Forget urban paranoia, suburban paranoia is where it’s at in this darkly amusing comedy about the denizens of one cul-de-sac reacting to their new neighbors. An oddball mix of broad comedy, mystery, and arrested maturity, The ‘Burbs is a highly entertaining skewering of normality at every turn. But don’t expect a heavy handed lecture, for this is an affectionate take on neighbors with characters that may seem similar to people you have known.
The 1980s was good decade for comedies on television and in theaters, from what I recall. About every form of humor was at its peak, so it is interesting to look back at this movie which came out at the end of the decade. Director Joe Dante’s satire about living in the suburbs was well timed. Mass migration (often referred to as “white flight”) had emptied city neighborhoods of middle class families seeking greener pastures – or at least small lawns. Fertile ground for comedy was there and mixing it with horror movie tropes made a minor classic that is fondly remembered by many.
The ‘Burbs begins with a clever zoom in that starts with Universal’s famous globe logo and ends up in the labyrinthine streets of a suburb. Specifically, the dead end street of Mayfield Place, where it is night out and strange noises from a run down house have Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) losing sleep. There is something of a horror movie atmosphere to the setup, but quickly the humor makes its appearance. Watch what happens when he steps into the neighbor’s yard and back again to see what I am talking about.
Yes, I am already telling you to go see the movie and the review is barely underway. Deal with it.
Morning arrives and brings with it a very annoying paperboy cycling down the street which has an idealized Americana look. The motley cast of characters are introduced as they come out of their houses and my they are a varied lot. First up is Walter (Gale Gordon of I Love Lucy fame), an elderly curmudgeon who delights in doting on his dog and watching her crap on his neighbor’s lawn. He does not radiate friendliness in the least.
Next up is a classic ‘80s space cadet teenager, Ricky (Corey Feldman), apparently on his own and into metal. He is also into hitting on his neighbor’s pretty wife. This annoys his neighbor, a paranoid veteran named Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) whose wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal) is much younger and dimmer. She is also blond and given to wearing skimpy attire.
We get to know Ray better through his interactions with his sensible wife, Carol (Carrie Fisher), and his young son. Ray is starting a vacation from work and does not want to do anything other than laze around in his robe. His best friend Art (Rick Ducommun) makes his entrance showing himself to be dangerously irresponsible and more than willing to insert himself where not invited.
Conversation turns to the new neighbors making the strange sounds involving arcing electricity and a generator. The Klopeks have not been seen by anyone, despite having lived there for a month. Adding to the mystery, Art heard their last house burned down and Ray’s son said he saw them digging in their yard in the middle of the night…
The whole neighborhood freezes when one of the Klopek clan finally makes an appearance. He is a fine example of humanity, if you use the locals in Deliverance as a baseline. With everyone staring at him silently for a small eternity, it slowly dawns on the newcomer that he is being watched. Meanwhile, Art and Ray try to work up the nerve to go over to say hello. What makes it very funny is that they sound and act like little kids daring each other to do something. But the scruffy looking Klopek has retreated inside in the meantime.
Finally steeling themselves to go over and knock on the door, the two men slowly walk over with spaghetti western music playing in the background like they are going into a gunfight. Not only does the score reference Sergio Leone’s work, so does the camera work and edits. Nearly everyone gets a close up of their serious eyes during the scene. It never fails to amuse me, mainly because it is so faithfully rendered, minus the six shooters of course.
Having made it onto the porch with great bravery, Ray knocks on the door, which has an unfortunate effect of causing the nine on the street number to swing down. The movie has riffed on Leone, so it is time to reference The Amityville Horror! It is an inauspicious omen and sure enough, things go wrong in a hurry. The disaster does serve one purpose: it gets the core group of Ray, Art, Rumsfield, and sidekick Ricky together as a team for the first time.
With the shadows of night comes further strange events at the Klopek home. Flashing lights now accompany the odd sounds while the new neighborhood team (they can’t properly be called a watch) covertly observe. Yet that is the least of the weirdness that is seen. Ray is determined to be a skeptic while Art and Rumsfield let their imaginations go wild, but he is the one who witnesses the most disturbing behavior involving digging during a rainstorm.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, or so they say. I do not know who “they” are, but I don’t think the scenario that occurs the next morning was what “they” were talking about. Art and Rumsfield intercept the local garbage men to rummage through the Klopek’s refuse. Check out a young Robert Picardo playing against type as the new age theory spouting sanitation engineer.
