshow as a franchise, and equal parts parachute, noose, and straitjacket. It was created in 1938 as a series of unrelated single-panel cartoons by Charles Addams, the only cartoonist The New Yorker magazine ever recommended for psychiatric evaluation. So it is a shame we’ll never know what the cartoonist would’ve thought of Tim Burton’s Wednesday, the latest and most promising adaptation of the warped family entertainment for televised consumption in quite some time.
Featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones as Morticia Addams, and Luis Guzmán as family patriarch Gomez, Wednesday stars Jenna Ortega as the title character. The cast also includes Christina Ricci, the most iconic Wednesday Addams from the 1990s films directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Touted as a supernaturally infused mystery set at the Nevermore Academy, Wednesday will get a full cinematic treatment as a series on Netflix. It’s the first major live-action television Addams series since The New Addams Family revival in the late ‘90s—and the first good one since ABC made the characters iconic in 1964. The sisters, brothers, grandmamas, aunt Calpurnias, cousin Itts, and Things who carry the Addams name are always ready for a closeup.
But before Burton returned the Addams to their television roots, the kooky and spooky family went forth and multiplied on the big screen, including in a handful of films that for younger generations are the definitive Addams adventures. Thus here are the six motion pictures shaken from Chas Addams’ family tree, from the weakest root to the perennially petrified. Crawl off your broomsticks, throw on a shawl, and if you’re popping anything livelier than corn, remember to play with your food while you watch.
6. The Addams Family 2 (2021)
One might think Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, who gave us the R-rated feature cartoon Sausage Factory, would be the perfect directors to provide life to the lovable psychopaths, pioneering fiends, mad-dog killers, and brutes of the original inked panel strip. One might also opt for a partial frontal lobotomy after watching this. In a case where the sequel proves worse than an original, sitting through The Addams Family 2 is like being sentenced to hard time in the Happy Hut of the top film on this list. The Addams Family movies are family films, but that doesn’t mean they should be films only for children.
Oscar Isaac voices Gomez against Charlize Theron’s Morticia, and the only thing these recent animated films get right from the comic is that he married way above his class. This is made abundantly clear when you see him in a bathing suit in The Addams Family 2. Yes, the Addams go to the beach here, and not just so Uncle Fester can clear it by wearing a shark-fin swimsuit. Their road trip from Salem, Massachusetts, to Death Valley, the threadbare vehicle for this movie’s plot, is best viewed by rubberneckers who’ll be disappointed by the pristine wreckage.
The movie’s Wednesday, voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz, also commits a grievous sin, and it’s not only because she betrays her character and The Addams Family’s core concept by eagerly buying into the idea she may have been switched at birth from a more respectable family; the movie likewise opens as she receives a first-place prize at a Science Fair. In an educational community where everyone gets first place because there are no losers, Wednesday should have demanded a recount on principle.
5. The Addams Family (2019)
At least the first of The Addams Family animated features has pitchforks, torches, and a truly frightening nemesis. Their surrounding community is poised to change its name to Assimilation, and the New Jersey lunatic asylum the Addams call home becomes the star of a home makeover reality show. Neither frightening nor frightful, the interior decorating star with ulterior motives, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), posts vile slander on social media which should only make Addams feel house-proud.
The best jokes in the animated feature come directly from Addams’ original cartoons for The New Yorker, but lines are also lifted from the 1960s series and the classic pair of 1990s adaptations, as well. Pugsley gets more screen time for once, but that’s mainly because he’s being voiced by Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard, and not because his story is that interesting. Chloë Grace Moretz’s Wednesday maintains some semblance of careening misfortune, Gothically bonding with the enemy progeny, and coming home with a can-do attitude and a unicorn hair clip. “How dare you bring that into my house,” Morticia explodes.
The most gruesome threat to uncommon indecency comes from the truly scary real estate community ad jingle “What’s so great about being yourself when you can be like everyone else? It’s easy to be happy if you have no choice.” This is a true horror in the midst of childish spectacle, especially when the film ends with an understanding that the Addams’ and their neighbors have more in common than differentials. The production could have used a dusting.
4. Addams Family Reunion (1998)
Directed by Dave Payne, Addams Family Reunion was supposed to be the pilot for a television series to mirror the two earlier, successful features. It also paired Tim Curry and Daryl Hannah as Gomez and Morticia. If only the producers didn’t make the same mistake as the film’s Addams family do when they go to the wrong family reunion. The execs basically told him to imitate the Paramount Pictures movies without its dark comedy and pointed satire, and keep the feel of the ‘60s series but without the silliness. The very concept gave scriptwriters “Waltzheimer’s disease,” an infectious condition which renders all things normal.
In spite of the script, and because he is played by Tim Curry, Gomez is a worthy successor to the performance given by the late Raul Julia, whose final screen performance as Gomez distilled the actor into dark comic legend. For Curry, this is a relatively restrained performance, although his lips do calisthenics over the dialogue to capture shards of humor from an empty glass. Hannah brings the essence of Anjelica Huston’s Morticia to the role, but it only makes you miss Huston. Hannah isn’t given a chance to personalize the character, which she may have done had the cast stayed together for The New Addams Family TV series.
