A couple of years ago, I took my dog on a walk and caught one of my neighbors digging a hole in their back yard.
I wouldn’t have thought much of it, except it was 11 o’clock at night and he was shoveling fiercely. My leashed dog was pulling me back toward my house. Even she seemed weirded out, and I didn’t say anything.
I only looking straight ahead, hoping my neighbor (whose name I never could remember) didn’t see me.
See Something, Say Something?
I never followed up on the incident. Nor did I hear of any disappearing spouses in the neighborhood. I did, however, tell my wife what I saw and theorized a number of sinister reasons why someone would dig a large hole in their backyard so late in the evening.
While there a couple of plausible scenarios to explain such a thing, I always wondered if I accidentally witnessed a homicide being covered up.
What’s especially noteworthy about Joe Dante’s “The ‘Burbs (Collector’s Edition) [Blu-ray],” which remains a sturdy cult favorite, is how time has caught up with its theme of neighborly mistrust.
In 1989, a dark comedy about neighbors suspecting the new family on the block of being a secret coven of Satanists certainly had a sick joke feasibility. At one point, a story within the movie is told that sounds an awful lot like the scary fate of the slaughtered List family (which inspired “The Stepfather“).
While Dante’s film has echoes of the essential “Twilight Zone” episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” it has unfortunately become less a satire today than a modern day commentary on a society of paranoia, mistrust and self destructive behavior.
Tom Hanks stars as Ray, a tired suburbanite who just wants to spend a week at home, relaxing from his stressful job. We never learn what he does for a living.
His two goofball neighbors, played by Bruce Dern (terrific in a ridiculous role) and Rick Ducommun (killing it in a part clearly written for a John Candy type), insist he join them in their efforts in harassing their new neighbors, The Klopeks, who they believe to be murderers.
The contrast of good, old-fashioned American values (promoted by Presidents Reagan and Bush at the time of the film’s release) and the random discoveries of suburban horror (ladies and gentlemen, meet your neighbor…Jeffrey Dahmer) weren’t uncommon in the latter 20th century.
Now, in post-9/11 America, has there ever been an era in this country when we trusted one another less?
If you, dear reader, had neighbors who kept to themselves, were never seen during the day time, took their garbage out late at night and sported exotic accents, wouldn’t you suspect something?
As a depiction of foolish, overly-suspicious suburbanites who terrorize the strangers next door, Dante’s film (even with its bouts of silliness) is superior in every way to George Clooney’s similarly themed failure “Suburbicon.”
The theme of suburban paranoia is nothing new, though Dante’s film approaches it with a Looney Tunes filter. Unlike, say Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” or Mark Pellington’s my-neighbors-are-terrorists “Arlington Road,” “The Burbs” creates spurts of dread but backs away from true horror and caps scenes with quips instead of shocks.
The movie came at a strange time for Hanks, who, at this point, was the Oscar-nominated comic actor from “Big,” not yet a two-time Oscar winner or a highly lauded dramatic actor.
When “The ‘Burbs” was released in spring of 1989, the reviews were horrible but it opened big. This solidified Hanks’ status as a movie star who audiences would see in almost anything.
FAST FACT: Ducommun, who died in 2015 at the age of 62, beat out both Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis for his role in “The ‘Burbs.”
Of the early, before-“Big” Hanks vehicles, it’s better than “Bachelor Party,” “The Man With One Red Shoe,” “Volunteers” and “The Money Pit” but isn’t as funny as “Splash” or “Dragnet.”
Its especially interesting to consider the enormous rise and fall Hanks’ career took the year of the film’s release: following the sleeper success of “The ‘Burbs” and the summer hit “Turner and Hooch,” Hanks’ ended ’89 with his first attempt at starring in a prestigious Oscar-baiting blockbuster, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
That film became a notorious disaster.
A couple of years later, with back-to-back Oscars for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump,” Hanks was on top and remains one of our most durable, consistently enjoyable leading men. “The ‘Burbs” marked the end of his string of low budget comedies. Today, even with a few ill-chosen films, Hanks remains a dynamic, risk-taking and always sympathetic actor of considerable ability.
