It’s been years since I’ve seen Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs. As a kid I adored it—watching it so many times that the entire thing feels branded onto my cerebral cortex. Just the other day my wife and I were discussing the issue of lunatic neighbors, and the film came up. It seemed like an obvious candidate for revisiting. The real question was, would it hold up? The relieving answer is ‘surprisingly well’.
On the plot level, The Burbs tells the story of a stir-crazy suburbanite named Ray who is home on a ‘staycation’ when he begins to suspect, thanks to the other nut-jobs in the cul-de-sac, that his new neighbors are actually killing people. Of course, with Joe Dante(Gremlins, Matinee) at the helm it’s really just a series of nutty, nutty set-pieces and Tom Hanks mugging his way through various riffs on Rear Window. But, you know, all of that is part of the fun.
When it was released in 1989 The Burbs was flatly panned by critics and fizzled at the box-office. I’m not even sure it really has that much of a following today. Part of the issue, at least when it was released, was that many were expecting a satire; a condemnation of the kind of tribal lunacy and territorialism that can transform neatly manicured lawns and picket fences into cold-war zones. Instead, the movie was pitched at the level of a 1940’s screwball horror comedy. Watch something like James Whales The Old Dark House and you will have a better idea of the manic/gothic tone that The Burbs generates–particularly when it comes to the suspect family, the Klopeks.
What is so strange about the movie today is that it doesn’t feel as much a product of the 80s as I figured it would. It hasn’t aged as terribly because the world represented in the film was outdated the moment it was released. Back in the 80s, Dante, Spielberg, Zemeckis and a few others—Burton comes to mind—were all creating films that imagined America, and the suburbs in particular, as a world where the late 60s and all of the 70s never happened. E.T. captures a mostly realistic modern(for the time) neighborhood, but take a look at those other films and what you will find are idealistic reveries of the 1950’s sensibility of community existing underneath a 1980s coating.
Dante was perhaps most guilty of this. Over half of his movies, including Small Soldiers, begin with sweeping shots of a kid riding his bike through a pleasant little town and often end with a fireball ripping through main-street. The Burbs is no exception there. The only difference is it doesn’t give us the town. It limits all the action to this one microcosm. Not an ounce of the setting feels real. It has an artificiality that reminds me of a child’s view of the world. The entire neighborhood looks like a back-lot set. The Klopeks’ house could have been decorated by Freddy Krueger. Hanks and his fellow suburbanites have been ported in from that Twilight Zone episode with Claude Atkins and the covert alien invasion. It’s one big fantasy, and that’s why it’s as much fun as it is.
The people populating the film are the central reason for all of my amusement. Hanks is just playing himself, which at this point of his career is exactly what people expected. Carrie Fisher is a put upon wife, but she’s just there for Hanks to play off of. The only character who really ends up being a satire of the nosy, overbearing neighbor is Art Weingartner. Everyone else is a fantasy representation of a human being. Corey Feldman (a few short years away from his career implosion) reprises the same role he held all through the 80s—that perky, snarky neighborhood kid who suspects something crazy is about to go down and is usually right.
My favorite character, Rumsfield, is a crazy military wack-job and one of the humorous bits of the film is that the man has never actually seen combat. He lives in the dreamland created by war films like The Dirty Dozen, and that’s quite fitting since he’s played by the great Bruce Dern. Everything Dern does in this film gets a laugh. The scene where he’s sitting there on the roof decimating a box of animal crackers while wearing camouflage just feels incredibly right for the character.
When Dante introduces the Klopeks into the film he makes them the worst kind of grotesques. Young Hans looks like a Neanderthal crossed with a leprechaun. Brother Theodore plays Rueben Klopek with the same monstrous tone that he used to voice the animated version of Gollum in The Hobbit. Finally, there’s Henry Gibson as the head of the clan, Dr. Klopek. He’s one of the reasons that I think The Burbs ends up being as entertaining as it is. The performance is a really good one and better than the very slight caricature provided by the script.Unlike Rear Window or Fright Night that tip their hands early on in regards to their villains’ guilt, The Burbs doesn’t reveal whether the Klopeks are victims or monsters until the end. As a result, it’s important that Gibson suggest innocence and menace. He has to have our sympathy and our suspicion. He does and he anchors the movie’s further silliness.
One could make the case that The Burbs is over-the-top, undisciplined and nearly idiotic for most of it’s running time. You wouldn’t’ be wrong if you thought so. It is all those things, but it also has a relentless energy. Re-watching it, I forgot how many moments there are where the film just bursts out into wanton absurdity. I still love the scene where Hanks and gang watch Hans take the trash out to the curb. Hanks’ reply of “No, I’ve never seen a man drive his trash out to the street and then beat the hell out of it with a garden tool before!’ is priceless. When Ray and Art find a femur bone, the scene just keeps going until it might as well be part of an Abbot and Costello routine.
Perhaps what I find most strange about The Burbs in retrospect is the ending. After the Klopeks endure untold indignities at the hands of their intrepid neighbors—their house literally explodes—Ray finally flips and levels an accusation at Art that amounts to the moral of a Rod Serling special; ‘we are the monster, not them’ he screams at the baffled Weingartner. This is all fine and good, and largely what we expect. But then The Burbs keeps going and we find that the Klopeks are the murderers Ray suspects them to be and he singlehandedly saves the day. In the end– every crazy thing he’s done, every law he’s broken–he has been justified.
Were this a more serious film, or even a more serious comedy, it would hamper the movie. But in the hyper-charged cartoon land of The Burbs it delivers a certain satisfaction. We knew the Klopeks were evil all along and Ray only doing what he had to. It targets our inner meddler and hits a homerun.