By Matt FlemingRETROGRADING is my attempt to parse the films of yesteryear, just to see if they hold their ground.

the-burbs-movie-poster-1989-1020203502Prologue: “The Horror of Modern Living.”

Early 20th Century America saw a boom in industrial production, economic growth, and population. A once rural landscape transformed into a series of large-scale cities, paragons of human achievement, interconnected by interstates and railways. Then, after the world recovered from the second World War, Americans sought a return to the quiet of simpler times, but with the trappings of modernity. So, they built suburbs, enclaves of isolation with two-car garages and lush green lawns. Suburbanites drove long automobiles named for extinguished Native American tribes to spend money at malls filled with Ruby Tuesdays.™ The 9-to-5 working weeks left an emptiness that these suburbanites filled with bowling leagues, pancake breakfasts, and potluck dinners. They peered out of their perfectly squared windows and saw imperfection, patchy lawns and stray animals. Paranoia sank in, and some suburbanites snapped. The unsettling banality of their picket-fence existences tore away their psyches until they burned the whole thing to the ground.

At least, that is the loose definition of suburban life posited by Joe Dante’s 1989 horror-comedy The ‘Burbs.

Dante first saw success in the B-movie world with the 1978 chomper Piranha, then followed with the innovative horror classic The Howling (1981) and the cutesy holiday fright-fest Gremlins (1984). Despite his participation in the disastrous The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), the filmmaker spent most of Reagan’s decade displaying his love of low-rent schlockfests in movies that could elicit screams as well as laughs. As the decade came to a close, he pointed the camera toward the cul-de-sac, civil engineering’s cheeky redefinition of a dead end road. In doing so, he managed to peel back the drapes on America’s suburban id, and he did it with Hollywood’s reigning everyman, Tom Hanks. The ‘Burbs could wind up a disaster with the slightest veer toward the too-serious or the too-goofy.

Instead, The ‘Burbs treads that line and delivers a dark, fun movie.

The-Burbs-Ray-Art-find-Walters-FemurPart One: The Plot, or “Don’t Mess With Suburbanites.”

The opening scene of The ‘Burbs begins as the camera descends upon the Universal Pictures’ iconic spinning globe, guiding its focus toward an average middle-American suburb, the camera acting as the hidden eye of the audience. The camera finds its subject, Ray Peterson (Hanks), taking a nocturnal walk toward the yard of his eccentric new neighbors. The Klopeks have lived in their dilapidated home for a month and have yet to meet the rest of their neighbors on Mayfield Place, or even be seen in daylight for that matter. Ray stares in curiosity as the glow from the basement accompanies a loud rumble, shaking everything above the foundation. Place is creepy.

The next day, as Ray prepares for a week-long staycation, he wonders aloud about the neighborhood’s mysterious new family. His wife, Carol (the lovely Carrie Fisher), implores him to give it a rest and enjoy his time away from work. Meanwhile, the other residents of the cul-de-sac welcome the morning in sunny (white-washed) suburbia. There’s Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), a proud war veteran who raises Old Glory every morning alongside his buxom wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal); the oafish and chubby Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun), whose wife Suzette is at her mother’s house; teenage slacker Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman), sans parents for the week; and lastly, the elderly Walter (Gale Gordon), a toupee-wearing poodle-owner whose lawn outshines every other lot in the neighborhood. When the old man suddenly disappears, his other neighbors begin to suspect the secretive Klopeks, three European men who have been seen unloading oddly heavy trash by day and digging holes in their yard by night. After Ray’s dog finds a human femur buried near the neighbors’ fence, the men speculate that the mysterious Klopeks may be making human sacrifices in their scary house.

