The 'Burbs (1989)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2015-10-15 08:46

Written by: Dana Olsen
Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern and Carrie Fisher

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“I can see the news report now - they were a quiet family, kept pretty much to themselves. No one ever would have suspected them of foul play."

Every neighborhood has that one weird, spooky house that everyone avoids; likewise, every town has some macabre campfire story about how one of its citizens went crazy before embarking on a homicidal killing spree. The ‘Burbs is all about this sort of thing, and Joe Dante’s film takes that house and that story, plops them down right into the middle of middle-class suburbia, and plays it--in typical Dante fashion--as a gag.

The entire film is confined in a middle-class enclave, some Anytown USA cul-de-sac called Mayfield Place (in reality a set on Universal’s backlot). It’s a typical slice of Americana that wouldn’t look too out of place if it were seen in a 50s sitcom; however, a new family called the Klopeks have moved into the decrepit looking house on the street, and they’ve quickly aroused the suspicion of most of the neighbors, particularly Vietnam-vet Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), Art (Rick Ducommun), and Ray (Tom Hanks). None of them have seen much of the Klopeks since they’ve moved in, save for some odd late-night digging in their backyard, and these three are convinced a family of madmen have moved in next door.

Appropriately enough, The ‘Burbs feels like Dante distilled down for white-bread suburbanites. It’s easy-going and likable enough, a clearly harmless film that’s funny enough but also predictable. The genuine mean-streak found in a lot of Dante’s work is missing here, traded in for an over-the-top, farcical, one-note take that sees these goofy white guys attempting to spy on their weird, possibly creepy neighbors as their wives (Carrie Fisher, Wendy Schaal) observe in incredulity at their husbands’ juvenile exploits. These attempts are constantly thwarted either by bad luck or their own incompetence, and it’s generally amusing procession of gags that pay off well through the performances.

Hanks is the lead here, and you can feel him moving away from his puerile Bachelor Party days and easing into his affable, everyman shtick. He’s the average guy that gets sucked into his neighbor’s paranoia-fuelled lunacy, and it’s a fun enough performance that allows him to hit all of the expected beats that cover the various stages of disbelief. By the end, he’s degenerated into a cartoony spoof just like those surrounding him. Dern’s frazzled, possibly insane Rumsfield treats this whole ordeal as Operation: Suburbia, while Ducommum is a perfectly middle-of-the-road goof who eats and talks too much. Looking on from a slight distance is Corey Feldman as the kid and self-aware voice of The ‘Burbs. He’s the guy who’s seen movies like The Sentinel and posits that the Klopeks might actually be lording over a portal to hell, which does no favors for this neighbors’ already out-of-control paranoia.

There’s plenty of this self-awareness with Dante at the helm, as there are subtle and not-so-subtle nods to the horror genre. Some horror comedies are horror movies that are funny, but The ‘Burbs is the inverse of that--it’s mostly a straight-up comedy that’s perhaps informed by horror tropes, all of them based on some sort of old-fashioned signifier--the Klopek house looks like it could have belonged to The Munsters or The Addams, and the film is littered with other call-backs. Dick Miller shows up as a garbage man, Ray skims through his television channels and passes by Race With the Devil, The Exorcist, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, all of which provide sufficient nightmare fuel for one of the film’s best sequences. Dante’s films always feel classic and retrograde; they often feel like films that Castle and Corman (who mentored Dante) would have made two decades earlier, and The ‘Burbs isn’t much different. The Klopeks themselves are a terrific set of oddballs, and Henry Gibson gives the film’s best performance as their patriarch.

If anything about The ‘Burbs grounds it in the 80s (besides the obvious design stuff), it’s the slight satirical streak that’s also often typical of Dante. There are brief, fleeting moments when the film feels like a bit of a take down Regan-era, Cold War xenophobia: here we have a bunch of average Americans scared to death of Eastern Europeans moving into their own backyard, and the big joke here is that they’re the ones who are acting nuts (a punch line that’s delivered with a patently unsubtle rant that says just as much). However, these teeth don’t really have much bite because the film is clearly too in love with its main characters to knock them down too far, plus the ending cops out a little bit. As the film unfolds, you think the joke might really be on the suburbanites, but, alas, everything eventually wraps up tidily, with just about everyone (who doesn’t end up with, say, a car crashed through their house) off the hook.

The ‘Burbs isn’t among the best in Dante’s oeuvre, but it’s an agreeable romp with a fun ensemble. Perhaps it isn’t as genuinely witty or smart as some of the director’s other work, which keeps it from being anything more than that, but it’ll probably still hold up well for anyone who grew up with it like I did. Despite being released at the end of the 80s, there really is a certain innocent, 50s sitcom charm to The ‘Burbs that wins you over. It actually feels exactly like the type of film Universal might have released during their jokey 40s horror run. The studio has only released the film twice--once in a standalone version back in ‘99, which was repackaged as part of a Tom Hanks collection that also includes The Money Pit and Dragnet. Despite its age, the presentation on the disc holds up well--the transfer is anamorphic and looks polished, while the 2.0 Dolby Digital track is solid. The only extras are a trailer and an alternate ending, but The ‘Burbs isn’t a bad movie to have around the house.

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