The Burbs (1989)
Director: Joe Dante
Writer: Dana Olsen
Ray Peterson: “Remember what you were saying about people in the ‘burbs, Art, people like Skip, people who mow their lawn for the 800th time, and then SNAP? WELL, THAT’S US. IT’S NOT THEM, THAT’S US. WE’RE the ones who are vaulting over the fences, and peeking in through people’s windows. We’re the ones who are THROWING GARBAGE IN THE STREET, AND LIGHTING FIRES. WE’RE THE ONES WHO ARE ACTING SUSPICIOUS AND PARANOID, ART. WE’RE THE LUNATICS. US. IT’S NOT THEM. It’s us.”
I have been ruminating a long time about which film I’d be making a retro-review next; there are simply so goddamn MANY to choose from!
Then, earlier this week I ended up watching Joe Dante‘s latest film – “Burying the Ex” from 2014 – and I was kinda dumbstruck of how little of Dante’s personality there was left in that one. I mean – aside from some nods to old classic horror movies and cult films and a Dick Miller-cameo, there was NONE of the visual flair I’ve come to associate with a film directed by Joe Dante. None. I was actually pretty shocked by this. I mean – it’s no secret that Dante has worked VERY sparsely in the 21st century; in fact the list of projects he has tried to get made but have fallen apart in the course of the last 16 years is probably as long as his filmography. If not even longer.
So with that in mind I thought “well, isn’t this the perfect time to blow off some dust from over what I believe is the man’s best movie?” Because I sincerely believe it IS. I’ll give my reasons why I believe so later on. First – let’s look at just how “The ‘burbs” came to be, and how it ended up in the hands of Dante in the first place.
“The ‘burbs” began it’s life as a script called “Life in the ‘Burbs“. Screenwriter Dana Olsen based a lot of it on his childhood experiences of living in a suburb not that different what ended up in the film itself; in fact the story of “Skip the Soda Guy” that the character Art tells in the film is very loosely based on a real story about an axe murder in the 30’s, which was still being passed on from generation to generation to the kids in Olsen’s neighborhood. And his neighborhood had “it’s share of psychos” as he says – the essence of some of them ended up in the script – and as he said “As a kid, it was fascinating to think that Mr. Flanagan down the street could turn out to be Jack the Ripper.” So Olsen wrote the script on spec and passed it around, and very quickly it got the interest of Imagine Entertainment – a fairly new company started by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard in 1986. And due to it’s combination of comedy and horror, Grazer thought the the perfect man to direct this would be Joe Dante.
And Dante responded very strongly to the script, as it presented great opportunities for him to use some of his very specific skills as a director; inserting outrageous elements into a realistic environment; much like in “Gremlins” where a peaceful little postcard town suddenly gets overrun by raving supernatural creatures. But “The ‘burbs” was an opportunity to make a more grounded story. Tom Hanks – who was at the time slowly moving away from his more plainly comedic roles into more serious character parts – was pretty much the only choice Dante and the producers had as Ray Peterson, the everyman lead. And Hanks was quickly drawn in as well, after some hesitation about playing a father for the first time on screen. The rest of the cast soon followed; Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern, Rick DuCommun, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schaal, Henry Gibson as well as Dante’s regular stock company Robert Picardo and Dick Miller. The filming took place mostly in the Universal backlot street-set, which had previously been featured in many movies and TV-shows; in fact, the home of Ricky Butler(Corey Feldman) was the Munster Mansion from “The Munsters” – and the whole street would later be very prominently featured as Wisteria Lane in “Desperate Housewives“.