While the boys are digging in the trash, Mrs. Rumsfield finds Walter’s beloved dog running solo and very dirty. There is no way the old man would let her get in such a condition, so the paranoia begins in earnest about the new neighbors. Breaking into Walter’s house, they find evidence of a struggle and his toupee. Something bad has happened here and it cannot be a coincidence that the new neighbors are so strange. A sharp eye should be paid to the photo on display in the house.
Ray is doing his best to remain a skeptic, but all the talk of Satan worship and witchcraft from his buddy Art gets to him. Later that night, channel surfing leads him from one horror movie to another, including a couple of very famous ones. That leads to a very bad dream involving human sacrifice, a giant barbecue grill, and an icepick. The only thing that can save him is a special song sung by a famous person:
Beautiful irony in that, I must say. Mister Rogers and his famous “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” fits too perfectly into this movie. It is also one of many pop culture references that make the movie a time capsule of the 1980’s, though many references are dropped from earlier eras.
Ray’s becoming stressed out does not escape the attention of his wife. Carol effectively grounds him when Rumsfield and Art come over to get him for their latest scheme. In one of my favorite scenes, the men act like grade school boys, complete with the veteran pleading, “Please let him come out…” and Art scuffing his foot against the pavement when it fails.
So are the men just being overgrown children or is there really something sinister going on in the neighborhood? Is it fear of the other and unusual driving the paranoia? Who are the mostly unseen Klopeks anyway? There is only one way to find out and that is to visit The ‘Burbs.
Every family has a set of films that somehow become tradition to watch. The ‘Burbs was a relative late comer to that select group of movies in our family, with most coming from the decades before the ‘80s. So to break into that elite group, it had to have something going for it. I think that thing is that the characters are believable.
One of the things I appreciate most about the movie is how the characters remind me of people I have known growing up in a small town. There are some differences between suburban and small town life, but the people tend to be much the same. Even today, I know people a lot like the individual characters in this and that is what makes the movie work so well. Mining humor from plausible protagonists can be greatly rewarding
This is not a rolling on the floor funny kind of movie. Rather it is the kind that makes you laugh occasionally and grin the rest of the time. Dante is an entertaining director best known for Gremlins and it follows that the comedic action is very well executed. Best of all, the mystery actually works and I remember the twists in it not being predictable when first viewed.
Acting is solid throughout the ensemble cast. Even though Hanks is the headline star and main character, plenty of time is spent with the rest of the menagerie that inhabits Mayfield Place. Dern, Feldman, and Ducommun all get great lines to play with and do so with visible glee. It is up to Carrie Fisher to play the sole voice of reason and she does it without sounding like a shrew.
There is another plus, the relationship between Ray and Carol. While they have fights, there is an underpinning of a strong relationship between the two. This becomes important late in the film and saying more belongs in the spoilers section below.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score deserves some attention. It is playful and creative, which was needed for this kind of movie. Never does it strike a wrong note and shifts fluidly between genres.
The ‘Burbs is rated PG and contains mild swearing, blurred out nudity on a TV set, and cartoony violence. There are horror movie style scenes in it so it is not suitable for little children.
Since I did not even wait for the break to tell you to see it, I suppose I should write my standard recommendation section:
I recommend the film to fans of comedy, Tom Hanks, pop culture, horror, suspense, mysteries, and normal people acting like idiots. It is simply a lot of fun to watch and holds up very well on repeat viewings.
The DVD copy I have is part of a “Double Feature Film Set” put out by Universal that also included The Money Pit. There was an earlier 1999 solo release and the disc appears to be the same from what I could find out.
Video quality is an issue despite being a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Unfortunately, it is a single layer disc, while not always a kiss of death it is in this case. Part of it is because the DVD was mastered in 1999 before MPEG compression codecs improved in the 2000s. The other part is the print used was far from spotless and is in no way remastered. Contrast is poor, colors are often muted, and the grain is terrible – think high ISO digital camera bad.
The Dolby Digital Surround is clear and makes proper use of the rear channel. It is not 5.1, however. English and French spoken language plus English SDH captions are available as options.
