Forget happy endings: The Addams Family gives the lie to the notion that we like happy anything. Why else would three generations of audiences take this crowd to their black hearts? In the '40s and '50s, Charles Addams' cartoons provided a blast of tart ghastliness to the staid New Yorker; the '60s TV show gave us two seasons' worth of subversive sick jokes; and now the 1991 movie The Addams Family has resurrected the clan with hip casting and big-time special effects.
What's remarkable is how steady the message has remained through all the pop-culture permutations (including a short-lived made-for-TV Hanna-Barbera animated version once available on home video but temporarily discontinued). That message unforced, lurking behind the laughs is that darkness and decay do have their honest fascinations, that those who don't acknowledge as much are fools at best and hypocrites at worst, and that giving in to our bleaker impulses can sometimes yield a sublime romantic freedom.
It's all there in the eloquently acid pen lines of Addams' drawings (most recently collected in Knopf's The World of Charles Addams). A pleasant eccentric whose tastes ran to fast cars and medieval weaponry, Addams (who died in 1988) had the genius to stumble onto sick humor 20 years ahead of schedule, with panels such as the one where a missionary spies a pal's head passing by on a native spear and remarks, ''Why, there's Carver now.'' In 1939, he came up with something more: a sexy wraith whom we would know as Morticia looking up at a misshapen manservant hulking out of the darkness (he would become Lurch) and saying, ''Oh, it's you! For a moment you gave me quite a start.''
More than two decades later, a TV producer named David Levy leafed through the latest Addams collection and heard a cash register go ka-ching. After initial input from the artist (who suggested that the husband be called Repelli and the son Pubert; unwiser heads prevailed), The Addams Family hit the ABC schedule in 1964 for a two-season run. The broader, dumber Munsters debuted on CBS that same year, but a look at any of the episodes released on the 12 Addams Family videotapes proves there's really no comparison. With plots sometimes taken directly from the cartoons in the second episode on these tapes, Pugsley distresses the family by wearing a Boy Scout uniform the series benefited from witty writing, surprisingly out-there sight gags, and the inspired hamming of John Astin, Carolyn Jones, and Jackie Coogan.
Gone was Charles Addams' gently brainy elegance, but the tube version added an antisocial charm that was new for TV. True, the hollow laugh track never let up, a middlebrow Greek chorus sharing the view of those befuddled Normaltown representatives who stumbled into the mansion each week. But the canned yuks missed the point: We laugh with the Addamses rather than at them. And who wouldn't? At a time when sitcom parents slept in twin beds, Morticia and Gomez were all over each other like hot-to-trot teens. They never lied to their kids, they had a creative sense of play (Gomez was blowing up toy trains right from the first episode), and their taste in interior decoration was decidedly cool. Ozzie and Harriet didn't stand a chance.
The Addams Family, the movie, holds on to that misanthropic glee even deepens it into a genuinely touching way of looking at the world darkly. Visually the film owes much to Tim Burton's new pop gothic, and critics carped that the plot something about a Fester imposter trying to get at the family fortune was weak, which it is. But look, folks, this is a movie spawned from a magazine cartoon and a TV sitcom. If it's plot you want, rent Drop Dead Fred.
A strong narrative, in fact, might have weighed this movie down. Instead, we're given a series of grand comic riffs that fulfill Hollywood's postmodern-blockbuster equation (i.e., tastes great/less filling) without selling out Charles Addams. First-time director Barry Sonnenfeld gives the ghoulish set pieces a luster that gleams even on the small screen, and the film has been edited to turn on a dime. Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston, and Christina Ricci as Wednesday perform with a fervor far beyond the reach of the TV series, and advances in special effects have turned Thing into a skittery wiseass. Better yet, even when this Addams Family turns silly, it never devolves into camp. It's too entranced by the glamour of its own gloom.
Still, because it is a movie, a certain threat is missing. You have to go back to Charles Addams' cartoons to find it, those frozen moments that captured an instant of ingenious nastiness as if strobe-lit by lightning. The boiling oil just about to spill on the Christmas carolers, the ski tracks that go around either side of a tree: Ultimately, Addams left it all up to our own imaginations. And that remains a scarier place than anything Hollywood has yet come up with.