The Burbs (1989) directed by Joe Dante and starring Tom Hanks
What’s it about?
A creepy family named The Klopeks moves into an idyllic suburban cul-de-sac. They don’t tend to their lawn, a lot of light and noise emits from their basement each night, and they only come out after dark to put out their rubbish. Needless to say, their behaviour causes much consternation and concern amongst the neighbours.
Amongst these are Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), an average middle class Joe with wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) and kid, who is trying to have a peaceful vacation lazing about at home. Across the street is Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), an ageing army vet who is in his own private war with Walter (Gale Gordon), whose poodle keeps doing its business on his lawn. He lives with bubbly blonde wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal). There is also a young rocker named Ricky (Corey Feldman) who regularly invites his buddies round for lawn parties to observe the eccentric goings on. Rounding out the group is Art (Rick Ducommun), Ray’s boorish best buddy whose obsession with true crime stories feeds the latter’s paranoia about the Klopeks, much to the concern of the more grounded Carol.
Things suddenly take on a creepy dimension when Walter mysteriously disappears from his house, and soon afterwards Ray’s dog digs up a human tibia bone from the Klopek’s garden. Are these new neighbours really as sinister as they appear? Ray, Rumsfield and Art decide to intensify their investigations.
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Why is it significant?
The ‘Burbs wasn’t one of Joe Dante’s most acclaimed or commercially-successful films during its theatrical release but it has won a number of fans over the years. Casting-wise, it's a relic from the 1980s phase of Tom Hanks’ career, when he was largely considered a comedic actor after starring in films such as Splash, Batchelor Party, Dragnet and Big. It was also one of the higher-profile gigs for the late Carrie Fisher after the original Star Wars trilogy.
How does it hold up?
As with Joe Dante’s hit Gremlins, The ‘Burbs is a horror-comedy that unveils a darkly mean undercurrent underneath a somewhat whimsical US suburban idyll. Again, Dante reveals a love of a wide spectrum of movies via plentiful references and stylistic homages. The opening starts from Universal’s usual Earth logo and then zooms in on a suburb somewhere in America’s Midwest, straight into a gothic-tinged overhead night shot of the castle-like house where the Klopeks reside. The next shot, a daylight opening of the neighbourhood flickering into the dynamism of middle-class front lawn life, is a pastel-coloured faux love letter pitched somewhere between Spielberg and sitcom.
As the film progresses, the first introduction to a Klopek in person homages the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, complete with a lifted musical cue from Once Upon A Time In The West playing over a skit of wordless, cycling close-ups of faces. Horror movies such as The Exorcist, The Sentinel, Devil’s Rain and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are referenced, culminating in a comically scary dream sequence.
Pop-culture and the suburban mindset
The pop-culture referencing and homages were entertaining in Gremlins and its sequel but felt a little self-indulgent at times. Here, however, they fit in well at depicting a suburban mindset littered with preconceptions about the “neighbours from hell” moulded by these sorts of movies along with the likes of true crime sensationalism, Fortean Times-style fascinations with the occult and (in the shape of Rumsfield’s character) survivalist-style paranoia. Paradoxically however, The ‘Burbs isn’t quite as good a movie as Dante’s Gremlins duo. Underneath the collage of quirky skits and references those two well-loved movies (the original in particular) were superbly-crafted creature features. This one is just a slight effort which tries to spin as much comic capital as possible around the perceptions of these strange neighbours who may (or may not) be involved in sinister activities.
Luckily, it does pretty well within its limitations. The comic situations, veering from sly satire of middle class American concerns to broad Chevy Chase-style slapstick, are generally pretty funny. The cast is great as well. I’m not a massive fan of Tom Hanks, but here he is just right as a fairly normal guy who starts collapsing into stressed hysterics as he worries about the weird goings on - and later the more extreme actions they start to take when investigating the Klopeks. Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommun are lots of fun as his two buddies who are all too keen to put their military and crackpot expertise into practice. It remains entertaining throughout the 102-minute runtime.
Runtime: 102 mins
Dir: Joe Dante
Script: Dana Olsen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Rick Ducommun, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schaal, Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, Courtney Gains, Gale Gordon