The ‘Burbs (1989)
Written by Dana Olsen
Directed by Joe Dante
The quiet cul-de-sac of Mayfield Place has been shaken up by the arrival of the Klopeks, a reclusive family who has allowed their house and property to fall into decay. Their neighbor, Ray Peterson has the week off from work and has decided to peter around the house which allows him to fall under the influence of his friends Art and Rumsfield. They are convinced that the Klopeks are murderers, Satanists, mad scientists, or some combination of these things. Ray is continuously pulled back down to earth by his wife Carol who implies this isn’t the first time her husband has allowed himself to be carried away with wild fantasies like this. She is determined to convince him the Klopeks are perfectly reasonable people. However, then something strange happens: the homeowner at the end of the street, Walter vanishes without a trace, and all signs point to the Klopeks.
The ‘Burbs was a childhood favorite of mine. My family rented it from our local pre-Blockbuster video store, and it was an immediate hit with my siblings and me. Subsequently, we recorded the television version when it finally aired and wore that tape out. The dialogue of The ‘Burbs was endlessly quoted in my home. “Hideous. Raging. Inferno.” “A soldier’s day saves the day, eh Ray?” “Run to me, run to water,” “It came with the frame,” “Hans. What a nice Christian name. Hans Christian Anderson.”, “I want to kill everyone. Satan is good. Satan is our pal. Once they get in here Ray, it’s over man.” I eventually got The ‘Burbs on DVD when I was in college and continued to be a go-to movie when I needed a boost, to feel better. As of Saturday, February 16th The ‘Burbs has been in our world for thirty years. I thought it would be a fun time to revisit the movie and talk about some of the elements I love.
We have to start with Jerry Goldsmith’s fantastic score. He was a frequent collaborator of director Joe Dante and knew how to create a strange mix of the foreboding and absurd. The music that plays over our first morning on Mayfield Place is a procession of themes and motifs that will come back up throughout the picture. The Klopeks theme is suitably horrific and baroque, ensuring that isn’t just a comedy. You’ll recognize the sounds of many comedies from the 1980s and 90s in the music, but there’s an extra edge here that made this a picture that inspired laughter and fear in me as a kid.
The pacing of the film is an element I felt as a child but can articulate better now as an adult. The way we are introduced into this world is so perfect. The opening scene, transitioning from the Universal Studios logo and zooming into this Midwest neighborhood is played for scares instead of laughs. Ray takes his dog out for a walk and witness strange noises and sounds emanating from the Klopek house. There’s a great visual gag where he steps across the property line (marked by his green lawn and the desiccated brown grass of his neighbors), and the wind whips up out of nowhere. It’s a nice little cue that lets us know we’re seeing a story played out in an exaggerated manner, that there will be an element of camp present.
The next scene is the first morning of Ray’s vacation where we meet his wife and son. Art is introduced creeping into the backyard with a bee-bee gun, played up as a possible threat until his incompetence is highlighted. The breakfast scene between Art, Carol, and Ray is some smart comedy with things happening in the background that inform the foreground action. Art is a gluttonous man, feeling happy with his wife gone for the week to her mothers, and because he’s slothful Art can’t help but eat up the whole of breakfast. At one point Carol passes by with the dog food dish and Art, thinking this is some cereal reaches in for a bite. His reaction isn’t a part of his dialogue which helps the exchange between him and Ray carry on without a hitch. In the background we see Carol put the bowl down and bring the dog over to eat while Art reacts with disgust in the foreground. It’s not world-shattering comedy, but it’s smart writing and staging.
The movie is full of these moments which is due in part to the writer’s guild strike that was happening during filming. Dante was unable to do any formal rewrites during filming, so he allowed actors to improvise lines of dialogue. In essence, Dante film this like a campy horror film and let the cast have the freedom to find the funny in these scenes. There’s still a robust authorial presence in the scene framing and establishment of tone, but the humor feels organic and effortless. Tom Hanks has drifted away from comedy since the 1990s, but movies like The ‘Burbs are reminders that he is a tremendous talent in this genre.
The trio of men investigating the Klopeks, Ray, Art, and Rumsfield (Hanks, Rick Ducommun, and Bruce Dern respectively) present themselves like The Goonies, but as grown men who should know better than a group of middle and high school kids. Their immaturity is slowly rolled out, starting as just making stupid dares to ring the Klopek’s doorbell and finally escalating into complete roughshod vandalism. Carol and Rumsfield’s wife Bonnie (played by Carrie Fisher and Wendy Schaal) are the voices of reason and are ultimately ignored while the men sneak around behind their backs.
The film presents us with an interesting clash of themes that ultimately works. The men are right to suspect the Klopeks of evil-doing, yet the women are also right that the men have lost their minds and are behaving like children. These guys never once think to call the police after witnessing strange acts at night or even discovering a human femur in their backyard. They are lost in the fantasy of the moment, of being Hardy Boys and solving the mystery themselves. If you haven’t seen the film, it won’t be a stretch to guess how that ends up.
The ‘Burbs was able to be a perfectly balanced horror-comedy, it’s scary while making you laugh. It never relies on gore and is all about setting a particular mood and carrying that atmosphere until the end. Moreover, for a film that never leaves this one street, you feel that the world is full and developed. It’s not a movie that will change your life, but it’s very entertaining. I can’t the profound influence The ‘Burbs on my sense of humor and dark sensibilities. I suspect I’ll be watching this movie for the next thirty years and continuing to discover little details and nuance.