Hanks is the film’s star and he’s in good form (and especially hilarious at expressing his anger by crushing empty beer cans) but it’s an ensemble comedy. Dern and Ducommun are both over the top but give this lots of comic juice. So does a surprisingly funny subplot with Corey Feldman, playing a “dude” whose neighbors are so frequently weird, he often invites friends over just to watch the shenanigans that take place outside his front porch.
The biggest secret weapon the movie utilizes is Jerry Goldsmith’s grand, quirky score. It’s so crucial to the tone that it becomes a supporting character.
“The ‘Burbs” isn’t as sharp, unabashedly crazy and thrilling as Dante’s prior “Innerspace” or his subsequent “Gremlins 2: The New Batch.” Some of “The ‘Burbs” is a little flat, particularly the busy wrap up. The screenplay presents two options: The Klopeks are either killers or it’s all a big misunderstanding.
This works best when we’re unsure.
While the library of Collector’s Edition releases from Shout Factory is expansive, “The ‘Burbs (Collector’s Edition) [Blu-ray]” is easily one of my favorites in their catalog. Their 2K scan of the film looks good and the interviews with Dante, co-stars Feldman, Courtney Gains and Wendy Schaal, and members of his crew, are full of entertaining and revealing anecdotes.
The audio commentary is lead by screenwriter Dana Olsen, who recalls the film’s TV origins, anecdotes from shooting and even his experience on the ill-fated “Memoirs of an Invisible Man.”
While Hanks isn’t present on the extras, everyone present praises his work ethic. Dante notes how Hanks didn’t want his character to have a son and risk getting stuck playing fatherly types (thought Olsen challenges this claim on the commentary). Other extras include a not-great alternate ending, stills and the trailer.
But Wait … There’s More!
The best of the extras by far is the inclusion of Dante’s original work print of the film in its entirety. While the quality is akin to a watchable VHS copy, it feels like a whole new movie. There are scenes both extended and never seen before (like an longer, eerier version of the dream sequence) and a cleverly assembled temp score that works surprisingly well.
This version lacks the wondrous opening introduction, the slightly-better ending, Feldman’s necessary close-up with the final line and Goldsmith’s brilliant score (both brooding and wacky, with everyone from Ray to Queenie the Dog getting their own theme).
Yet, it includes a missing subplot that gives Hanks’ character far greater poignancy and is paced differently from the theatrical cut. Newcomers should stick with the theatrical version but fans who grew up with this movie need to experience Dante’s strong and much creepier work-in-progress version.
Dante’s 1993 “Matinee (Collectors Edition) [Blu-ray]” (another fine, extras-packed Shout Factory release) remains his masterpiece. That film also stands nicely next to “The ‘Burbs” (as well as his “Gremlins”). Both evoke the fear and unease entering “normal” American society.
You’ve Been Warned
A few spoilers from this point on: Considering how the film ends and an earlier scene where we learn the Klopek’s previous house burnt down, wouldn’t it have been funnier (and suitably tragic) if we learned that this family is forever misunderstood, creeping out neighbors who are constantly burning their homes down?
Near the end of “The ‘Burbs,” Hanks gives a great monolog about how low he and his friends have sunk in their efforts to remove the Klopeks from their neighborhood. He exclaims, “We’re the ones who are acting suspicious and paranoid! We’re the lunatics! Us. It’s not them, it’s us.”
Is This 1989 … or 2018?
Although the wrap-up ultimately compromises the cautionary note of Hanks’ wonderful speech, the lesson of the film won’t be lost on anyone. In our current age of cynicism and suspicion, using words to undermine and destroy one another and neither trusting nor acknowledging those we see in passing, we are all capable of giving in to our fears, insecurities and anger too quickly.
Whether the Klopeks are really bad people or not, Ray is pleading with us not to become the kind of monsters who would readily accuse and terrorize our neighbors just because we could.
For a movie so frequently goofy, “The ‘Burbs” has more bite and contemporary lessons than one would expect.