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Steven Spielberg made a mint with '70s and '80s pictures that rooted the sci-fi and horror genres squarely in the middle-class suburbs -- contented, complacent Neighborhood Americana. Moviegoers felt a connection to these landscaped communities invaded by rubbery aliens and funky phantoms; eccentric neighbors provided comedy relief as well as a reassuring normality. Come sharks or flying saucers, the family persists and a happy ending follows.
The irreverent Joe Dante has always had more of an anarchic view of the universe. His big hit Gremlins shifts tone and mood faster than a game of musical chairs, but its basic setup is a parody of small town Americana as celebrated in fantasies like It's a Wonderful Life. As with Spielberg, the broad jokes serve as distractions so we'll be surprised when something shocking or scary happens. But what interests Dante is where the laughs and the screams intersect. He slips in more subversive & experimental material while we're off balance. The most radical tone-shift in Gremlins' occurs when the young heroine relates to her boyfriend a horrible Christmas-related story about her father. The whole movie stops dead while we ponder this awful tale. We don't know if our leg is being pulled, or if the movie is going to take a plunge into more frightening content. Dante clearly relishes the opportunity to pull the rug out from under our expectations. The scene reminds us of the creepier Charles Addams cartoons, where the morbid content is stronger than the surface joke, where we realize we're laughing at something that's basically sick. Horror is directly related to comedy.
Five years later Dante's The 'Burbs takes place in a quirky neighborhood, and its central subject is the extremes of neighborhood relationships. No monsters are required to bring about total chaos, because our average Joe citizens easily conjure up a threat all on their own.
The 'Burbs odd little neighborhood is right out of old TV shows filmed on the Universal lot. But much has changed since the days of Leave it to Beaver. On vacation for a week, young Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) has some abrasive run-ins with his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher), who would rather be up at their mountain cabin. Carol's worst fears come to pass when Ray falls in with the silly schemes of his neighbor Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun). Annoying busybody Art gets both Ray and another pal Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) all wound up over the strange new neighbors the Klopeks. The Klopek property is a crumbling eyesore, and disturbing noises and lights come from the basement both day and night. Ray's son Dave (Cory Danziger) has seen the Klopeks digging in the back yard. When elderly neighbor Walter Selznick (Gale Gordon) disappears, Art and Mark are certain that the Klopeks are mass murderers, or perhaps ghoulish Satanists. Ray becomes convinced that he must take action, even if it means sneaking into the Klopek house on a scary search for dead bodies.
Perhaps the weirdest of Joe Dante's mainstream comedies, The 'Burbs is a hundred minutes of amusement with a big laugh guaranteed every couple of minutes, more frequently if one is sensitive to the cultural triggers built into Dana Olsen's screenplay. It isn't that easy to peg going in. Its original ad campaign shows an image of Tom Hanks' frazzled homeowner in his pajamas, without being specific about what's bothering him -- monsters? Ghosts? In this film, what's amusing is also disturbing, and what's scary is also funny.
Rather than insist on repeating his established 'swell guy' persona, Tom Hanks works with the joke. A savvy performer in all respects, he plays Ray Peterson as a vaguely discontented guy whose wife must put up with a lot of sour attitudes. The obnoxious Art takes the liberty of showing regularly to raid their refrigerator. As in old situation comedies, the Petersons indulge Art beyond all reason. Across the street, Lt. Mark Rumsfield introduces a different, cartoonish vibe. Mark's daily ritual of raising his (motorized) flag is accompanied by composer Jerry Goldsmith riffing on his own theme from Patton. Old Walter's poodle has its own daily routine of pooping on Mark's lawn, which sends the ex-soldier into attack mode. A calming influence, Mark's sweet missus Bonnie (Wendy Schaal) dresses a mite provocatively while weeding the lawn, much to the approval of teenage neighbor Ricky (Corey Feldman). The beer-guzzling slacker watches all the mayhem and destruction as if the cul-de-sac were his personal theater of the absurd.
Dante's eclectic parade of jokes includes on-target riffs on horror film clichés, as well as situations in classic Television shows. There's an emphasis on the motif of Mature Wives versus Infantile Husbands, that on TV goes back as far as The Honeymooners. Lt. Mark is stuck in his military daydreams, which he elaborates by wearing army fatigues and a black beret. Art is the ultimate gadfly nincompoop, a motor mouth with an undue influence on his buddies. Poor Ray feels inadequate in most confrontations, leading to a crisis of masculinity. Olsen and Dante pay off this thread with a truly insightful gag, when Art and Mark are told by Carol that 'Ray can't come out and play.' The two adults pout and drag their feet like little boys, their hands in their pockets. It's timed as well as a classic silent movie gag.
The movie is already famous for a Sergio Leone gag that I won't spoil, a brilliant little assemblage of film that both celebrates and deflates the maestro from Trastevere.
The show seems very aware of this when our trio of knuckleheads launch into their crazy assault on the Haunted House of Klopek. The battered, burned and bandaged Ray screams out an extended 'author's message' speech, proclaiming that the wild night's real monsters and maniacs aren't the Klopeks at all. But even that verdict is soon overturned - Dante has the good sense to reserve a couple of zingers for the finish.
This was an interesting period for Tom Hanks, after his low-wattage early comedies (Volunteers, Dragnet) and before his big career move in the '90s (Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia). Hanks subordinates himself to the concept, letting Ray be a somewhat ineffectual klutz carrying on a low-key snit with his wife. Hanks' star quality comes through anyway. Although Carol is the film's baseline for sanity, we root for Ray all the way.
