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You keep a horse in the basement?


The ‘Burbs


The ’Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with its black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ’Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon.

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on first viewing but it’s also undoubtedly the case that its lasting appeal lies in repeat visits, thanks to (unlike the script-as-bible Lebowski) oft-improvised dialogue that delivers barely a duff line or beat. For many of the cast, this is the best thing they’ve done. And for Dante it’s almost subversive of his own niche; it’s the one that might most easily be mistaken for a mainstream movie at first glance, but reveals its anarchic core even when its struggling to a toe a nominal line of moral or message.

Where do you begin singing the praises of The ’Burbs? This will be fairly effusive, but it might be best to begin at the end. One thing I remember clearly even at the time was the discussion of the ending. The picture’s finale wasn’t divisive in the way say, Explorers took a left turn when the kids reached space, from which many viewers felt it never recovered (if anything puncture’s the cutesy E.T. bubble, it’s that movie). Rather, it was regarded as a slight betrayal, fudging the courage of its convictions, a screenplay (from Dana Olsen, who originally wrote it for a TV series and went on to Memoirs of an Invisible Man and some fairly inauspicious ’90s material) that set out its store commenting on the lazy, suspicious, gossipy and bigoted suburbanites as the real culprits, rather than anyone who doesn’t fit in, who isn’t sufficiently homogenous and is thus bullied and harassed from town, but then backtracks by having the weirdos turn out to be weird and truly undesirable after all.

In tandem with this criticism, there was mention of the picture’s actual ending, and for a long time I assumed this fulfilled the picture’s loftier goals of pointing the finger unequivocally at the interfering, petty-minded neighbours rather than shaming the Klopeks. It didn’t, and it’s difficult to argue the workprint ending has much merit when compared to the one in the released film (other shot endings, remaining unseen on the recent UK Blu-ray release, had the garbage men and cheerleaders in the Klopeks’ trunk). I’d assumed Dante preferred the original shot ending (or any but the one in the finished picture), but he actually seems rather tepid about all of them; they’re okay, but they never really got what he wanted. The original written ending had the Ray Peterson character killed off, which changed when Hanks was cast. But it’s difficult to believe Universal would ultimately have gone for that at all, whoever got the lead.

Dante said it was for this reason they had to explain the Klopeks’ behaviour, since it was intended Ray would be abducted in the ambulance and their motives would remain a mystery. I tend to see both the released ending and the backtracking on the moral lesson as superior to anything else on offer. To be fair to him, Olsen admits there’s a double-edged reading to be taken from the picture; that the characters’ whose methods are reprehensible turn out to be justified in their behaviour. Yet it seems to me this kind of anarchic “have cake and eat it” approach is fundamentally the kind of thing you want from a Dante picture.

Even the alternate ending, where Dr Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson) explains why they moved to the suburbs (“I came as you did for the quiet and the privacy, convenience and shopping or the good life”) is rather lacking (aside from Hans comment that they never had any trouble before (“It’s true. In L.A. nobody ever said anything”). To follow through with the neighbours as being completely wrong in their suspicions and persecution of the Klopeks would be noble and commendable but rather boring. Yes, it “lets the audience off the hook”, but part of the fun here is that the characters don’t learn anything either. Dante gets his “message” across in the finished film and has fun with it.

For starters, the boot full of skulls is so absurdly over the top, it’s irresistible, revelling in the lack of strong motivation for the Klopeks and emphasising the exaggerated, cartoonish quality of Dante’s entire oeuvre. Far from justifying the fear of the other, the xenophobia of the characters is allowed to proceed unchecked. It’s not dissimilar to the tack Dante takes at the end of Small Soldiers, where the tech company buys off the characters (the parents, who should be setting an example!) and no doubt continues to perpetrate more carnage; characters in Dante’s pictures are allowed to carry on living their blithely irresponsible version of the American Dream long after the credits have rolled.

ArtDo not mess with suburbanites, because frankly we’re just not going to take it anymore.

So Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) espouses his hopeless “I’ve learnt nothing from this” lesson to the TV crews, while Lieutenant Mark Rumsfeld (Bruce Dern) is justified in his casual racism (his first comment on seeing Courtney Gains’ Hans is “Hey, one of the Huns came out of the cave”). Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman) is the TV-fed MTV Generation observer of events, so his response is the more pervasive one of seeing real life as mere entertainment without the cathode ray tube.