The Petersons and Rumsfields decide to introduce themselves to their reclusive neighbors, but they aren’t exactly welcomed in warmly. They find the Klopeks are a pretty weird trio: young ginger Hans (Courtney Gains) hasn’t seen sun in some time; old Uncle Reuben (Brother Theodore) is short, abrasive, and about 100 years old; and patriarch, Dr. Werner (Henry Gibson), is charming but elusive. After some awkward conversation and accusations, Ray inadvertently unleashes the Klopeks’ Great Dane, who tears toward the back yard and discovers a camouflaged Art (poorly spying on the odd family). Although Ray assures his wife his suspicions are gone, he reveals to the other men that he found Walter’s toupee in the Klopeks’ house. The next day, while the creeps are away, the guys enact an elaborate plan to excavate the suspicious backyard, but they don’t find any corpses. Ray and Art break into the house and find a large crematorium-like furnace in the basement. As the Klopeks return with the police in tow, Ray breaks the gas main and blows up the house. Injured and pending arrest, Ray chides his partners in crime, assuring them that they are the weirdos, exhibiting psychopathic behavior to their neighbors just because they were a little different. However, as Ray lies in an ambulance, Dr. Werner Klopek discloses the sinister truth. The Klopeks are indeed murderers, having killed the previous tenants for their home, and now Werner intends on offing Ray. Hans commandeers the ambulance, but Ray overpowers his would-be killer. Uncle Reuben’s trunk opens, and it’s full of skeletons. The police apprehend the Klopeks, Art prepares for the media circuit, and Ray and Carol decide to get out of the ‘burbs for a real vacation. Ricky Butler exclaims, “God, I love this street.”

original-25350-TheBurbs-13830431100Part Two: The Cast, or “Mixed Nuts.”

The year 1989 marked the beginning of the end of Tom Hanks’ first career in Hollywood. The comedic everyman moved his way up from TV’s Bosom Buddies to success in features like Splash and Bachelor Party (both 1984). After hitting it Big in 1988 Hanks cemented his status as a real box office draw. After The ‘Burbs, Joe Versus The Volcano looked like a misstep, but soon after, Hanks transcended his status to become a reliable Oscar winner. The ‘Burbs was just a stepping stone toward becoming a legend.

And in Ray Peterson, Hanks finds an ideal everyman in which he can express his modern Jimmy Stewart and blend it with comedic brilliance. The dissatisfied husband who can only entertain himself by peering at his neighbors, Ray begins the film as the voice of reason in his trio of middle American men, but eventually he is overwhelmed by paranoia, launching a suburban witch hunt on the folks in the creepy house. His performance alongside two exaggerated characters is measured with equal parts bravado and absurdity. Upon meeting the Klopeks, he accepts a sardine from his hosts, and subsequently hacks it up into a newspaper before spilling hot coffee on his crotch. These goofy gags would appear hackneyed if delivered by another actor, but Hanks gives Ray the balance to carry the sillier characters through the movie. This is no Oscar-worthy performance, of course, but nobody in 1989 could have predicted just how huge Hanks would become in the ‘90s, but he was always Hollywood’s most likeable star. This is just one great example of how funny Hanks can be when given the chance.

Hanks’ suburban cohorts are pretty perfect. Bruce Dern, not known for his comedic performances, is spot on as a military vet who can’t escape the bush. Although PTSD is not a funny affair, Dern manages to keep his post-war obsessions mild and humorous, acting as a general in the covert ops against his neighbors. Oafish Canadian actor Rick Ducommun is a perfect bumbling idiot, although not as fat as the movie would want you to believe. Although all three men are dimwitted to some extent, Art is by far the dumbest. He’s the typical moron you kinda wish didn’t live next door: he eats all your food, shoots your lawn ornaments, and is on the same mental level as your preteen son. Ducommon just barely keeps Art likable, although I wanted Ray to hit him more often than he actually did.

The Klopeks are also cast very well. Henry Gibson, well accustomed to playing doctors and such, is both kind faced and duplicitous as Dr. Werner Klopek. His brother Reuben, the scarier of the two, is played by German monologuist Brother Theodore, a man who in real life was almost as serious as this character. Rounding out the trio is Courtney Gains, as the sickly Hans. Gains is best known as the soulless ginger Malachai in Children of the Corn, and is probably just as terrifying in real life. The Klopeks are not explored too much by the film’s climax, they’re just written off as homicidal weirdos, roles they execute well. They are subtly racist caricatures of Nazi Germans, which was one of two villainous archetypes in the ‘80s (the Russians being the alternative). Hans does a lot of the heavy lifting, so to speak, in so far as comedy goes, which he gets away with because he’s pretty awkward (keeping a picture frame with its stock photo intact).

The rest of the supporting cast is pretty great, especially by 1989’s standards. Carrie Fisher as Ray’s wife Carol is the voice of reason. Fisher seems to be on meds, zoned out and cruising, but she gets a pass because it’s just great to see her in a movie. On the other hand, Wendy Schaal is bubbly as Bonnie, the trophy wife of a war veteran. Although she is there mostly just to look pretty, Schaal doesn’t play dumb most of the time. Bonnie is a pretty run-of-the-mill housewife, but she is not vapid. However, she ends up being used primarily as eye candy for teenage neighbor Ricky Butler, played by the best Corey, Corey Feldman. Corey, with his Kurt Russell-like hair and midwestern surfer dialect, is a typical ‘80s teenager who likes to invite his friends over to watch his neighbors destroy the block, and he’s as schlocky as he wants to be. This was during his Michael Jackson phase, so he had the King of Pop’s chimpanzee Bubbles on set for a while. The story goes that, when left alone in Feldman’s trailer, Bubbles painted the place with excrement. This was a weird time in America.

There are some cameos that are fun for someone who always recognizes the face and not the name. The garbage men are played by character actors Dick Miller (a holdover from Gremlins) and Robert Picardo (a Dante repertory player also known as The Doctor in Star Trek: Voyager). Golden age television star Gale Gordon appears in his final role as Walter, although he really does just appear, disappear, and then reappear.

burbs-3Part Three: Conclusions, or “The American Nightmare.”

Joe Dante effectively uses the camera in The ‘Burbs as an active participant, making the audience as much voyeurs as the movie’s protagonists. The stylized zooms and the long, sweeping shots make the movie visually engaging, which is difficult when you’re shooting in the legendary Universal backlot. Dante’s love of B-grade horror movies from yesteryear gives The ‘Burbs a bit of earnestness as it explores the boredom of the white middle class. Ultimately, The Burbs is about sensationalism, society’s tendency to blow everything out of proportion. The movie ends with Ray escaping the scene while Art is just waiting for Geraldo Rivera to make him famous. Even if the Klopeks were found to be duplicitous, it was only after their bored neighbors decided to snoop on them to an extreme level. People are strange when you’re a stranger. That means they must be murdering the elderly.

Of course, The ‘Burbs is still a darkly funny movie, especially now that the illusion of a perfect middle-America has mostly dissipated. I understand the curiosity of the bored everyman who just wants to sit around and gossip about the people he sees at bridge night (or whatever). Joe Dante points the mirror at suburbia and shows us how ridiculous we look. It’s fitting that the Universal lot is home to the iconic Cleaver home from Leave It To Beaver. The house was actually moved out of this neighborhood and replaced by the Klopeks’ shack, saving the sterile and replacing it with the unusual. When the middle class gets bored, they set their gaze upon the others, and once in a while they end up blowing their houses up. Hilarious.

Passing Thoughts:

– As Tom Hanks drinks coffee on his front lawn, a newspaper is thrown at him, so he throws hot coffee at the newspaper boy. Perfect retaliation.

– Rewatching this movie reinforced a long-term fear of eating sardines. Although, I’ve never puked into a newspaper, like Ray.

– There is a fun nightmare sequence that occurs after the paranoid Ray sees a series of horror flicks on subsequent TV channels, the absurd thing being that every channel seems to be playing scary movies. I wish.

– When Corey Feldman calls “the pizza dude,” I really wish he was calling a fictional company called “The Pizza Dude.” Million dollar idea.

– Props go out to Rick Ducommun (and his stunt double) for getting electrocuted and falling through a shed, leaving a person-shaped hole in his wake.

– Art’s best impression of a Satanic chant: ”I want to kill everyone. Satan is good, Satan is our pal.”

– In my household, mentioning The ‘Burbs is always greeted with Hans’ line, “It came vit de frame,” in our best pseudo-German dialect.