In my family, Halloween always was, and remains, a monstrous affair, our biggest celebration perhaps, after Christmas. I struggle to think of a film I have seen more times than Addams Family Values, a sequel that fully captures the magic of the franchise and remains essential Halloween viewing to this day.
What sets Addams Family Values apart from its predecessor — and from most family focused comedies — is the balance struck between its cutting, satirical humour and the emotional weight conjured up by its stellar cast. Oh, and it’s high camp from start to finish. And on that, let’s induct Addams Family Values into the NGMC.
For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t somehow seen this Bank Holiday Channel 5 staple, the film follows the eccentric, ghoulish family as they welcome a new member to the fold – the alarmingly named Pubert – and go on to rescue Uncle Fester from his new gold digging wife, who [SPOILER ALERT] is also a serial killer. She masterfully separates the family – understanding quickly that their strength lies in unity – and they must rescue Fester from her villainous clutches. Subplots include Wednesday and Pugsley suffering at summer camp, Morticia entering the world of work, and Pubert becoming a blond, rosy-cheeked cherub as a result of the family’s traumatic circumstance.
The film’s greatest asset is its cast, some of whom we do not meet in the first film. The chemistry between its lead actors Raúl Juliá and gay icon Angelica Huston is palpable; the former is bombastic and impassioned by virtually everything. ‘At his request, I would rip out my eyes. At his command, I would crawl on my belly through hot coals and broken glass,’ he says of Fester, while the latter remains calm and vampish throughout.
Huston is always lit separately from everyone else in a scene, with one beam of light across her eyes that gradually fades outward. The kind of energy taken to preserve something so needlessly over the top is the reason we are discussing this film.
The larger cast is excellent, especially the chilling deadpan of Christina Ricci as Wednesday, the addition of legendary comic actor Carol Kane as Grandmama Addams and, of course, a star turn by Christine Baranski as Becky Martin-Granger, who puts the ‘camp’ in camp counsellor.
Addams Family Values is a visual feast and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. The aforementioned production of Morticia alone is impressive, but the entire film has so much to appreciate aesthetically: the contrast between the Addams children (dressed in Victorian swimwear) and their all-American privileged counterparts at summer camp; the special effects, not least the prominence and acrobatics of Thing; and the hair and costuming, which captures the caricature of each character perfectly.
The film is hugely satirical, the family itself parodying the archetypal family that had been part of the cultural zeitgeist on TV in the 60s. One need look no further than the iconic Thanksgiving set piece in the film’s third act, after Wednesday, Pugsley, and Joel have endured a summer at Camp Chippewa. Wednesday is largely treated to the best straight-man punchlines in the movie whereas the masterful Raúl Juliá chews up every scene with flair and melodrama: ‘To mirth, to merriment… to manslaughter!’. The script for Family Values is flawless.
However, the gem in the crown that is Addams Family Values is the character of Debbie Jellinsky, the homicidal gold digger played with aplomb by Joan Cusack. She is in full drag: dresses immaculately in white, sports the perfect blonde bob and full face of makeup, and remains outrageously over the top from start to finish. Unlike the family she has chosen to torment, Debbie truly is a monster. She has killed several men in the hopes of securing her own fortune and is a master of disguise and deception. The character is a masterclass in camp.
Cusack savours every moment and leans into the cartoon villain: she gift wraps a bomb intended for Fester with ribbon. Meanwhile the ‘Ballerina Barbie’ monologue, recited as she holds the family captive, lives rent free in my head: ‘Graceful. Delicate.’
She even makes a visually appealing, organised slideshow detailing all her past victims, for crying out loud. Cusack evokes the glamorous femmes fatales of old Hollywood but injects such humour and gleeful malice. Put this performance in the Smithsonian.
But ultimately, the Addams family provides a sharp contrast to the conservative Americans who rallied behind the Bush-era slogan of ‘family values,’ a section of society that has hardly dissipated in the last three decades.
Screenwriter Paul Rudnick has reflected on his intention behind the script: ‘I did also want the movie’s name to be a response to the Republican Party’s constant harping on ‘family values’ as if only conservatives could define a loving family. In Republican terms, ‘family values’ is always code for censorship and exclusion, and Republicans still refuse to respect or even acknowledge, for example, LGBTQ families. I like to believe that the Addams Family is far more loving and accepting than their enemies. Lesson: be more like an Addams.
Some of us are lucky enough to have close and accepting families, but many LGBTQ+ people simply don’t, relying heavily instead on a chosen family that loves them as they are. And I guess I see my own family in the Addams – perhaps with less bloodlust. But regardless of who you’re with this year, indulge in the morbid macabre and merriment of an iconic troupe that epitomises unconditional love, the importance of haphazard bowling balls and, of course, wholesome family values.
Oh, and Happy Halloween.
Addams Family Values is currenty streaming on Netflix