Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, April 19, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1989)

9. The ‘Burbs

Sometimes, even the biggest movie nerd has weird omissions in his film knowledge. I can recall “The 'Burbs” – or “The 'burbs,” if you choose to stylize it like that – being shown on cable quite often during my childhood. Though I couldn't quite figure out the film's premise from these commercials, it was evidently a horror/comedy of some sort. As if I needed a further stamp of approval, Joe Dante directed the film. Despite all these things in its favor, I have never seen “The 'Burbs” before tonight. I don't know, some times ya just miss stuff. Now, having seen the film, I can figure out whether I've been missing out on this one all these years.

In the suburban town of Hinkley Hills, on the street of Mayfield Place, in the back of the cul-de-sac, lives the Peterson family. Dad Ray has taken a week off from work and plans to stay home the whole time, despite his wife's insistence of going on a trip. Soon, he becomes fascinated by his new neighbors, a family named the Klopek. The Klopeks don't take care of their yard. Weird noises and flashing lights are seen from their basement windows, which are covered with bars. The family seemingly wear robes and dig up their backyard at night. When he spots one of the Klopeks shoving a suspicious bag into the garbage, he becomes worried. When his dog drags a human femur bone out of the Klopeks' backyard, he becomes obsessed.

Early on in “The 'Burbs,” one of Tom's neighbors shares a story from his childhood. About a seemingly content family man who, totally without warning, snapped one day and murdered his family. In the suburbs, everyone lives close to someone else. The people may or may not seem normal but, behind the walls and front lawns, they could literally be up to anything. In “The 'Burbs,” we see how that curiosity about what your neighbors do can curdled into a morbid fascination. In a key moment, Ray succinctly points out that, in their quest to prove the Klopeks are crazy psychos, he has started acting like a crazy psycho himself. In other words: madness can come for anyone, regardless of where they live or what they look like.

Of course, living in the suburbs is also really boring. “The 'Burbs” begins by zooming in on the globe of the Universal Studios' logo. The film zooms in from that cosmic perspective to the very small corner of town the rest of the movie is set in. All of “The 'Burbs” takes place in this cul-de-sac, the story emphasizing how trapped everyone feels by this location. And that causes people to go a little stir-crazy. Under these circumstances, it's no wonder Ray, Art, and Rumsfield start to imagine their neighbors are devil-worshipers. They are bored and looking for something in nothing... Unless, of course, the Klopeks really are murderous cultists. The film maintains that ambiguity through most of its run time,

There's another layer to this story, one I'm not sure Dante and writer Dana Olsen intended. The central characters in “The 'Burbs” are all white males. Their wives, when they appear at all, are marginalized figures. The trio – one of which is an overly patriotic former solider who is now a weapons dealer – immediately focuses in on the one family on the block that acts differently. The Klopeks, with their messy yard and weird habits, do not look or act like everyone else. Is the film making a point about how the crushing conformity of the suburbs, one that is pointedly Anglo and patriarchal, persecutes and pushes out anything that strays from that format?

Probably not, I'd guess. Dante and Olsen seem to be on Ray's side and, as the ending reveals, the Klopeks are exactly as dangerous as he comes to believe. Instead of going for sociological criticism, “The 'Burbs” mostly runs on an absurdist sense of contrast. In the very first scene, we are introduced to the Klopek house. It is a dilapidated, cobweb-strewn, gothic horror... That stands inside of an otherwise idyllic suburban town. “The 'Burbs” was shot on the same sound stage as “Leave It to Beaver.” The name of the street, Mayfield Place, is also a homage to the iconic sitcom. That's the central joke of the film. What would happen if you stuck a family of Satan worshipers right in the middle of the most genteel suburb possible? It's a gag and I don't know if the movie is diving much deeper than that.