So, a short recap of the story of “The ‘burbs” in case someone is unfamiliar with the film:
Mayfield Place, a street in a fictional suburb of Hinkley Hills; Ray Peterson, a somewhat tight-wound father and suburbanite, wakes up in the middle of the night to strange noises. They come from the basement of his next door house, recently occupied by a family called the Klopeks. Along with the noises of some ungodly equipment, we also see unnaturally bright lights emerge from the basement windows. Something’s fishy in the neighborhood. We meet the various other neighbors on the street: Ray’s wife Carol(Carrie Fisher) and son Dave(Cory Danziger), Art Weingartner(Rick Ducommun) – a paranoid summer-widower, Lt. Mark Rumsfield(Bruce Dern) – a shady retired military man and his slightly ditzy wife Bonnie(Wendy Schaal), Ricky Butler – a metal-head teenager who’s charged with painting the house while his parents are apparently away for the summer and Walter Seznick(Gale Gordon) – an older gentleman who keeps his lawn in pristine condition while letting his dog take a crap on Rumsfield’s.
After Walter suddenly disappears, Ray – who is on vacation and massively bored – gets further and further entangled into Art’s and Rumsfield’s crazy conspiracy theory that the Klopeks; Werner(Henry Gibson), Hans(Courtney Gains) and Reuben(Brother Theodore) are in fact a family of serial killers moving from town to town. As the mass hysteria builds, the trio of “heroes” try to get to the bottom of the bizarre family’ life – and in their house – by any means necessary. And to find the body of the missing Walter. MUCH chaos ensues…
Now to get back to my initial claim on WHY “The ‘burbs” is Joe Dante’s best film I felt that it would be best to address it with a small list of points:
CLEVER SCRIPT, BALANCED DIRECTING
This is a big one. What comes fairly obvious when looking at Dante’s filmography is that he is a filmmaker who is clearly wearing his cinematic influences in his sleeve; at times he can go into this “throw in everything AND the kitchen sink too“-mode, which is probably the most evident in “Gremlins 2: the New Batch” and “Matinee“. I’m not saying those are bad films, not at all – they just feel slightly uneven when more dramatic scenes get outweighed by chaotic Looney Tunes-like set pieces. “The ‘burbs” is probably the most grounded of all the movies he has made. There is no science fiction. There is no supernatural horror(except in a few dream sequences). The protagonists are human – the antagonists are human. Although the brilliance of the script is that the line between who REALLY is the protagonist/antagonist is very thin – right up until the end of the final act. It’s actually a very clever story point: you can very well say that Ray, Art and Rumsfield are for the most part the villains of the movie, as they show some very clear nearly-psychopathic tendencies as they become more and more obsessed with these “weirdos” that have invaded their neighborhood. In a very clever way writer Olsen and Dante show just how evil humans can get and how easily they can turn on each other. I think that can all be transferred very easily into what’s going on in real life even as we speak, as almost every day the newsfeeds are filled with more and more news of man turning against the fellow man.
And Dante shows extraordinary restraint in his direction here as well. Sure, there are occasions where he goes into his more cartoony mode, but most of the time the story is told in very simple ways, like very long, sweeping camera shots going around the set and cover multiple characters doing their thing. I’d say Dante is paying a lot of homage to Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” in the way the neighborhood is constantly shown to go on with it’s life in the background of all this madness. And when it’s time to go crazy, Dante does not linger with his visual gags; for example in a scene where Art falls through the roof of a garden shed, you can see that he has left a human-shaped hole in the roof. THAT’S the Looney Tunes-Dante, but he does not linger on it; it’s there to be seen but it does not stay and wait for a studio-audience laughter. The same goes for a scene where Ray has momentarily given up on the conspiracy theory and just tries to relax on his yard and have a few beers. There’s a very long sequence where Ray and Art are speaking in the foreground and at the same time we can see Walter’s dog digging for something in the background…and the scene goes on for a LONG time until we are finally revealed that the dog has dug up a human femur bone. And only THEN does Dante go for broke again, as the camera starts snap-zooming while the characters scream in horror.
Like I said: balanced.
