[We're celebrating some of the most memorable horror and sci-fi movies of 1989 this month in Daily Dead's Class of 89 retrospective series! Check back on Daily Dead throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversaries of a wide range of horror and sci-fi films!]
In February of 1989, Joe Dante snuck a horror movie into a major studio family comedy like a family of murderers sneaking onto the quiet streets of suburban America. Audiences going to theaters for the new Tom Hanks movie—fresh off his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for Big—didn’t know what they were in for until it was too late. The movie was The ’Burbs, and though it was a box office success at the time, it has come to enjoy the kind of cult fandom typically reserved for movies misunderstood in their day. It’s the rare movie that has enjoyed the best of both worlds.
Living in two worlds is what The ’Burbs does best. It’s both a broad comedy and a sharp satire. It’s a family comedy and a horror movie. It’s Rear Window and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s a cult movie that actually made money, and yet another instance of director Joe Dante taking a studio picture and turning it into something weird and subversive and special. With him, the inmates always ran the asylum.
Ray Peterson (Hanks) is on vacation. He just wants to relax in peace with his wife (Carrie Fisher) at his home on Mayfield Place, a quiet street in the fictional town of Hinkley Hills. Unfortunately, he’s been noticing some unusual activity next door, where his new neighbors the Klopeks (Henry Gibson, Courtney Gains, and Brother Theodore, all trying to out-weird one another) have recently moved in. Lights flash and strange noises come out of the basement, and the Klopeks can be seen driving their garbage down to the curb and beating it with a garden tool. Ray’s other neighbors, Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), are suspicious that something evil is going on in the house, but Ray doesn’t want to be so quick to judgment. Better to investigate just a little further, and then a little further, until all three men are in too deep to turn back as the strange goings-on—including the mysterious disappearance of another neighbor and the discovery of a bone in the backyard—continue to pile up.
Though not his most outrageous film, The ’Burbs may be the most playfully directed movie in Joe Dante’s entire body of work (even if Gremlins 2: The New Batch begs to differ). It features several regular faces of his repertory company—among them Robert Picardo, Wendy Schaal, and, of course, the legendary Dick Miller—and a number of his regular themes (such as criticism of the military industrial complex, here embodied by Bruce Dern in an inspired performance). Even Dante’s technique is playful here. The famous rack zoom scene, in which the camera lens rushes back and forth at the screaming faces of Hanks and co-star Rick Ducommun, is perfectly representative of just how much fun Dante and company are having behind the camera. Most movies couldn’t get away with a shot that self-conscious and, in typical Joe Dante fashion, fourth wall-breaking, but it’s perfectly at home with the tone established throughout The ’Burbs. The film is full of playful touches like that one. There are dream sequences and an over-the-top score by Jerry Goldsmith and a Greek chorus led by Corey Feldman, regularly commenting on the ridiculous goings-on with the remove of one who is amused, but not involved, like a sportscaster giving the play by play as he watches his once quiet neighborhood descend into madness. Plus, the dream sequence features a scene of a character watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, which automatically makes it great.
Sure, he’s always the best in everything, but Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as Ray, the likable everyman driven near madness by the unusual occurrences next door at the Klopek house. He immediately engenders our goodwill, ensuring that we go with him down the rabbit hole of paranoia and suspicion as he becomes more and more convinced that the family of oddball introverts are actually up to something sinister. The Tom Hanks of the 1980s was a slightly different Tom Hanks—a little darker, a little edgier. He could do the warmhearted stuff like Big and Splash, sure, but he was also doing wild comedies like Bachelor Party and Dragnet or going to dark places in comedy dramas like Nothing in Common and Punchline. It’s fitting that The ’Burbs closes out the decade for the actor, seeing as it’s as dark a comedy as he’s ever made.
There are so many films that satirize life in suburbia, but so few good ones. The ’Burbs is one of the good ones, not because it suggests there is something insidious and evil lurking on every picturesque block (that may be true, but it’s low-hanging fruit), but because it suggests that the “normal” families in suburbia are so bored and restless that they’ll go looking for trouble just to give themselves something to occupy their time. Ray says as much in a brilliant speech he delivers near the end of the film:
“Remember what you were saying about people in the ’burbs, Art? People like Skip, people who mow their lawn for the 800th time, and then snap? Well, that’s us. It’s not them. That’s us. We’re the ones who are vaulting over the fences, and peeking in through people’s windows. We’re the ones who are throwing garbage in the street and lighting fires. We’re the ones who are acting suspicious and paranoid, Art. We’re the lunatics! It’s not them. It’s us.”
It’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” reimagined as a wacky comedy, and, just like in that classic Twilight Zone episode, the film suggests that the static sameness of suburbia fosters discontent, which can lead to neighbors turning on one another. Of course, the movie undoes much of the satire in its closing minutes by making Ray and Art right about the Klopeks—they really are murderers, with a trunk full of skulls revealed as they try to make their getaway. While it diminishes the more satirical aspects of the story, The ’Burbs eventually tells us that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.
The movie’s original ending was considerably darker, with Ray being taken away in the ambulance by the Klopeks, presumably to be murdered. That was scrapped once Tom Hanks came aboard, as producers (probably correctly) guessed that audiences don’t want to see America’s favorite everyman killed at the end of their studio comedy. An alternate ending, available on the DVD and Blu-ray release of the film, removes some of the more “exciting” beats of the climax—the reveal of the trunk full of skulls, Bruce Dern tackling Hans after shouting one of the film’s most iconic lines (“Hey Pinocchio! Where are you going?”)—in favor of a more subtle reveal of Dr. Klopek’s true agenda, followed by an impassioned speech from Henry Gibson that tries to swing the satire back around. “Why did you come here?” Hanks asks, to which Gibson responds, “I came as you did: for the quiet, for the privacy, the good life. The convenient shopping, with always plenty of ample, free parking. But everywhere I met only suspicion and distrust.” Poor Dr. Klopek. He just wanted to murder in peace.
Largely savaged by critics upon release, The ’Burbs, like so many of the movies we genre fans obsess over today, garnered a rabid cult following over the last 30 years. Today, it’s one of Joe Dante’s best-loved films—the one that, in his own words, he’s asked about most in his filmography, right behind Gremlins. It’s a movie we are lucky to get when we did, at a time when a big movie star like Tom Hanks would make a weird little comedy and brilliant, subversive filmmakers like Joe Dante were still making movies for big studios like Universal. It’s endlessly quotable—how often do you hear someone yell out “Pizza dude!” or begin chanting “I wanna kill… everybody… Satan is good, Satan is our pal…”—and endlessly rewatchable. It’s one of my favorite Joe Dante movies, and one of my favorite movies of 1989.
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 1989!