A long time ago in an America far, far away, Tom Hanks was more known as a comedic actor than a 5-time Oscar nominee with 2 wins under his belt. In one of his last entirely comedic roles before crossing over into dramatic territory full time, Hanks starred in The ‘Burbs, a horror-comedy about a lily-white suburban street driven into a paranoid frenzy when a mysterious family moves into their quiet little community. Directed by Joe Dante, The ‘Burbs doesn’t hit as hard as it should, but it still features an uncanny understanding of American suburban culture.
Stressed out from work and in desperate need of relaxation, Ray Peterson (Hanks) has taken his vacation, which he plans to spend at home with his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) and his son Dave (Cory Danzinger). As Ray tries to find his center with peace and quiet, he must deal with the speculative suspicions of his next-door neighbor, Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun), a loud-mouthed eccentric. The neighborhood is filled with other characters like Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), a retired military man who runs a military surplus business, Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon), a retiree with a perfect lawn, little dog, and awful hairpiece, and Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman), a metalhead slacker who takes great pleasure in watching the neighborhood’s exploits. The neighborhood is abuzz with questions surrounding the new neighbors, the Klopeks, who have moved in next door to the Peterson household. Art believes that the Klopeks are up to no good, possibly even murder, and spreads speculative scenarios like a childish urban legend. When Walter mysteriously disappears, the neighborhood turns its attention to the Klopeks.
Working from a script by Dana Olsen, The ‘Burbs blends Dante’s extensive knowledge of horror with a comedic styling that isn’t seen too often in cinematic comedy these days. Long sweeping shots fill the scenes with tension and dread before relieving it with a laugh. Since this is a Dante film there are appearances by a number of his regular players – Dick Miller appears as he does in every Dante film, Robert Picardo shows up as well, and legendary character actor Henry Gibson plays the patriarch of the Klopek family.
Joe Dante has an interesting relationship with suburbia. Suburban lifestyle plays a key role in his films, like Gremlins, Small Soldiers, and Explorers. While each of those films properly tackle suburban life, none really quite capture the microcosm of American suburban life better than The ‘Burbs. Mark feuds with Walter over his dog defecating on his lawn, all the while Mark looks at Walter’s pristine lawn with envy. Adding another layer to the suburban realism, Mark is a militaristic ultra-patriot – something found on practically every suburban block.
Not a single scene takes place outside the quiet little street. For these people there is no life outside of suburbia. Each of the members of the idyllic suburban community talk of their employment, but there’s no need to show the audience these things because it isn’t important to the characters. Work is merely a means to maintain their status in suburbia. Their status is threatened by the mysterious Klopek family because they don’t fit the cookie cutter mentality of the neighborhood. The only in which the film disappoints is actually having the Klopeks turn out to be psychos.
I really believe that The ‘Burbs would be considered an undisputed dark comedy classic had it actually rebuked suburban nativism and paranoia. As it stands, however, The ‘Burbs is still a memorable farce about suburbia. While the film definitely dodges some opportunities to skew American life, The ‘Burbs maintains a focus on finding comedy in the horror of the unknown. It’s a film that understands the inherent surveillance state of suburbia, where the neighbors are always judging by appearances from afar. More than anything, The ‘Burbs taps into the fact that there’s horror lurking around every corner in sedate suburbia whether imagined or real.