RayAs soon as that car leaves in the morning, I’m going over the fence. And I’m not coming back until I find dead body… Nobody knocks off an old man in my neighbourhood and gets away with it.

Even Ray, who is shown full of regret and delivering the core point about “People who mow their lawn for the 800th time and snap. That’s us, it’s not them”) appears to have the blinkers pulled back down when he makes Ricky his deputy in the last scene; he tells Ricky he is going away for a while and asks him to keep an eye on the neighbourhood while he’s gone. Dante is mocking the swagger of a character who actually sees himself as the local sheriff now he has lucked in with his behaviour.

So yeah, viewers might take away the idea that this is an endorsement for irresponsible and anti-social behaviour but they’d probably be the ones who think Big and Turner and Hooch are Hanks’ best movies. Even an apparently innocuous act has repercussions (“That poor old man claims he’s got a ransom note that says you kidnapped his dog”) let alone the “neighbours from hell” litany of offences that greets Ray when he staggers from the shell of the Klopek residence (“Destruction of private property, destruction of public property, three counts of criminal trespassing, harassment, assault, vandalism”).

Affectionate mockery is part and parcel of the Dane approach; even his villains are likeably villainous.  On paper the themes of The ’Burbs aren’t anything particularly special; it’s what Dante does with them that stands out and makes the setting feel fresh (compare last year’s lousy Rogen-fest (Bad) Neighbours to see how easy it is to render this kind of premise sophomoric). The underbelly of the white picket fence Americana was particularly in vogue during the ’80s, be it contrasting ’50s nostalgia with reality (Back to the FuturePeggy Sue Got Married) or transposing the veneer to an antic contemporary setting (Blue Velvet).

That was doubtless due in part to baby boomers being of age and up and coming filmmakers, but also reflective of the regressive Reaganite values taking hold. The ’Burbs particularly “gets” that, with the gung-ho revisionist ‘Nam veteran who was previously turned into a cartoon with First Blood Part II and then appropriated and invoked by Reagan himself. It’s no wonder Dante was disturbed enough to reference it both here (the flag-raising Rumsfeld takes the name of the Secretary of Defence from the previous decade, at that point back in the private sector) and in Gremlins 2 (although, it felt a little passé by the time Gizmo became addicted to him).

CarolSorry boys, my husband’s not feeling well. He has to stay in his room.
RumsfeldPlease Carol, let him out.

While that’s there, the kernel of the picture is something more universal, as Olsen was inspired by “that weird house on every street you knew when you were a kid”. Part of the genius of The ’Burbs is not having a bunch of kids find the neighbours are up to no good, Hardy Boys style, but giving the role to a trio of overgrown ones. This is referenced overtly in both sight gags (Rumsfeld sitting in his camouflage gear on the roof, biting the heads off animal crackers) and the stern tone of Ray’s wife Carol (Carrie Fisher). The sight of Dern pleading like a seven-year-old for Carol to let his friend out to play, and Art kicking the ground in disappointment is perfection. Then there’s Ray and Art daring each other to knock on the Klopek’s door and Rumsfeld quizzing Ray, “What are you, a fraidy cat?

Olsen’s screenplay was originally titled Bay Window, a riff on Rear Window, and there is something of the Hitchock parody here (Disturbia plays more like a straight version of The ’Burbs than a youth version of Rear Window). Others have emphasised the picture’s horror-comedy credentials of the picture, although I must say that, while I recognise the markers, I’ve never really thought of it as part of that sub-genre, not in a genuine way. Dante throws in an abundance of references and signatures (crows, harbingers of death appear from the first), but the horror element is in much more diluted form than even Gremlins.

The scenes suggestive of horror (Ray digging in the basement when we know the Klopeks are returning) are closer to your classic Hitchcock suspense sequence (Raymond Burr showing up when we know but Jimmy Stewart or Grace Kelly doesn’t) than horror. There’s always the possibility of warped domestic incidents, but Dante relegates these references to the overtly visual (Texas Chainsaw MassacreThe Exorcist both possess a highly skewed vision of home life) or verbal (Michael Winner’s Dinners Winner’s The Sentinel).

