Kicking off with Fester standing on top of the ghastly family home, howling at the moon, followed swiftly by Morticia’s classic ‘Gomez, marvelous news: I’m going to have a baby. Right now’, The Addams Family Values not only continues the gothic hilarity of the first movie, but takes it to even blacker depths.
Delivering ghoulish one-liner after ghoulish one-liner (‘He has my father’s eyes’; ‘Gomez, take them out of his mouth’) and interspersed with incredible comic set-pieces (The Turkey Day play at Camp Chippewa is one for the ages), it has been criminally undervalued as one of the comedic triumphs of the ‘90s. Dissembling American suburban family life as Edward Scissorhands had done three years earlier but with a comedic flair that Tim Burton was never looking to achieve, it was well received upon release but without the rapture it so deserved.
In the hands of director Barry Sonnenfeld, the film never falters on its journey towards near-death for most of the characters. As the gruesomely-named baby Pubert arrives, so too does Debbie, the evil nanny hellbent on marrying – then murdering – Fester for his fortune. Debbie repeatedly attempts to murder Fester but, as any fan of the original TV show knows, he’s as hard to kill as… well, as he looks. Finally, she resorts to cutting him off from his family, first sending Wednesday and Pugsley off to camp. And this is what truly gives the movie its life: cut off from each other and from their beloved brother and uncle, the family begins to crumble. Gomez takes to his bed as his baby grows ever more normal, with Grandmama (Carol Kane) predicting his dire future: “He could become President!” For all their horror show antics, the Addams family love and need each other – they are a real family and that’s why we care.
The cast is phenomenal: Angelica Huston is luminous as Morticia (literally, her eyes inexplicably lit with an untraceable glow), Raul Julia a whirlwind of charm and desperation as the theatrical patriarch Gomez. Happily, Christopher Lloyd takes centre stage again as Fester, romanced by the evil bachelor killer, Debbie (Joan Cusack, at her most chillingly saccharine).
But to me and my sister, there was only one star of the movie. Some children may have dreamed of being one of the Little Rascals, others one of Bugsy Malone’s gang or the Goonies, but there was no one we idolised more than Wednesday Addams. At just thirteen, Christina Ricci is the poker-faced, raven-haired child-devil with a heart of darkness, cooler than any Disney princess we’d ever seen, nailing moment after moment of coal-black comedy. She begins the movie by trying to kill her baby brother, sips poison after a particularly enthused welcome from the camp counsellors and, finally, in her crowning moment of glory, causes the utter destruction of her holiday camp by burning it to the ground.
It’s worth pointing out that for all its camp, The Addams Family Values delivers some cutting takedowns of American society. An early hospital scene sees Wednesday and Pugsley listen to an earnest child’s explanation of how a baby is born, shielded from the truth by her parents: “And then a stork flew down from heaven and put a diamond under the cabbage patch, and the diamond turned into a baby!” “Our parents are having a baby too,” Pugsley says. The camera swoops in on Wednesday’s face: “They had sex,” she smirks, a line my sister and I have quoted for years since. Meanwhile a fine cameo from Nathan Lane sees the Addams family take on governmental bureaucracy when they storm a police station.
Camp Chippewa rips into privileged white America with the counsellor’s inability to pronounce non-white campers’ names, horror at marrying ‘the help’ and its patronising play about the perfect white settlers: “Remember, these savages are our guests.” Amanda Buckman (Mercedes McNab) intones, “We must not be surprised by any of their strange customs; after all they have not have any of our advantages such as fine schools, libraries… shampoo.” “You have taken the land which is rightfully ours,” Wednesday coolly responds. “Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations; your people will wear cardigans and drink Highballs.” I am honestly not sure if even The West Wing delivered such a blisteringly accurate summary of the subjugation of Native Americans.
The film is impeccably designed. The gloomy Gothicism of the Addams’ family home seeps from the wallpaper, into their clothing and across the surrounding graveyard. But most cleverly of all, it is the most normal of environments that are set up to be the creepiest. The honeymoon suite is horrifyingly kitsch, while Camp Chippewa is eye-wateringly normal, the bright orange camper polo shirts and greenery of the outside glowing as if on an overly saturated television set. And The Harmony Hut is possible the scariest set of the film, a cabin stuffed with cuddly bears, pastel colours and a bizarrely terrifying poster of Michael Jackson where Wednesday, Pugsley and accomplice Joel are forced into watching a marathon of Disney movies. The costuming is similarly on-point – Fester never looked quite so horrible as in his Debbie inflicted makeover. Fake orange bowl cut anyone?
Just as it looks like the family has found its way back to each other, Debbie returns with a shotgun and the best goddamn slideshow in cinematic history. All credit goes to screenwriter Paul Rudnick for the most villainously poignant monologue in which Debbie insanely lists off the many injustices she has faced: a series of neglectful husbands, no Mercedes Benz and, worst of all, the wrong tenth birthday present. “All I wanted was a ballerina Barbie!”, she wails, having managed to strap each Addams family member into their own electric chair, “And you know what they got me? MA-LI-BU BAR-BIE.” Death seems imminent but there is one member of the family they’ve all forgotten: baby Pubert. A cannonball and a short flight later and he is there to save the day, leaving Debbie to burn into a pile of ash, only her credit cards left intact.
A third Addams Family film was made but without most of the original cast and unrelated to the first two. That’s fine; it really isn’t needed. The Addams Family Values is as close to a perfect comedy as it can get; to me, it is bested only by Airplane!. So if you somehow missed it and had a deprived childhood of not walking around pretending to be unsmiling and homicidal, please, please check it out. It is definitely the most heart-warming and hilarious film about a family who continually try to kill each other you will ever see.