LIFE IN THE BURBS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN!
Since I’m currently on a vacation visiting my parents who live in the ‘burbs, and don’t really have all that much to do but go through a pile of old VHS movies while waiting for a promised heat wave, it felt highly appropriate to watch this underrated Joe Dante comedy again. The ‘burbs is a movie about people with far too much time on their hands who allow their sense of imagination to spin completely out of control. But where there’s smoke in a Dante flick, there’s fire.
We’re introduced to a nice little suburban neighborhood somewhere in America and its colorful inhabitants. Teenager Ricky’s (Corey Feldman) favorite hobby every morning is to sit on the porch and just study his crazy neighbors. There’s the Vietnam veteran, Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), whose latest war is against a poodle that uses his lawn to take a dump; there’s Art (Rick Ducommun) who hunts birds in his garden with a gun; and there’s Ray (Tom Hanks) who needs his vacation to be quiet and relaxing, but still can’t keep away from everything that’s going on in the neighborhood. Ever since the Klopeks moved in next to Ray, mysterious events have made the street weirder than usual. No one has barely seen the family; odd, noisy activities seem to take place inside their house and it doesn’t take long for Ray, Art and Mark to assume that the Klopeks might very well be a family of murdering freaks.
In fact, one of the neighbors, Walter (Gale Gordon), who owns the poodle, disappears without a trace. Art and Mark assume that the Klopeks have him and talk Ray into joining their mission to find the truth. Well, what else are vacations for?
Humor and horrific absurdities
The story is a bit like some old Twilight Zone episode and the film as a whole is also reminiscent of the director’s own Gremlins (1984). Dick Miller, who appeared in Roger Corman flicks, plays the garbage man here and is a nice symbol of the mixture of humor and horrific absurdities that Dante is aiming for. Many critics found the film predictable and too familiar, but I think it’s a hoot. Hanks is perfect as the “normal” neighbor who initially can’t believe that there’s anything wrong with the new neighbors; Dern and Ducommun are lots of fun as his trigger-happy, crazier buddies. Henry Gibson adds his brand of weirdness to the freakish Klopek family; the filmmakers have us guessing if they are a family of monsters or not right up until the dramatic finale. The film may be shot on the Universal lot, but the fake neighborhood is convincing and the filmmakers along with the cast provide many amusing moments, especially the more excited everyone becomes about the prospect of catching a killer on their own.
Perhaps the best part is watching grown men basically turn into adventure-seeking children as soon as the vacation begins; there’s a ring of truth to it. Jerry Goldsmith’s music has the right touch; he even gets to spoof his own score for Patton whenever Mark shows up.
I’m getting a little inspired here. Maybe tomorrow I should grab a pair of binoculars and see what the folks next door are doing. The ‘burbs are full of bizarre people up to no good… and in your neighbor’s view, you’re probably one of them.
The ‘burbs 1989-U.S. 103 min. Color. Produced by Larry Brezner, Michael Finnell. Directed by Joe Dante. Screenplay: Dana Olsen. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Cast: Tom Hanks (Ray Peterson), Bruce Dern (Mark Rumsfield), Carrie Fisher (Carol Peterson), Rick Ducommun, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schaal… Henry Gibson.
Last word: “Funny how ‘The ‘burbs’ is outstripping ‘Gremlins’ as the movie I’m asked about most often! We were the only picture shooting on the lot during the writer’s strike of 1988 and a lot of the funniest stuff in it was ad-libbed by the cast. The whole thing was fun actually.” (Dante, Bloody Disgusting)