As said before, Tom Hanks was kinda moving away from the wacky comedy parts at this point. Which was definitely a good thing: I personally think that in his comedy performances of the early/mid-80’s he was very quickly starting to repeat himself. I’ll give an example: I re-watched “Bachelor Party” a few years ago and; while it was quite fun to watch as a teenager, I think the “likeable manchild”-character that Hanks played in that one, as well as in most of his other movies of that era was ABSOLUTELY ANNOYING. So the character of Ray, who really is the plain everyman, is – and was – such a welcome departure. Sure, the character becomes more and more crazy during the course of the movie, but never over the top – and still remains very relate-able. The “over the top” is reserved for the two true MVP’s of the picture: Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommun.
Dern, who had already at this point had a long career playing dramatic parts and villains in more westerns than there’s time to list here, shows some unbelievable skills at comedy: both verbal and moreso, physical. Rumsfield(obviously an not-so-subtle homage to Donald Rumsfeld) basically treats the whole thing as a military operation, and has access to some pretty sophisticated surveillance equipment as well as weapons(there’s a small hint in the movie that he is in fact a weapons-dealer, and Olsen confirms this in his commentary), but he is also a clumsy idiot, and completely devoid of any real social skills. Meanwhile, Ducommun’s Art is just a stir-crazy conspiracy theorist who very clearly is watching too many sensationalist news-reports on TV. He is a guy you do NOT want to invite to your home, because you will never get rid of him after that. It’s almost impossible to decide who ends up stealing the movie: Dern or Ducommun – so I’ll just say both.
The Klopeks were without a doubt cast with physical attributes in mind, but the actors bring a lot to the table; be it Henry Gibson‘s sort of calm benevolence with some darkness appearing under the seams to Brother Theodore‘s blatant outrageousness to Courtney Gains‘ mostly non-verbal presence. Carrie Fisher probably has the most difficult part in the movie as the sole voice of reason, but her very clear chemistry with Hanks speaks volumes. Corey Feldman has probably the most one-dimensional part in the movie as the cliched “airhead loudmouth teenager“- it’s pretty much “Mouth” from “Goonies” a little bit older – but in a way he’s also representing the audience as he demonstrates that he doesn’t have to watch TV or go to the movies when all the excitement and action is right there outside his porch. The Dante-regulars Robert Picardo and Dick Miller have a very amusing walk-in as two garbage men – as a matter of fact, their short scene almost makes one wish they had made a sitcom of these two characters.
I think I’ve said this before on an article about film scores; I think Jerry Goldsmith found a perfect cinematic partner in Joe Dante. The score he made for “The ‘burbs” gives him an exceptionally wide range of styles to play with: you have your mystery music to represent the Klopeks, you have your “happy neighborhood” music to represent the suburbian life, you have your dramatic music to represent the family tension as Ray gets deeper into his obsession, you have horror music for a nightmare satanic sacrificial sequence, you have the theme from “Patton” whenever Rumsfield is featured, and you have the sort of Looney Tunes-music when Art does something crazy. It really is chaotic masterpiece of film scoring and I can imagine the late composer just laughing like a schoolboy when he was writing this stuff.
So, that’s why I feel this movie is Dante’s finest work. But don’t take my word for it; check it out yourself. There is a wonderful UK special edition Blu-Ray by Arrow Films out there, which includes a few alternate endings (the ending of the movie was apparently a bit of a problem for the filmmakers, as the original was too dark. And they filmed several versions until ending up with the one that is in it now. And after seeing the alternatives, I think they made the right call) as well as a Workprint version of the movie that has a few added scenes, some alternate scenes and a temporary music score which features a huge amount of spaghetti western-music – including the one track that’s actually left in the film, which can be heard when Hans Klopek makes his first appearance.
I’m not sure if Shout! Factory is planning a US release of this, but there’s a bare-bones Blu-Ray release out there as well. Just a friendly hint to any of you who might’ve missed this movie until now.
It really hasn’t aged at all, it’s a perfect mix of thriller and comedy, with some very clever satire on the ingrown living habitats and their effect on people – and it has something very poignant to say about the human nature even now.
Of course, the theatrical trailer at the time was just trying to sell it as another zany Tom Hanks-comedy: