Why Joe Dante's The 'Burbs Is As Relevant Today As It Was In 1989

Nathan Rabin looks back at an oddball studio comedy starring Tom Hanks that doubles as an incisive -- and still relevant -- social commentary.

by | February 22, 2017 | Comments

As a child of the 1980s, I was obsessed with Steven Spielberg’s suburbia. Like the strangely simpatico world of Stephen King, another populist commercial giant of the era (and today, and forever), it was a realm at once cozily familiar and beguilingly fantastical. It was a place where kids did kid stuff to pass the time like riding bikes and hanging out and telling stories.

Yet, it was also a world where creepily cute extra terrestrials got stranded on earth and longed for telephonic communication with their home planet, and cuddly little creatures of unknown origin morphed into feral, destructive monsters when the rules for their care were violated. Steven Spielberg ruled the Reagan years as a director and as a producer whose stewardship of classics like Gremlins, Poltergeist, and Back To The Future helped generations of wide-eyed kids fall in love with the movies.

1989’s The ‘Burbs is not technically a Steven Spielberg movie, but it felt like one. It was directed by Joe Dante, one of Spielberg’s most accomplished proteges, and starred the actor who would become Spielberg’s favorite leading man, Tom Hanks.

Dante, a movie- and pop culture-crazed alumnus of the Roger Corman school of fast, cheap, and salacious cinema, first ventured into the blood-soaked waters of his future mentor by directing Piranha, an overachieving Jaws knock-off/spoof/homage/pastiche. A young Dante was reportedly rewarded for his sly, subversively satirical work with a chance to direct an actual Jaws parody written by a young John Hughes to be called Jaws 3, People 0, but that never came to fruition. Dante did, however, collaborate with Spielberg on Twilight Zone: The Movie and then Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in addition to several other projects.

Dante’s suburbia was like Spielberg’s, but darker and more subversive. If Spielberg was the warm and fuzzy Mogwai Gizmo, then Dante was Spike, a twisted mutation wreaking merry comic havoc. The ‘Burbs is one of the few Dante projects of its time that Spielberg did not have a hand in, but like Gremlins, the film begs to be read as a meditation on Spielberg’s aesthetic, at once loving and bracingly dark.

Dante’s suburbia was like Spielberg’s, but darker and more subversive.

The film stars a perfectly cast Tom Hanks as everyman Ray Peterson, a regular guy who decides to spend his vacation not doing much of anything at all. Rather than force himself to travel somewhere and pretend to have fun, Ray decides to embark on the original “staycation” and spend a carefree week at home.

If Dante and Spielberg and Back To The Future director/fellow Spielberg protege Robert Zemeckis’ neighborhoods are worlds unto themselves, then the cul-de-sac where Ray and his neighbors live and scheme is a world within a world within a world. Beloved Dante repertory player Dick Miller sums up this strange corner of suburbia when he complains to a fellow garbageman played by Dante regular Robert Picardo, “I hate cul-de-sacs. There’s only one way out and the people are kind of weird.”

“Kind of weird” is understating it, although Ray and his soon-to-be partners in mischief think of themselves as not only perfectly normal, but the gold standard for all-American normality, a bunch of straight white guys who like drinking beer and watering their lawn and gossiping about their neighbors.

Ray isn’t surrounded by men so much as he’s surrounded by guys, who are like men, but without the maturity or dignity. Party monster Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman) at least has youth to excuse his juvenile behavior. Feldman doesn’t have much range, but like Corey Haim, he can be great in the right role. Here, he’s perfectly convincing as a seemingly stoned space cadet (let’s just say there’s a good reason his character wears sunglasses much of the time) who regards his neighborhood as an open-ended theater full of kooky, larger-than-life characters pursuing their own weird plot lines and curious obsessions. He’s a cheerful viewer who is slightly ahead of the curve in embracing reality as a more appealing form of television, one he can watch with the same breezy, detached distance. He’s both a character in the action and an outside observer drinking it all in as a crazy spectacle.

Bruce Dern delivers one of his funniest performances as Mark, an old military man angling for an excuse — any excuse — to go to war again, or at least embark on a secret, important mission. Rick Ducommun, a well-liked comedian and character actor whose film career never quite took off the way it should have after the great work he did here and in Groundhog Day, joins the bro brigade as Art, a guy who gives in to his worst instincts after his wife leaves town for a vacation, leaving him without adult supervision.

A bored Ray, Mark, and Art find an unfortunate target for their restless energies when they begin to suspect that something dark and sinister is happening within the walls of the house owned by the mysterious Klopek family after another one of their neighbors, an effete older gentleman with a fancy little dog, goes missing. When strange things begin to happen at the Klopek house following the disappearance, Ray suddenly finds some much-needed direction for his week off.