While the disc even looks barebones, there are extras included under the Bonus Materials menu:
Alternate Ending – This was the original ending and thankfully they redid the whole thing. It is six minutes of lifeless dreck and the attempts at humor misfired badly. More on it in the spoilers section.
Production Notes – Puff piece quotes with cast and crew about making the movie. Not informative or interesting at all, compounded by being present only as text.
Cast and Filmmakers’ Bios – Text again, but at least there is a photo of each person in their entry. Very basic but does include each person’s filmography through 1999.
Theatrical Trailer – Presented in 1.33:1 format of low quality and frankly was not very good.
Universal Web Links – Ah, the ‘90s, when the Web was still exotic. Only works with DVD-ROM drives and I did not test it out.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
There is nothing like finding a human femur dug up by your dog to convince you that your neighbors may indeed be murderers. One of the most remembered scenes in the movie is Art and Ray screaming after realizing it’s Walter.
The women still think it is all a crock and decide to welcome the Klopeks to the neighborhood. Ray and Rumsfield play along mainly to infiltrate. Here we see who really wears the pants in their respective families. Actually, I do not think we ever see Bonnie wear slacks or jeans in the movie.
Brother Theodore as Uncle Reuben and Henry Gibson as Doctor Klopek were inspired casting choices. They conveyed weirdness that could be interpreted in either sinister or innocent fashion – that is a hard thing to pull off.
Once Ray gets rid of Carol, the boys are ready to play again. With Ray now firmly convinced that the Klopeks are killers, there is only that pesky alarm system to bypass. Kids, don’t cut power lines. Only let true idiots cut power lines because they are magically protected by the power of stupidity. Art is a beautiful textbook example of this.
Art is also lazy. Did I mention he has a tendency to steal things? He’s that kind of friend who always gets you into trouble then refuses to take any responsibility for it. So Ray ends up doing all the digging in the Klopek property.
A turbocharged furnace dominates the Klopek basement. I never thought of turbocharging a furnace and with Minnesota winters being what they are it is a tempting idea.
Ricky knows how to throw a party and you have to admit the entertainment is top notch. While he is excluded from the big raid, he will prove his worth later.
The Klopekmobile is an awesome piece of smoke belching automotive finery. How they keep it so dirty in a suburb is beyond me, but I admire it.
The last thing the lookout man Rumsfield expected was to see Walter raised from the dead. That could be a problem since they are digging for his body to prove the Klopeks murdered him. Dern is a lot of fun in the movie and while he may be a little off his rocker, he’s a decent guy. The character, I mean. I suppose it could still apply to the actor, but I don’t know him personally.
Yeah, I would look that sad if somebody blew my house up too. It is the destructive final outcome of the fevered actions of the heroes of the movie and it looks like they made one whopper of a mistake.
Ray nearly pays with his life and ends up shuffling out of the burning house like a zombie or Frankenstein’s Monster. Of course, this would be about the time his wife returns home unannounced to find the neighborhood looking like a war zone.
Doctor Klopek is more than a little upset as his attempt to kill Ray in the ambulance illustrates. His thinking Ray is smarter than he lets on is a classic villain shtick that plays quite well.
The final reveal that the old neighbors refused to sell the house and the Klopeks murdered them was a nice twist, since they seemed to be innocent after all. But skeletons in the car trunk are even worse than skeletons in the closet, so our heroes are vindicated despite Walter being alive.
Carol is one heck of a woman and she is wonderfully forgiving of Ray. Rather than making huge scenes, she quietly and forcefully makes her opinions known. Yet Carol never wavers in her love for her husband. So it was nice to see the film end with the two of them deciding to go on a real vacation. In contrast, Art’s wife returns and his house catches fire. Only one of those things alarms him.
Hans in full ethnic dress is a sight to behold. I had to throw that in there for posterity.
The Alternate Ending
The alternate ending is rather lame and having the group open the ambulance doors to interrupt Doctor Klopek is just dumbly anticlimactic. With the family instantly arrested, the comedy goes off the rails when it becomes a rant against discrimination and treating outsiders poorly. Veering into being preachy spoils the tone of the film. It also fails to be funny.
Having the movie end with Art dominating the final scenes felt wrong, especially since Ray was the main character. Once again, it was something that simply did not work. The theatrical ending is superior in every way.