The ‘Burbs, 1989
Directed by Joe Dante
Starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Rick Duconnun, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schaal, Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, Courney Gains and Dick Miller
An overstressed suburbanite and his paramilitaric neighbor struggle to prove their paranoid theory that the new family in town is a front for a cannibalistic cult.
In the original series of The Twilight Zone, there is an episode entitled The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street in which a suburban street comes under the influence of a group of aliens who slowly turn the residents against each other as they fear their neighbour is not to be trusted. Director Joe Dante has stated that he was influenced by Rod Serling’s seminal sci-fi show (and he re-worked the classic episode It’s a Good Life for Twilight Zone: The Movie) and some of that is on show in under-appreciated comedy The ‘Burbs. It’s a departure from his previous movies like Gremlins, but it still maintains all of the levity that made the Christmas-based monster movie a fan-favourite and this in turn has made The ‘Burbs a bona fide cult classic.
Set down one small street in 80’s American Suburbia, The ‘Burbs see stressed family man Ray (Tom Hanks) who has been signed off work and is trying to unwind. His time to relax is short lived however as his neighbours appear to be part some sort of Satanic cult and fears of this are only heightened when one of the members of their community goes missing. Along with a few other members of the neighbourhood, including Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and teenager Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman), Ray sets out to discover the truth behind the strange goings-on behind the front door next to his own.
The ‘Burbs may look, feel and seem like a simple movie, and the outset of things it is. It relies on out-of-the-box comedy methods like pratfalls and wacky dialogue delivery to help Dana Olsen’s well-conceived script, but it succeeds on the most basic level of taking ordinary people and putting them in an extra-ordinary situation. Just like a genre classic like Ghostbusters, The ‘Burbs is is laugh-out-loud hilarious because you can see something of yourself and the life around you in this series of very bizarre events. Here in the UK, we don’t have suburban areas that look like “The American Dream”, but we can still relate to The ‘Burbs because we know what a neighbourhood community can be like and we recognise the values in this well-established slice of Americana.
It may not have been the biggest success on its initial release, but The ‘Burbs has gained a rather large cult following which is why the news of the special edition Blu-Ray release from the good folk at Arrow Videos was met with such jubilation. If you’ve never seen the movie before, just moments into The ‘Burbs and you can see why it has been revered and loved for so long. The brilliant (if standard for the time) schtick from Tom Hanks is on top form, Bruce Dern is loveably wacky and the ever-under-appreciated Rick Ducommun is the perfect fallguy against the straight Hanks. For as little as he’s in the movie, Corey Feldman is also great and his previous working relationship with Dante has clearly helped him define what could have been just a nothing-of-note character. Perhaps it’s the name recognition of Feldman (who had movies under his belt like The Goonies, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and The Lost Boys by this point) or the wonderful mullet on top of his head, but Ricky is a character you want to see more of.
The film is less than perfect however as the female cast members of the group are short changed rather unforgivably. An argument could be made (although badly) that Dana Olson’s script is satirising the role women played in the “suburban lifestyle” of the 1950s, but both Carrie Fisher and Wendy Schaal are given nothing to do outside of one key scene. Both do the best with what they’re given, but they’re lack of screen time is noticeable and upsetting.
Not every joke works and it’s very onsided in terms of gender roles, but The ‘Burbs has earned its right in terms of being called a “cult classic”. This Blu-Ray presentation will please life-long fans of the movie and it will hopefully garner some new eyes who have only ever heard about The ‘Burbs in passing. Everyone is on fine form, it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious and the plot will keep you engaged from start to end. Comedies like this don’t exist any more, and we’re worse off for it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★