The first thing that strikes you about "The Addams Family" is the casting. "Inspired" is the only word: Anjelica Huston as Morticia, Raul Julia as Gomez and Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Fester are perfect. Surprisingly, however, the best of all may be young Christina Ricci as daughter Wednesday, whose deadpan delivery is unsurpassed.

The second thing is a sense of surprise that Tim Burton, whose "Beetlejuice" would seem to be as much a model for this film as the Charles Addams cartoons or the old TV sitcom, was not hired to direct.

Instead, "The Addams Family" marks the directing debut of Barry Sonnenfeld, an innovative cinematographer whose jazziest work includes "Misery," "Raising Arizona" and "Three O'Clock High."

For those unfamiliar with the Addamses, suffice it to say this is a typical American family turned on its ear. They embrace everything dark, deadly and monstrous and live in a dilapidated "old dark house."

When Morticia is put on the rack and tortured, she looks at her torturer and says seductively, "You've done this before." When a Girl Scout approaches Wednesday's lemonade stand and asks if it's made with real lemons, Wednesday responds by asking if her cookies are made with real Girl Scouts. And when Sally Jesse Raphael does a TV show on cults, Gomez calls in and asks where they meet.

Everything in their realm is haunted, from the bearskin rug that attacks a passer-by to the front gate with a mind of its own to the clinging vines along the house that wrap up intruders. The Addamses even have their own private backyard cemetery.

Eccentric to be sure, "The Addams Family" may take a little getting used to by some members of the audience, but once you get into its rhythm, this is very funny stuff.

There is a story, though it's little more than an excuse to string together a series of inspired, very dark jokes — from one-liners to elaborate sight gags. But for the record, it involves Gomez preparing for his annual seance, intended to seek information on his long-lost brother Fester. Meanwhile, his sleazy attorney finds a Fester-imposter in a plot to steal the Addams' cache of gold doubloons.

But the story doesn't really matter. What matters is the laugh quotient, which is very high.

And how did they do "Thing," the disembodied hand that runs around like a spider on speed. The special effects that bring the hand alive are remarkable, but equally startling is how well the hand expresses fright, nervousness, boredom — you name it. (Is there an Oscar category for acting appendages?)

And though it may sound odd, I was also impressed by the passion Gomez and Morticia show for each other. True, this is a campy setting, but how many long-married people do we see in movies these days who are truly in love with each other?

"The Addams Family" is too dark for very young ones — especially a scene where the children, Wednesday and Pugsley, perform on stage in classic Grand Guignol fashion. But older kids and parents should have a great time — especially if you kick your sense of humor into the "sick" mode.

It is rated PG-13 for comic violence — including the aforementioned stage scene with a lot of phony blood — and a couple of mild profanities.