Page to Screen: Addams Family Values (1993)


Addams Family Values
based on the comics by Charles Addams


1993 • 94 minutes • Paramount Pictures

Bowie among us, you could not make Addams Family Values these days. You can’t put a baby in constant, mortal danger for laughs in anything but the blackest of comedies these days, and Addams Family Values does so in a dark but ultimately lighthearted family film. A family film which also includes a joke about a stripper being baked to death in a cake by one of our heroes. This all seems a little weird in the context of 2015, but Matilda got pretty cartoonishly violent three years after this hit screens.

The nineties—apparently, the self-esteem of a Bill Clinton presidency and a booming economy means that the idea of children in mortal danger is so outlandish that it’s funny. The past is another country indeed.

Of the two theatrically released Addams Family films (the third film, Addams Family Reunion, was a direct to video release, even though it technically debuted on Fox Family—LONG MAY YOU RUN, BELOVED CHANNEL OF MY YOUTH), Addams Family Values seems to be the more fondly remembered. It boasts most of the charms of the first film while having a plot that’s more interesting and much bettered structured than the meandering question of whether or not Fester is or isn’t really Fester.

Addams Family Values pits the Addamses against some worthier rivals—the elder Addamses become the latest target of black widow serial killer Debbie Jellinsky and the younger Addamses are, after Debbie gets them out of her hair, pitted against the privileged excesses of an uber-WASPy camp.

It’s the latter plot that’s more memorable. In a landscape where Thanksgiving doesn’t really have any holiday specials attached to it (I mean, thanks for playing, Star Wars Holiday Special, but no), Wednesday’s barn-burning hijacking of a grossly historically inaccurate Thanksgiving pageant in the name of vengeance is the closest thing nineties kids have to a pop culture Thanksgiving tradition that isn’t Mystery Science Theater 3000. And compared to other films about young love, Wednesday’s chaste, somber, and weird proto-romance with a very young David Krumholtz is downright refreshing.

But I actually preferred the A plot, as it were. In my limited experiences of the Addamses, they’re usually pitted against regular people who don’t understand them. Here, the Addams are struggling with someone who is also murderous and macabre. Debbie is a nightmare dressed like a daydream, to quote Taylor Swift, although maybe a daydream you might only have if you’re a cat in the nineties suffering recursive nostalgia for the fifties. (Recursive, because it’s nostalgia for seventies’ nostalgia.) Joan Cusack plays her to the hilt as a monstrous femme fatale with very specific and hilarious mouth work. What makes it really sing for me, though, is that the Addams really, really like Debbie: as she delivers her villain monologue, they all cluck sympathetically. Poor old Deb’s landed in the one family in the land that would take her as she is, and she just refuses to see it.

Addams Family Values is a broader film than the first, and nowhere is that more evident in how Morticia is lit. Gone is the spooky, ghostly light; instead, she gets a slash of blinding light across her eyes. I will admit to giggling when Houston pointedly hit her mark in a shot and stepped directly into that light. But it’s also more comfortable, with the characters and the shenanigans they get themselves up to. Pubert, Morticia and Gomez’s latest spawn, is not as endearing as the film thinks, and he vanishes from the franchise pretty shortly after. (Pugsley eats him.) But seeing Wednesday and Pugsley try to express, in their way, their sudden insecurity in their parents’ affection is actually endearing, and proves that the characters still have their sitcom potential in the modern era.

Which, of course, paved the way for The New Addams Family. And while I know it seems like I’ve been doing a deep dive of the Addams Family, I will not be following them through. My journey with the Addams is probably ending here, as it does for several characters in this film—I remain fascinated and slightly horrified by how lightly it plays off its body count.

I watched this film on Netflix.

2 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Addams Family Values (1993)

  1. I love Joan Cusack in this one too. She’s wonderful.

    I’m the opposite of you, I actually like the B plot with the kids at camp better than the A side. I think it’s mostly because the A plot felt a little bit like a rehashing of the first movie with some of the directions it took. I wish they wouldn’t have focused on Fester again. I would have been more interested to see it concentrate on Morticia or Gomez, in some way.

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