Accordingly, the urban legend/tale of the neighbourhood nutter that has fuelled a thousand teen slashers comes into conversation, but purely via Art scaring Ray with a tall tale (obviously from his childhood, where Skip murdered his family with an ice pick during a hot summer) or a Looney Tunes meets Spellbound dream sequence (the chainsaw comes through the wall, Art dressed as Skip and Ray sacrificed to Satan on his giant-sized barbecue).

RayI’ve never seen that. I’ve never seen anybody drive their garbage down to the street and then bang the hell out of it with a shovel. I’ve never seen that.

Dante has fun with the mild horror references throughout, though. His pictures tend to be at their best when the frames are stuffed with little gems; it pays dividends to revisit his pictures for this reason alone, as there are always more to pick up. The first scene has Ray witnessing the Klopeks’ noisy basement at night; their property distinguishes itself with its grey, dead ground where the rest of the street is classically primary coloured. Wind gusts at him on cue when he sets foot over the boundary.

Their house number 669 swings down to 666 when Ray and Art knock on the door; in a classic of escalating panic, Art puts his foot through the porch and a swarm of bees chases them away. This climaxes with Rumsfeld attempting to spray them down but pitching into a slapstick pratfall when the hose proves not too short. Then there’s Hans driving the Klopek car to the bottom of the drive to put a sack in a rubbish bin as lightning lights up the sky, or the Klopeks digging en masse in their back garden on a rain-lashed night.

RayWalter’s dog just took a dump on Rumsfeld’s lawn again.
CarolGood, honey.

The Klopeks have been in the neighbourhood for only a month when the picture begins, but that’s more than enough time to condemn them. I think it benefits the picture not burdening Ray with the backstory of having lost his job (referenced in the workprint with an appearance by Kevin McCarthy as his boss in the dream sequence and Ray’s confession to Carol in the last scene) as it fosters a focus on the listless, petty lives of Ray, Art and Rumsfeld. The reasonable suggestion “Well maybe these people just want to keep to themselves” won’t wash, not just because they don’t conform to neighbourhood norms, but because the lives of this trio of amateur investigators are so empty they have to create distractions. When they don’t have the artificial filler of meaningless jobs or humdrum lives, they naturally revert to a pre-adult mind-set. Ray is off work for a week, Rumsfeld is (presumably) retired, and Art’s wife is away (who can blame her).

DaveRicky Butler says they’re nocturnal feeders.

Art is the instigator; he needs to know what the Klopeks are up to do, but rumour and confabulation inform his knowledge of them. He’s the one insisting to “grounded” Ray that he has maniacs living next door, whose last house burnt to the ground in a “hideous raging inferno”. He finds suspicion through absence (“No one goes in no one goes out”, there are no visitors no deliveries, “What do you think they’re eating over there?”). It’s left to Rumsfeld to fan the flames (or stir the shit), while Ray’s resistance is gradually worn down as his own suspicions increase (“Walter was a human sacrifice!” insists Art, who has put a note in the Klopeks’ letter box claiming “I know what you’ve done”). When it comes down to it, though, they’re pretty much as bad as each other.

Dante had a run of underperformers – or simple non-performers – following the surprise success of Gremlins. He has commented it put him on a commercially viable pedestal he never expected, but we should be grateful for it as in the near-decade that followed gave us a run of consistently warped and infectiously lunatic studio pictures. Explorers was roundly ignored and as a result might be the most cult-worthy of his pictures today. Innerspace mystifyingly did antiseptic business despite Spielberg’s name. Then came The ’Burbs, the performance of which was reasonable given its price tag but no doubt disappointed suits expecting it to cash in on Hanks’ breakout success in Big nine months earlier.

Although I’m sure few think of it in those terms, it’s his only movie besides Matinee without a true science fiction or fantasy element. In some respects, this makes the heightened comic and visual sensibility even more pronounced, as there’s no unreal premise to bed it in (in a good way; the “real” world of The ’Burbs is larger than life – outside of the movie-centric element, Matinee is a fairly straight coming-of-age tale in content). As noted, there are cineaste homages and gags littering the picture, from Race with the Devil (the Texas Chainsaw Massacre clip was cut from the UK version of the picture until the film’s ban was repealed) to a book called The Theory and Practice of Demonology by Julian Karswell (of Night of the Demon) to the painting Rumsfeld can’t make head nor tail of (from Rod Serling’s Night Gallery).

Art: (Holding a bone Vince has brought) Do you know what this is?
RayIt’s a bone.
ArtIt’s a femur.
RayIt’s a femur – bone.
ArtA femur just happens to be a human thighbone, Ray.
RayWait, how do you know that?
ArtBiology 101. I mean, look at the size of this thing. Do you think this came off a chicken or something? Where the hell did Vince get this?
Ray (he and Art look over towards the Klopek property): He dug it up from underneath the fence.
Art (they approach the fence): Ray, Ray, there’s no doubt any more. This is real. Your neighbours are murdering people. They’re chopping them up. They’re burying them in their back yard. Ray, this is Walter!
(Ray and Art scream “AHHHHNOOOOOOOO!” as the camera crash zooms in and out.)

But it’s the Looney Tunes approach to live action that continually makes The ’Burbs a joy to behold. Sometimes it’s just one shot; the two-shot of Art and Dave staring at each other, eating in unison as they contemplate the misdeeds of the Klopeks. Or Ricky barging open a door and knocking Art’s food-laden plate from his hands (plundered from Walter’s fridge) in a wonderfully silly gag on movie scares (take 87 was used). One of the best, and most famous (it’s in the trailer) is the zoom in and out on Ray and Art screaming in response to the human thighbone Vince, Ray’s dog, has been playing fetch with (one of those scenes that pays dividends on repeat viewing). Topping even that is Art’s derisory “Do you think this came off a chicken or something?” moments before.

The Leone parody, complete with Morricone excerpt from Once Upon a Time in the West (Jerry Goldsmith was unable to do an effective imitation) is similarly attention grabbing. Hans stands on his porch and all eyes in the close are on him; Dante offers us extreme close ups on the eyes of Ricky, Bonnie Rumsfeld (Wendy Schaal), Rumsfeld himself, Walter (Gale Gordon)… and Walter’s dog Queenie. It highlights what a great comic sensibility the director has, but also the sheer paucity of inventiveness in comedy movies generally. The camera is very rarely used as an integral aspect of the design of gags; it’s mostly there just to record them in the most basic of fashions.

Other moments include the Art-shaped hole in the shed roof, left there after he topples from a telegraph pole (a gag that would be repeated as a Batman reference in Gremlins 2 the following year), the aforementioned puzzlement of Rumsfeld as moves Dr Klopek’s painting round and round, unable to figure it’s focus, and the slapstick genius of Rumsfeld distracted, slipping and falling off the roof with his sniper rifle, which misfires and shatters a car window (“Awesome!” comes the reply from Ricky’s friends, followed by applause and “That was very cool, man”).

With his affinity for cartoons. Dante is never far away from breaking the fourth wall, although (I think) this is the first time he goes there directly; in the last scene Ricky, having been delegated responsibility, announces to the camera “God, I love this street”. He’s been the de facto chorus anyway, but this embrace of the artifice of the movie form is fundamental to appreciating Dante’s movies.

The picture’s best, most well sustained scene relies on timing and blocking rather than overt gags, however. Carole leads Ray, Rumsfeld and Bonnie on a mission to meet the Klopeks. It’s a scene pregnant with discomfort (“Sure was damp today“) as Carol and Bonnie observe etiquette while Ray attempts to be polite and consume a sardine (Hank’s comic timing is delirious here).

It’s Dern who steals the show, however, observing no decorum whatsoever as he distractedly tears wallpaper off the wall, mocks Hans and interrogates Reuben (Brother Theodore). Which culminates in Ray making for the basement only to be confronted by the Klopeks’ Great Dane Landru (“You keep a horse in the basement?”) It’s a scene of delightful ensemble acting, and as, Callum Waddell notes on the Blu-ray commentary track, Pinter-esque pauses and off-kilter interaction.

The ’Burbs was shot during the summer of 1988 amid a writer’s strike (Dante, a pro-writer guy, cast Olsen in a small role to ensure he was onset). As a result, even though the script was locked when production began, there was much improvisation during the course of filming. That should probably be no surprise coming from a filmmaker whose fingerprints are very evident in all his work, no matter who penned it. Dante also shot in sequence to ensure such adlibbing was germane to the tone and content (and on the Universal backlot, so emphasising the exaggerated milieu and enabling greater control of the elements).

As is customary for him, the cast is a mixture of his “repertory company” and stars. So Hanks, Fisher and Dern (who would go on to work with the director again on Small Soldiers and The Hole; Dern became cool again long before Tarantino “rediscovered” him) represent the name players, accompanied by Feldman (something of a young star in his own right at that point, but had earlier worked with Dante on Gremlins), Schaal (first working with Dante on Innerspace, and later Small Soldiers), Gibson (InnerspaceGremlins 2), and cameos from evergreen players Robert Picardo and Dick Miller. In this one, the blend feels particularly seamless.

RayThat’s what I want to do. I just want to lay around. Be lazy, listen to the ball game, drink a couple of hundred beers, and maybe smoke an occasional cigar. This is what I need, Carol. And at the end of the week I’ll be a brand-new human being.
CarolIt’s your vacation.

I recall reading somewhere that Hanks doesn’t hold the picture in particular esteem. That might be partly down to Dante’s eccentric sensibility, partly down to the friction he had with Ducommun (Dante has commented it was absolutely perfect for the antagonism between Ray and Art) or simply the transition he was making to the hallowed territory of “serious” actor. He dipped his toe in Punchline the previous year. Following Turner and Hooch, the same year as The ‘Burbs, the closest he got to “straight” comedy again was 1990’s Joe versus the VolcanoBonfire of the Vanities was a failed satire, and by 1993 he transitioned to serious or resonant character fare. Like Bruce Willis, more’s the shame, as Hanks’ greatest flair is as a comedy actor, rather than a rather constipated representative of sincere and well-meaning America.

RayI’m only trying to take a nap. I’m only laying here, with my eyes closed, trying to get some goddam sleep. (Ray crushes cans in his hands)

Which isn’t to say he isn’t good enough at that, but it is to note that The ’Burbs might be his best comic performance. Big gets all the raves, but the overgrown child thing isn’t nearly as engaging as the frustrated man-child. It’s interesting to see young Hanks (so young at 32, he didn’t want Ray to have a kid as he thought it would affect his bankability) as the already all-but middle-aged aimless suburban slacker dad who talks about the game and the tools his father-in-law gave him, and the way he holds the picture together in an entirely generous way.

He’s funny, grouchy, exasperated. His comic timing is exquisite, from crushing beer cans to flinching when Art shoots out his porch lantern, to failing to break into the Klopeks with a credit card (‘Ah, it’s a shit store anyway”, consoles Art), to instructing Dave, mid yelling match with Carole “Your mum and I are having a conversation” and carrying his stretcher into a waiting ambulance and flopping down on it.

Perhaps the most fun comes from his fantastic chemistry with Fisher, though. She’s the indulgent parent to his wayward kid on one level, but you don’t doubt for a minute that they are perfectly matched couple. His reluctance to go up to the lake, citing that “the neighbour with the enormous has to get drunk and fall down the stairs” sees Carol reprove him because the neighbour is “hydrocephalic”. When his wife returns and all is disarray, she surprisingly doesn’t give him hell, while he observes, “You’ve cut your hair. I like it”, adding later “I really do like your hair, honey”.

CarolHoney, I’ll just find out what hospital they’re taking you to, and I’ll follow right along.

This might also be Fisher’s finest comic hour. Dante directed her in a “social disease” public information film in the patchy (his segments tend to be the best) sketch movie Amazon Women on the Moon, but generally her roles have tended towards the cameo or supporting turn in a way that surely would not have happened today (the Leia association wouldn’t have been an impediment). It’s nice to see a married couple on screen with tolerance and understanding, and that’s mostly about Fisher moderating Carol’s “Let him do what he has to do”, knowing better without reproving him, as she knows it would be a waste of effort.

She’s particularly on form taking Art to task (“Art, you’re not invited” she instructs as she leads the diplomatic mission to the Klopek house – an American diplomatic mission passing under the flag, so inevitably it flounders) and insulting him in such splendidly quotable fashion that it appeared on an early Empire magazine spine quote (“Whoa, whoa, whoa? Who started it, tuna neck?”)

ArtI say we start in the kitchen. They’ve probably got some cold beer in there.

Ducommon, a relatively unknown stand-up comedian whose subsequent movie career wasn’t, for whatever reason, especially prolific (a Mogwai bites his nose in Gremlins 2, his swimming pool ends up full of villain’s car in Last Boy Scout) but Dante singles his improv skills out for special praise on The ’Burbs. He definitely imbues Art with just the right edge of annoying, gnawing antagonism and his running gags involving emptying neighbours’ fridges of food are particularly choice (most of the scenes in the workprint are “take them or leave them”, but it’s disappointing not to get the payoff of Art in the kitchen at the Klopeks; when Ray asks what’s wrong, he replies “There’s no beer”).

His presence ensures bits of lines are gems (“If I’d been on the plane, it would have crashed”, he asserts regarding a “premonition”). He informs Ray “My cousin Jerry’s a priest. He can get you a deal” (on holy water) and his active imagination provokes the suggestion that the Klopeks will “Tear their livers out and make some kind of satanic pate” (food again) and that Ray’s repetition of “I’m not listening to you” is a demonic chant (“I want to kill, every one, Satan is good, Satan is our pal”).

BonnieYour wife’s home!
RumsfeldAnd your house is on fire!
ArtMy wife is home?

The payoff that the guy who seems to be his own boss (“Who listens to their wife?” he asks rhetorically at one point) is scared silly when he discovers his wife has returned is particularly choice, as is his unflinching sarcasm towards the police (“Yeah, the old guy who’s sitting here is buried in that house”).

It’s Dern who really waltzes off with The ’Burbs, though, his entitled glee and shameless disdain for others carried along in a ball of wiry energy. Dern hadn’t really been on the map for a decade when Dante made the picture, his last pictures of note being (a Vietnam vet in) the adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Black Sunday, (a Vietnam vet in) Oscar winning Coming Home and the detective pursuing Ryan O’Neal in Walter Hill’s The Driver (he would make a couple more pictures with Hill during the ’90s). Subsequently he would make Midnight Sting (aka Diggstown), proving he could play nasty with such flair he could make James Wood look like the good guy.

RumsfeldRumsfield’s the name. I don’t think I caught yours, sonny.
RumsfeldHans. Oh-ho-ho. A fine Christian name. Hans Christian Anderson? What are you, a catholic?

Rumsfeld may not be as renowned a comedy veteran as John Goodman’s Walter Kochek in The Big Lebowski, but he should be. Dante noted that Dern, Fisher and Hanks were particularly great in scenes together, but Dern just opening his mouth gets a laugh nonety percent of the time. Rumsfeld’s casual xenophobia is especially amusing (“Is that a Slavic name?” he muses regarding the Klopeks); his entire interaction with his new neighbours during the peace visit is hilarious, especially with Brother Theodore (“What kind of doctor is this brother of yours, Rube?”) He’s shamelessly upfront and transparent (“Got somebody tied up in the old cellar have you, Rube?… What have you got in the cellar, Herr Klopek?”), and almost agreeable in his incorrigible mockery (“It came with the frame?”)

RumsfeldKlopek. What is that, Slavik?
Ruben KlopekNo!
RumsfeldOh-ho. ‘Bout a nine on the tension scale, Rube.

We don’t know what Rumsfeld does now (we don’t know what any of them do; part of the appeal is that their jobs are inevitably boring so they don’t even mention them) but we assume he’s retired with his young trophy wife. His contempt for Rick and his friends (“That kid’s a meatball”) is accompanied by a bravado of one assuming they are always in the right (“You’ve got a lawsuit on your hands, man”) even when the opposite is the case.

Then there’s his veteran status, very much caricaturing the John Wayne military mind rather than the post-Deer Hunter, post-Oliver Stone screwed-upness. He observes, “In South East Asia we’d call this type of thing ‘bad karma’” and instructs Hans “Don’t make a move, sonny. I was eighteen months in the bush, and I could snap your neck in a heartbeat”. He takes glee in his military manoeuvres (his radio that can “raise all the police channels and the power company channels”, his commanding the mission; “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Ray go over”) and best of all (well, second to the horse comment) his response to Ray revealing Walter’s concealed wig (“You’ve had that thing in your trousers all day?”)

RickyGreen sky at morning, neighbour take warning.
RayGreen sky at night…
RickyNeighbour take flight?

Since working with Dante on Gremlins five years earlier, Feldman’s career rise had been fairly meteoric, starring in hits The GooniesStand by Me and (most lastingly perhaps) The Lost Boys. There was also License to Drive with fellow Corey and Lost Boys co-star Corey Haim. By all accounts he was indulging fame too much by the time of The ’Burbs (Bubbles was banned from the set for shitting everywhere) and the lame-o friends of Ricky were Feldman’s own lame-o friends. It’s a shame, but The ’Burbs is the last time Feldman’s really a mainstream star, particularly as he’s a natural comedy performer with great comic timing.

He may not have known his niche place as an actor when he made the movie, but he essays a typically difficult role with aplomb (the guy who tells the audience when something is funny shouldn’t work, but Ricky is so likeable that it absolutely does; witness his response to Bruce Dern and the hose). Choice moments include the iconic improvised (“Pizza dude!”), his attempt to distract the cops (people, “In my parents’ house, and they’re eating all their food!”) and trying to get Reuben on side (“Chill out with us. We’ve got the pizza dude coming!”)

Dr KlopekAnother neighbour?
Ruben KlopekA fat one.

The Klopeks are typically great Dante villains (although there are surprisingly few in his pictures, which is a shame, as when he does them, they always commendably enjoy being villains). There’s Gibson with his cool gentility (“I thought the candles would be romantic for the ladies”; there are about 20 chunky ones smoking away on a coffee table), Brother Theodore snarling (“Okay, hepcats. Get off the car”) and a very funny ginger chin-bearded Courtney Gains as the unfortunate Hans, complete with flies buzzing around him and flinching at the Bonnie’s touch . They’re likeably and distinctly oddball and quirky.

RumsfeldWell, you’re going to pick the mess because you are a garbage man.

Completing the cast are Schaal (since gainfully employed on American Dad, so I guess Seth McFarlane has something in his favour due to being a fan of The ‘Burbs), the always entertaining Picardo (“This seminar could change your life, Vic”) and the invariably cantankerous Miller (“I hate cul-de-sacs”) Even the cops get memorable lines (“You don’t get to the beach much, do you?”, one asks Hans).

I’m not a universal fan of Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtracks, but his scores with Dante are universally excellent; playful, lively with a touch of electronica. The Klopek organ has just the right air of horror-mocking grandiosity, while military anthem for Rumsfeld suitably undercuts him. Robert M Stevens replaced John Hora as cinematographer (he worked with Dante on Amazing Stories) and does a fine job, working in his director’s desire to gradual darken the palette as the picture became more intense, and dropping the camera to lower angles as the menace rose (there’s also quirky employment of Dutch angles).

Everyone here completely gets how to make a lively comedy, one that doesn’t rest on its laurels in any department as a result of relying on the performers to do the heavy lifting. Even the trailer brings out the best in the makers (The ’Burbs title zooms in and out in imitation of the femur shot). Oh, and that opening effects shot from the Universal logo and down to the street (and reversed for the end of the picture). It would barely pass comment now, of course, but was much celebrated at the time.

It’s been said The ’Burbs didn’t get great reviews (the aforementioned Empire proudly noted recently that they gave it four stars, and I remember Starburst’s Alan Jones – who slated Gremlins 2 – giving it 8/10, so perhaps Dante’s only remembering the bad). I think it’s true to say that the picture didn’t stand out as a comedy classic straight away, even to Dante aficionados. I’ll readily admit Dante’s stranger and more tangible delights of InnerspaceGremlins and its sequel ranked as my favourites (and still do, The ’Burbs aside) during the period of their release. But as I said above, even The Big Lebowski took a while to work its magic, and the Coens were playing to a captive audience by the time that picture arrived. That’s part of the appeal with cult movies; they take time to ferment and for their true lustre to leak through. The ’Burbs is now revealed as a career pinnacle not only for Dante, but also Hanks, Fisher, Dern, and Feldman. It’s inconceivable that you’d watch it and not love this street.

Addendum (08/07/22): This movie does, of course, star Guantanamo Hanks, which under normal circumstances would immediately call its legitimacy into question. Add to that it being cited as a repudiation of then-topical Satanic Panic – albeit, the ending indicates such fears are essentially legit, so go figure – and you might question whether The ’Burbs deserves its hallowed (around these parts) status. Rest assured, it very much does.

Addendum (02/02/23): Well…. Just let me check the above addendum. Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers, it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.

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