You can see how that central gag would appeal to Joe Dante, who has made at least two other films contrasting the fantastic with the most mundane of American settings. “The 'Burbs” shows Dante working the hardest to make his visual style a source of humor onto itself. In a hilarious moment, Ray and Art face down the Klopek family door while Ennio Morricone music plays on the soundtrack. Adding to this spaghetti western moment is a series of Leone-esque close-up on eyes... That, hilariously, concludes with a zoom-in on a dog's face. When Ray and Art realize they are holding a human femur, they freak out. The camera freaks out with them, shaking comically in that moment. There's a crash-zoom onto a screaming face before a vehicle crashes into a house. It's all rather cartoonish, intentionally so.

Yet, despite the director's best efforts to make “The 'Burbs” funny, the film's humor never quite gels. There's a lot of broad slapstick here. People step in dog poo. They slip to the ground while running with a hose. They are chased by angry bees and doused with water. They fall off roofs, into sheds, and walk out of an exploding house without much damage. Considering his obvious love of Looney Tunes-style humor, you can see what Dante was going for with these moments. Yet there's something weirdly mean-spirited about the humor in “The 'Burbs.” It looks down on its characters a little too much, causing the moments of physical comedy to appear both oddly limp and too nasty to be enjoyed.

Ultimately, the horror elements of “The 'Burbs” are much more self-assured than its big comedic touches. After hearing stories about his neighbors being cultists – and channel surfing through “Race with the Devil,” “The Exorcist,” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” – Ray has a vivid nightmare. Leatherface's chainsaw tears through a wall. Fog billows into the house, staircases back-lit by shining lights. He's tied to a giant grill and circled by horned Satanists. It's a good sequence, as funny as it is a fittingly surreal combination of divergent elements. Once the truth about the Kolpeks are revealed, during an effective scene in an ambulance, “The 'Burbs” even becomes a decently tense thriller for a few minutes. You can almost imagine a better version of this film that plays the material slightly more seriously than the finished project.

One thing “The 'Burbs” really has going for it is its leading man. Tom Hanks was an ideal choice for this part. Ray Peterson has to grab the viewer as a totally normal guy. This would make his descent into paranoia and manic insanity more meaningful to watch. Hanks, naturally, is the greatest example of a Hollywood everyman since Jimmy Stewart, so the part could not be better cast. Hanks' ability to appear comically shocked or confused is used to great effect throughout the film. His climatic rant, when the character finally blows his top, is easily among the film's best moments. He also has an easy-going chemistry with an underutilized Carrie Fisher as his wife, apparent in scenes of them watching “Jeopardy” together.

Backing Hanks up is a colorful supporting cast. Supposedly Hanks and Rick Ducommon, who plays Art, did not get along. Yet the actor never lets that show, as the two have an amusing energy together. The twitchy, paranoid Ducommon is well cast in the part. Bruce Dern appears as Rumsfield, the last part of the central trio. Always accompanied by a snippet of Jerry Goldsmith's “Patton” score, Dern gives a nicely ridiculous performance. The character is deeply goofy but never realizes this, taking himself way too seriously. It's a balance that Dern is able to maintain. Cory Feldman, reappearing from “Gremlins,” shows up as the stoned teenage neighbor. Naturally, Feldman can slot into this role very easily to amusing effect.

As the Klopeks, the film rounds up a fittingly bizarre trio of actors. Brother Theodore, the notoriously weird stand-up comic, appears as the snarling and scowling Reuben Klopek. Henry Gibson, reappearing from “Innerspace,” shows up as Werner Klopek. Despite his small frame, Gibson projects a kind of sleazy and sinister intent. This comes to a head during that aforementioned scene in the ambulance, where he makes a simple smile rather malevolent. Dante finds parts for Dick Miller and Robert Picardo, both of them being well utilized as a pair of bickering garbage men.

“The 'Burbs” would be a solid commercial success for Joe Dante, a much-needed hit after a series of box office disappointments. Grossing almost fifty million against an eighteen million dollar budget, you can probably attribute this to the film being the first Tom Hanks vehicle released after “Big” and an unambitious February release date. After its modestly popular run in theaters, regular cable showings would transform “The 'Burbs” into a cult classic of sorts. Upon this first viewing, it strikes me as an uneven film. There are parts of the movie work really well but it never solidifies into an equally compelling whole. [Grade: C+]

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