The ‘Burbs. 1989. Directed by Joe Dante. Screenplay by Dana Olsen.
Starring Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern, Rick Ducommun, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schaal, Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, Courtney Gains, Gale Cordon, Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Cory Danziger, Franklyn Ajaye, & Rance Howard.
Rated PG. 101 minutes.
The ‘Burbs is one of the greatest comedies ever made. A sharp satire of American life in the 1980s, when people were becoming disillusioned all over again after the ’60s and ’70s delivered plenty of that to their doorsteps already. Director Joe Dante and screenwriter Dana Olsen offer up a look at the suspicion and xenophobia growing in quaint little neighbourhoods, parts of the urban landscape just outside the city, tucked away in the supposed protection of rows of houses, picket fences, all the rest of it.
While the very end of Dante’s film goes against much of the satire he’s working towards, there’s still a fable-like moral at the end of the story: nobody, even the bourgeois neighbours, is exactly who they seem.
This is a hilarious look at life in the suburbs, with exceptional performances out of Tom hanks and Rick Ducommun, with Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern, and Corey Feldman doing good work in their supporting roles. What makes The “Burbs such a classic, and a lasting one at that, is its darkly comic perspective. Dante infuses the film with laughs and creeps in equal measure. There’s everything from a social message to a meta relationship with the horror genre that helps move the plot along, as well as aids in speaking to pop culture’s influence on Americans. Above all, it’s a goddamn riot.
Part of what’s so hilarious is how Dante and Olsen accentuate the stereotypical American characters just as much as those characters in turn stick to stereotypical ideas about those foreign to them. First is Ray (Hanks), the average guy who’s just happy to have a drink at home, watch the game, relax; he shows the ultimate symptom of suburban living, choosing to spend his week long vacation from work at home rather than go anywhere else. Second, you’ve got Art (Rick Ducommun), the epitome of the piggish American, stuffing his face full of food constantly like a cartoon character, shovelling food in as fast as he shovels the xenophobic ideology of suburbia into his lazy brain believing in the idea that Satanists have moved into the neighbourhood. Third, the ever awesome Corey Feldman as Ricky, local metalhead who doesn’t appear to have a job, constantly parties, and before reality TV was a mainstay in the zeitgeist he was hanging on the porch, watching the mayhem unfolding in his little cul-de-sac.
Finally, and best of all, is Lieutenant Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) – a military man, a Vietnam veteran whose new war is with a neighbour and the dog perpetually shitting on his nice clean lawn, and right by the flagpole, too! Rumsfield is the uber American, the kind of guy who’d probably be screaming to Make America Great Again; he wears a camo nightgown, a bullet casing necklace around his neck. He represents the paradoxical patriot, specifically of the Vietnam War, so sure a threat’s coming from the outside when – as this film proves in part, at least – in reality the xenophobic, close minded suburban Americans are the ones who are dangerous in their own rights with their paranoid prejudices and too much time to kill. In the end, the Klopeks turn out to be a nasty family, but this doesn’t change the fact Ray, Art, and Rumsfield took it upon themselves to go vigilante, without proof, going so far as to break into their home. Just as easily could’ve not found anything. In this light, Dern’s Rumsfield and the other American stereotypes here become more worrisome than heroic.
Moreover, there’s a great inclusion of references to other horror films, putting stress on the idea that pop culture and media influence Americans. For instance, the dream sequence Ray experiences is a direct consequence of his watching horror movies before bed – Race with the Devil, The Exorcist, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 leak into a nightmare, where Ray sees a Satanic cult surround him, laying him on a huge BBQ, a chainsaw coming through his wall, and more. The Exorcist is earlier given homage by a shot of Ray standing outside the Klopek house next to a lamppost. The single best reference is to The Sentinel – one of my favourites – when Ricky talks about its plot in relation to their neighbourhood suspicions. These meta-moments make the film’s satire of postmodern American culture even stronger.
“I hate cul-de-sacs. There’s only one way out, and the people are kind of weird.”
This story takes American Cold War-era fears of the Eastern European, the man with a vaguely Russian-sounding accent and last name, transplanting them into a horror-comedy. The suburban dad with too much time on his hands – Ray – is led into believing his new foreign neighbours are part of a dangerous, sinister cult. Also calls to mind the Satanic Panic of the ’80s, when people (obviously knowing nothing of actual Satanism) genuinely believed Satanist cults were killing people, sacrificing children, raping, ever sort of foul thing in the name of subverting Christianity. Above all, the Klopek family become a place on which these suburbanites fixate their own fears, insecurities, and xenophobia, because the family doesn’t fit the societal suburban norm.
Underneath the laughs and the creepy horror moments, The ‘Burbs illustrates to us the inherent danger in assumption. Particularly about the private lives of those around us, neighbours next door. In the end, Ray’s lucky the extent of his and the others in the neighbourhood’s paranoia wasn’t more destructive. Although there’s another twist after the explosion, for all the comedy Dante’s film borders on an even darker tone, that’s only by the grace of fate avoided in the finale.
As I mentioned, the ending itself works against the perfect satire Dante brings out of Olsen’s screenplay. Nevertheless, the end and all its build up remains a warning against believing we know the people in our neighbourhoods, or even ourselves, for that matter. Ultimately Ray and the others went on assumption. Leads us to believe if the Klopeks didn’t ‘look weird’ then the neighbourhood would never have taken notice. Therefore, there remains a clear thematic message no matter what the Klopeks did.
You don’t have to read deeply into The ‘Burbs to enjoy it. That’s the mark of a truly great film, when you can find things to dig into further while just enjoying it on a surface level. This doesn’t go into much horror, but Dante uses a sinister mood with the comedy to make this feel like a full-on horror-comedy mash-up. Above all else, it’s a hilarious 101 minutes that never lets up on the laughs. The performances make for an even better experience; Ducommun nearly out acts Hanks and Dern and the rest, in fact.
I’m not even one for horror-comedy, nor comedy in general. Unless it’s got a dark streak, which is certainly the case for this late ’80s classic. Dante is a fabulous filmmaker, who’s got old school sensibilities, alongside a fantastic sense of wit and style. It’s no surprise to me he made such a resonant film under the guise of a mere Tom Hanks comedy vehicle.
This is forever one of Father Gore’s top comedies, let alone horror-comedies. And of course it deserves to be on every Halloween list, it’s made for the October season. Pop this in with a friend, or a bunch. You’ll be howling and clapping in no time. This is just too much fun. Not to mention it’s a definitive, dark satire on American suburban life from the ’80s aside from its endlessly enjoyable foolishness.