Bruce Dern delivers one of his funniest performances as Mark, an old military man angling for an excuse — any excuse — to go to war again.

The Klopeks are conspicuous in their unfriendliness, but they are also conspicuous in their otherness, in their complete disinterest in assimilating or conforming in any way. And that, as much as their creepiness, renders them figures of suspicion to these all-American xenophobes.

The beloved Carrie Fisher co-stars as Ray’s wife Carol, the film’s voice of reason and resident grownup. Her role is small but crucial, since The ‘Burbs is a film about what happens when we let our crazy-eyed inner child overrule our inner adult. While Ray, Mark, and Art appoint themselves a makeshift trio of gumshoes devoted to uncovering the potentially murderous mystery of the Klopek house, Carol very reasonably suggests that they simply invite themselves over to the Klopeks’ in an act of neighborly solidarity that doubles as a reconnaissance mission into enemy territory.

The ensuing set-piece is a sustained masterpiece of the comedy of awkwardness and discomfort. Dante and screenwriter Dana Olsen (who also has a cameo as a cop) strike the perfect balance here by making both the Klopeks and the neighbors who suspect them of ultimate evil deeply suspicious and more than a little off.

Hans Klopek (Courtney Gains), the first of the brood they encounter, is the European version of a Faulknerian idiot man-child. He’s all hulking innocence and brute force, but creepy and unnerving all the same. His Uncle Reuben (Brother Theodore) is even more creepy, but in a strikingly different way. Where Hans is an overgrown boy, Uncle Reuben is an angry, bitter, sharp-tongued old man who makes it apparent that the reason the Klopeks have not been neighborly is because they have no small amount of contempt for the American yahoos they’re cursed with having as neighbors.

But even Uncle Reuben isn’t as disturbing as Dr. Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson), who is a doctor in the same way that Joseph Mengele was a doctor. Or maybe he’s just a weird old dude whose exotic customs and curious bearing make him seem more dangerous than he actually is.

Do the neighbors suspect the Klopeks because the Klopeks are genuinely guilty of crimes ranging from murder to Satanic sacrifice, or do they suspect them because they are mysterious immigrants who do not desperately seek their approval and validation in the way we angrily demand immigrants do?

For much of its duration, it feels like The ‘Burbs will be a darkly comic meditation on both Spielberg’s suburbia of the 1980s and the classic Twilight Zone episode “Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” The endlessly cited standout episode of Rod Serling’s spooky science-fiction anthology chronicled how fear, suspicion, and paranoia — as well as some unexplained phenomena — can cause seemingly sane people to devolve into the monsters they decry. Ray even echoes the sentiment toward the end of the film, after one final investigation goes awry and leads to the Klopeks’ house blowing up. He emerges from the debris, receives treatment for his wounds, and shouts a memorable monologue about how he and his pals were the monsters all along, not the strangers, whose only real crime was that they were different.

The ‘Burbs is a film about what happens when we let our crazy-eyed inner child overrule our inner adult.

In “Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” the paranoid atmosphere comes as a result of unexplained power outages, and it’s worth noting that the episode ultimately reveals the outages were, in fact, caused by space aliens intent on world domination. Similarly in The ‘Burbs, Werner Klopek does turn out to be the murderer Ray and his partners suspected, but it’s a testament to the film’s moral ambiguity and metaphorical richness that it almost doesn’t matter. In a very real way, Ray and his partners did devolve into monsters. They overstepped their boundaries, terrorized people based on flimsy evidence, and blew up a house based on a vague hunch that something evil was happening there.

The ‘Burbs and “Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” are both compelling allegories about the way paranoia poisons us and reduces us to beasts scrapping desperately for survival. Yet, from a commercial standpoint (and Spielberg’s 1980s suburban reveries are nothing if not canny commercial entities), it makes sense to end a movie about people terrified of monsters in their midst with an actual monster. The ‘Burbs is able to have it both ways. It manages to Trojan-horse an awful lot of cynicism, satire, and social commentary into a solidly funny mainstream studio comedy, but it also delivers a horror movie payoff.

In a way, it’s perfect that The ‘Burbs hit theaters and was a modest commercial success during the final year of the eighties. It’s at once deeply rooted in a very specific time and place and cultural context, yet strangely timeless. As long as we fear our neighbors and act on that fear, rather than attempt to communicate with and understand those who are different from us, The ‘Burbs will be depressingly relevant. The film takes place entirely on one block, in one cul-de-sac, but as the giant fade-in and fade-out from space that begin and end the film suggest, it’s really about our culture, our society, and ultimately our imperfect and all too human world.

Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 48 percent
Re-Certification: Fresh

Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

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