Comedian Rick Ducommun's act is so good that we're convinced he's not acting one bit and is truly obnoxious. Art's habit of talking over people often looks like just plain upstaging. A couple of the actors reported that Rick got on Hanks' wrong side as well as ours, and that the actors had a frayed working relationship. We're also told that a lot of on-set improvisation got into the show, with Hanks really sparring with Ducommun's frenzied patter. It's a case of a great performance that nobody's going to cheer.
Bruce Dern has a fine time playing off of all his previous nut-case roles. Lt. Mark is a nice guy with eccentric ideas, who loves the idea of a commando raid on the Klopeks. Of course, he chooses to be the lookout, perched high atop his house a safe distance away. He'll let the enlisted men hop over the electric fence into the Klopek's Texas Chain Saw Massacre- like backyard of doom. Dern is never so lovable as when giving someone a wicked smirk. And his stuntman pulls off one of the best 'tumbling off the roof' slapstick falls ever.
Carrie Fisher and Wendy Schaal are sort of the Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble characters. Schaal's Bonnie Rumsfeld is not the bubblehead she seems but a thoughtful and well-meaning individual. Equally respected is Fisher's Carol Peterson, who is endlessly patient with her somewhat feckless husband. i>The 'Burbs seems to know that in just a few years assertive women like Carol are going to be the breadwinners in a fair share of American homes. Art's wife is conspicuously absent; one would think she'd prefer to spend her days drinking in a bar, than being home with him.
Nervy kid actor Corey Feldman was a big plus in Gremlins and here pulls his weight as Ricky, the slacker punk next door. Ricky contributes heckling comments from the sidelines as Ray & his cohorts turn the street into a war zone. He's an audience surrogate, always good for a safe cutaway. His pending pizza delivery shares equal importance with houses blowing up and bloody murders. Dante regulars Dick Miller and Robert Picardo add welcome variety as a pair of garbagemen with attitude. Are the mysterious Klopeks dangerous maniacs or just misunderstood immigrants, trying to keep to themselves? Geeky Courtney Gains does point duty as sort of a Slavic hillbilly. Bizarro TV personality Brother Theodore is an inspired choice, while comic Henry Gibson's key role is too much of a spoiler to detail.
Nailing the connection to an earlier age of entertainment is the classic comic Gale Gordon as the aged neighbor and presumed victim of the dreaded Klopeks. This final movie appearance was Gordon's first in over twenty years. Old Walter has no lines and looks wobbly on his feet, yet he appeared in two more TV shows a couple of years later.
The 'Burbs can best be described as odd, uncontrolled and unpredictable. Dante occasionally goes nuts with his gags, as when his camera smash-zooms in and out on the sight of Ray and Art screaming in shock. He seems genuinely fond of this ode to home-grown Crazy Adventures. I doubt that modern times can quite be like they were in the old days when kids ran wild and under-the-influence adults often did the same. After all, back then nobody could put humiliating picture of your misbehaviors on the Internet, for all to see. As a kid I got roped into doing crazy things like digging tunnels (don't suffocate, Mark Hornibrook!) or accidentally setting the back yard on fire. Exactly as Bruce Dern does, pal James Heath and I ran wildly with a water hose just too short to reach the blaze we'd started. And just as The 'Burbs implies, every neighborhood had a 'mystery' house or two that came complete with strange rumors. Combine that nostalgia with the off-kilter sense of humor of Dante and his collaborators, and we've got a winner.
Arrow Video's Region B Blu-ray of The 'Burbs is an excellent encoding of this colorful, polished production. It's only playable on all-region equipped players, but is reviewed here because Arrow's extras add so much to the enjoyment of the film (hear that, major U.S. video companies?). The show is in its 1:85 theatrical aspect ratio and comes with two-channel stereo audio; Arrow also states that the 2K restoration is their own work and exclusive. The presentation is available in both standard packaging and a slightly pricier Steelbook collector's edition, pictured below. Both contain Arrow's insert booklet, which has a new essay by Kenneth J. Souza and another about Jerry Goldsmith's music for Joe Dante's movies. Goldsmith's score is auditable in an isolated Music and Effects track.
The most-wanted extra is the film's original work print cut transferred from director Joe Dante's personal copy. It's edited differently in places and has several deleted scenes. Dante often joked that he uses Bernard Herrmann's music for The Trouble with Harry as temp music in all of his pictures, and sure enough, the cues show up right when needed. A Tale of Two 'Burbs is a featurette comparing the differences between the work print and the theatrical cut, with Joe Dante's commentary as an option. A slightly different alternate ending is also present as a separate extra, along with an original trailer.
The new feature-length documentary There Goes the Neighbourhood is a making-of show with interviews with Dante, actors Corey Feldman, Courtney Gains and Wendy Schaal. D.P. Robert M. Stevens and production designer James H. Spencer are also on tap. We learn that as filmed, the Ray Peterson character was supposed to have been laid off from his job just as his vacation began, which accounts for the slackness in his attitude. Director Dante also describes an absurd filming situation on the Universal lot, where his film unit had to accept the fact that the Studio Tour buses will be driving by every twenty minutes, with bullhorns blaring, right in the middle of audio takes. The only drawback to this great docu is that it goes on too long, and lets a couple of the participants wear out their welcome.
A new audio commentary is from writer Dana Olsen, moderated by author Calum Waddell. Dana was on the set for some of the shooting but technically couldn't contribute to re-writes because of a writer's strike. Dante shot the film in sequence so that inspirational changes could be integrated, without destroying his film's basic continuity.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The 'Burbs Region B Blu-ray rates:
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.