Nicole Figuere, who did make it to the eventual series, is a game and eager Wednesday, putting her mark on the part in the short span of the memory of the film, which wants to be like director Barry Sonnenfeld’s adaptation so bad, it leaves little to remember it by. Payne’s cameras have a ball on the Addams compound at least.
3. Halloween with the New Addams Family (1977)
There was nothing new about Halloween with the New Addams Family. It was one of those shoddily slapped together rehashes so popular in the late 1970s, but at least it reassembled most of the cast of the 1964 to 1966 sitcom. The only original character to be replaced was Grandmama Addams, played by veteran actor Blossom Rock, who’d suffered a stroke, and would pass on Jan. 14, 1978. The rest of the returning champions bring fully realized caricatures to lackluster material, fresh after an 11-year break.
John Astin is a consummate professional, and an enthusiastic lunatic, whose eyes glisten as brightly as always as Gomez, and who never lost his overriding romance for his bride. Carolyn Jones not only exudes the darkly magnetic center of the character she originated onscreen, she brings judo chops to her second role as the older sister Ophelia. Jackie Coogan’s Uncle Fester does as his name suggests, and his bulb has not gone out. Ted Cassidy brings his unique brand of butlering and organ grinding to Lurch.
The production adds two young children, Wednesday Jr. and Pugsley Jr., who are redundant. It’s bad enough Lisa Loring and Ken Weatherwax, the original Wednesday and Pugsley, were relegated to small appearances as Wednesday and Pugsley during the original run; now they get the same few featured scenes for Halloween. At least Loring gets a recurring gag as an adult here, which gets a little less funny each time it’s replayed.
Felix Silla’s Cousin Itt is hamstrung by a complete lack of imagination from the sound department. But the biggest audio crime is the loss of Vic Mizzy’s snappin’ theme music. The movie begins with an unrecognizable remix and it never materializes. This was the only color production, shot on videotape, of this configuration of The Addams Family, and the bright colors undercut the eerie atmosphere of the original. This is only for die-hard fans.
2. The Addams Family (1991)
“We would gladly feast on those who would subdue us.” These are not just pretty words, but the motto of The Addams Family. Former cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld set a new family standard in his screen directing debut. Every other line in the screenplay, written by Caroline Thompson, Larry Wilson, and with material from an uncredited Paul Rudnick, is a punchline. The other half are setups.
Anjelica Huston, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for the role, brings malice of forethought to every utterance as her performance as Morticia Addams. “Widows and orphans, we need more of them,” she enthuses to fundraising neighbors. Raul Julia is as iconic a Gomez Addams as Astin because he is just as committed to the madcap reality, bringing a swashbuckling insanity to the patriarch. This is the most fun actors like these could have. It is clear in every frame, and as contagious as the opening notes to “The Mamushka”. Christopher Lloyd’s career is littered with the debris of iconic signature roles, and his Fester Addams is a rogue among rogues in his gallery.
Jimmy Workman’s Pugsley gets a few laughs, but not as many scenes as Thing. Christina Ricci’s Wednesday, however, steals the movie, and she does it in the most underhanded way by underplaying every line so impeccably. The mere typing of this is making me giggle in recollection. The question of the afterlife is a game of life or death to Wednesday, and she treats it like any other Tuesday. Ricci is uniquely talented, one of the most committed actors to any concept, she has a laser-beam focus on the core of what is funny in any onscreen moment, dialogue or not.
1. Addams Family Values (1993)
Reteaming Barry Sonnenfeld and the finally credited Paul Rudnick, Addams Family Values is an improvement on the exquisite imperfection of their first film. The humor is darker, the double entendres are tripled, and there is a new addition to the family. Infant Pubert Addams has his father’s mustache above his top lip, and his grandfather’s eyes in his mouth. He’s a natural fit for any guillotine, may well be cannon fodder, and runs through more nannies than nappies.
Joan Cusack’s Debbie Jellinsky is one of the great Addams family nemeses. So much so, even Morticia compliments her on everything but her tacky style, which she can’t even appreciate ironically. The scheming nanny really is a perfect match for eligible bachelor and firstborn Addams, Uncle Fester, the cover boy on this month’s “Lifestyles Of The Rich And Freakish.” There’s always room for another serial killer in the Addams Family, Gomez implies he’s had the pleasure. It is a pain, however, when the next inheritance to be collected on the kick-the-bucket list is a beloved brother, and torture is Morticia’s job.
Now tweens, Wednesday and Pugsley are deemed capable of handling the bracing shock of a real world: Camp Chippewa, where summers go to die. To ensure this, the young Addams children take a few pages from Lord of the Flies, stuff them in a turkey, and sing “Eat Me.” By the time the camp counselors are spinning on the rotisserie, we know the creator of the comic panel would be rolling over in his grave with appreciative laughter. Addams Family Values captures the mayhem of the original while keeping things contemporary, thrashing Amy Fisher, Michael Jackson, and every early ‘90s tabloid tidbit ripe for picking on.
During the making of this film, Raul Julia was undergoing treatment for the stomach cancer which would ultimately take him. You would never know this from his magnificent portrayal of Gomez Addams. He usurps the depths of despair in the scenes of family distress—a betraying brother or a possibly normal son—and tangos with Angelica Huston’s marvelous Morticia as if it is the first time, every time.
Wednesday premieres Nov. 23 on Netflix.