The Movie Rut: "The 'Burbs" (1989)
“I hate cul-de-sacs. There's only one way out, and the people are kind of weird.” – Vic the Garbage Man, The ‘Burbs
Starting his career in the mixed up world of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, director Joe Dante quickly developed a knack for supplanting wacky 50’s b-movie antics into the lives of small town yokels. He set green monsters loose on Middle America in Gremlins, sicked homicidal toys on unsuspecting tweens in Small Soldiers, and, as recently as 2009, planted a portal to another dimension in a suburban attic in The Hole. Then there’s Matinee, the movie where Dante bypasses subtlety altogether and whips a small town into a frenzy through the wacky 50’s b-movie antics of an over-zealous movie promoter. To say that Dante’s movies have a connective theme might be a bit of an understatement. He sets the abnormal loose in everyday life and relishes the aftermath as formerly sleepy suburbanites rip each other apart.
While most of the director’s movies ultimately come out uneven, sometimes even bordering on obnoxious, the sheer kinetic energy of his films usually manages to keep them on their feet. When Dante goes off the hinges one of two things happen: the film gets universal acclaim or disdain, like with Gremlins (Good!) or Looney Tunes: Back in Action (Bad!), or you get divisive fair like Gremlins 2, which features an angry Hulk Hogan beating up gremlins because they interrupted his weird in-movie meta-screening of Gremlins 2, giving it an automatic pass from me. But for me, the most divisive of Dante’s movies, at least in the contained world of my family, is his 1989 comedy The ‘Burbs, a movie I first saw when my aunt gave me her VHS copy because she hated it so much that she wanted it banished from her home.
The ‘Burbs is Dante’s most direct film in his quest to dismantle Reagan’s America. It follows miserable suburban schlub Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) as he spends his vacation at home investigating his mysterious new neighbors, The Klopeks. Nobody has spoken to The Klopeks since they’ve moved in, and every night weird noises from the basement rattle windowpanes throughout the neighborhood. The only person on the block who has even seen the reclusive clan is Peterson’s young son, who saw them in their backyard one evening, digging. When an elderly neighbor goes missing, Ray and his equally shiftless, bored neighbors suspect The Klopeks may have taken the old man in the night and used him as a sacrifice to the devil.
Despite its dark subject matter, The ‘Burbs takes a lighter tone than it could have, making the comedy more gray than all out black. While it often dances into the macabre, like Ray finding human bones in his yard, or a morbid discussion of a soda jockey, Skip, who hacked his way into local lore when he murdered his family 50 years prior, Dante dedicates most of the movie to the screwball antics of Ray and his neighbors as their investigation transforms them into overeager man-children. Dante treats their slapdash “investigation” (which includes slipping notes under doors, and ding-dong-dash, all standard P.I. stuff) with all the gravity and bravado of a spaghetti western. Everything they do gets blown way out of proportion.
I suspect the reason that my aunt so thoroughly disliked this movie is that she had no point of contact for it. She lives way out in the middle of nowhere, cut off in a land whose sole center of commerce is a place called the “Has It Store,” the very store where this VHS copy of The ‘Burbs was no doubt purchased. While she has had her fair share of off-center neighbors, the difference between out there and the suburbs where I grew up is that she actually took the time to get to know her neighbors, weirdoes and norms alike, whereas I barely took the time to wave at the people in my neighborhood. For me, there was the cop, the pro-wrestler, the school nurse, and the old guy on the corner who would get ornery about wiffle balls going into his backyard--more abstract ideas than actual people. So for my aunt, a movie where distrust and fear of one’s neighbors causes so much chaos likely seemed alien to her and her everyone knows your name sensibilities. For all I knew, The Klopeks might as well have lived on the corner in my neighborhood, right next to Fat-daddy and the guy who never took down his Christmas decorations.
People who like The ‘Burbs typically see themselves in the movie. Every suburban denizen in the country has a Klopek family to claim for themselves--myself included, although mine is less a homicidal maniac and more a dickish old man with a crappy lawn. The movie taps into a lack of community in our perfect little suburbs; they’re worlds where boredom and ill-communication spawns suspicion at any family on the block that happens to stand out, be it the gay couple, the mixed-race family, or the quiet family with the rundown house and the foreign sounding name. It’s a point that gets rather plainly spelled out at the end of The ‘Burbs (spoilers herein) when Ray realizes that he and his friends are crazier than the Klopeks could ever be.
But the thing is, Ray and his merry band of loafers, deadbeats, and retirees aren’t crazier than The Klopeks. The Klopeks actually murder people. They’re serial killers who jump from neighborhood to neighborhood murdering the day away. They use their basement furnace to bake the flesh from the bones of their victims and bury the remnants in the back yard. They’re not Satanists like we thought, but they’re way crazier than Ray and all of his paranoid theories. While this allows for a fun ending where a house explodes and Ray and his mad scientist neighbor (Henry Gibson) roll down the street on a runaway gurney, it undermines the movie’s central message that suburban life is turning us all into suspicious, shifty eyed children.
Still, writing off The ‘Burbs for being thematically uneven would be missing the point. Nobody comes to a Tom Hanks movie helmed by Joe Dante for a thorough skewering of the American way of life, and even though it stings to think about the lost potential for a sharper movie where our protagonists turn out to be total assholes tormenting an innocent family of recluses, The ‘Burbs still stands as one of Dante’s most enjoyable, least grating movies. Even now when I re-watched the film for this article, funny bits stood out more than the first few dozen times I saw the movie. Like the scene where veteran Corman actor and Dante staple Dick Miller plays a frustrated garbage man embittered by the weirdo suburbanites he serves and his clueless partner who keeps trying to convince him of the healing power of crystals.
It’s the buffoonery and the rich well of one-liners that keeps me coming back to The ‘Burbs, strengthened by a solid supporting cast that includes Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Corey Feldman and Rick Ducommun, a poor man’s Dan Aykroyd who you may remember as the city worker who cuts the power off at Nakatomi Tower in Die Hard, and one of the drunks Bill Murray almost kills in Groundhog Day. In the face of all of The ‘Burbs’ imperfections, it’s a line like “It smells like they cooked a goddamn cat over there” shouted by Bruce Dern that can make a man forgive just about any misdeed.
Next Week: Yesterday I will write my column on Primer right after I lock myself in the attic this afternoon.
More on this column: The Movie Rut