This Sunday marks the 30th Anniversary of the much-maligned Joe Dante directed horror/comedy “The ‘Burbs” starring Tom Hanks. When it was released, The ‘Burbs was the worst reviewed movie of 1989 and was the first in a run of under-performers for Hanks. However, the film did manage to turn a slight profit on its modest $18 million budget and is now considered something of a cult classic. The script, written by Dana Olsen, manages to perfectly capture the monotony of suburban life and just how quickly gossip can spiral out of control.
I was only 7 when The ‘Burbs hit theaters but I managed to catch it on television some years later and fell in love instantly with its kitschy PG scares and slap-stick comedy. The Twilight Zone-esque story is set on a small cul-de-sac in the middle of suburbia where a bizarre new family on the block, the Klopeks, has the whole neighborhood suspecting something more sinister is afoot. The stellar cast includes the aforementioned Hanks as the very tightly wound Ray Peterson who is home for 2 weeks on vacation. His next-door neighbor Art, played by the late Rich Ducommun goes full Ed Norton on every scene he’s in. The film scores comedy fried gold with Hanks’ deadpan deliveries opposite Ducommun’s manic madcap energy. Because it was shot during the writer’s strike of 1988, lines and scenarios were improvised between Hanks and Ducommun on the spot. Dante also chose to shoot the film more or less chronologically allowing the actors more freedom to ad lib and not be burdened with remembering where their characters are in the story from scene to scene.
Rounding out the cast is the great Carrie Fisher as Ray’s wife Carol, the voice of reason to Art and Ray’s paranoid hijinks, Bruce Dern as a literal weekend Rambo named Rumsfield (yes that’s actually his name), and Corey Feldman as, well, Corey Feldman. For Dante, this was a departure from his previous gorier supernatural fair like Gremlins and the Howling. With the lack of any monster or creature, and with Hanks playing the straight guy to Duccommun and Dern’s more eccentric characters, I think audiences weren’t quite sure what to make of the movie. In the end, though, The ‘Burbs is a solid comedy: every joke lands, every outrageous stunt is funny, the practical effects hint at the darkness next door to ray, and the camera work is outstanding. There is a great panning shot in the first 15 minutes of the movie when Hans Klopek appears on the front porch of the house for the first time. It is by far one of my favorite shots of the movie. I should also point out this shot wouldn’t be half as good without the organ-heavy film score composed by Jerry Goldsmith.
If you were to name your favorite movie from the ’80s or ‘90s there’s a good chance Goldsmith provided the soundtrack for it. Seriously, this guy was Hollywood royalty and did some of the most recognizable music for the silver screen of the past 30 years. The opening theme with its off-kilter sleigh bells, crashing symbols, synth mix, and church organ is as unsettling as anything Dante puts on screen. It’s safe to say that if it wasn’t for Goldsmith, The ‘Burbs would be nearly as memorable, a testament to his compositional prowess.
Over the films 101 minutes the audience is left to wonder if the Klopeks really are evil incarnate of if it’s all in Art and Ray’s heads. Unfortunately, the film’s the big pay off (SPOILERS: the neighbors are cannibals) doesn’t happen until very very late in the third act, I’m talking like five minutes from the end of the movie. Though the final plot twist is worthy of any M. Night Shyamalan film, the back-and-forth are they or aren’t they evil drags a little; though props to Dante for keeping the story contained on just one neighborhood block. Less experienced or timid directors would have tried to compensate with bigger action, bigger set pieces, or more gore but Dante sticks with the story and characters he has and just keeps pulling at that thread and seeing how far down the rabbit hole Art, Ray, and Rumsfield are willing to go — or in this case, a grave in the basement of the Klopek house.
The ‘Burbs is available on Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray.