In the 80’s Tom Hanks was still coming up in his career and he did a lot of movies, some were great, and some were not so much. Its easy to point to films like “Big” or “splash” as his big break out roles that are still considered classics today. But for me the movie that was my favorite as a kid and still finds its way into my summer viewing schedule each year is “The ‘Burbs”.
Having recently moved into a suburb near Columbus OH the movie suddenly has more meaning than it did before. Screenwriter Dana Olsen wrote the film based on his own childhood where there was always that one house that seemed really creepy or that one neighbor that never came out of their house. Olsen states it best with “…As a kid, it was fascinating to think that Mr. Flanagan down the street could turn out to be Jack the Ripper. And where there’s fear, there’s comedy. So I approached The ‘Burbs as Ozzie and Harriet Meet Charles Manson.”
The ‘Burbs portrays the boring normalcy of suburban life where people mow their lawns, tend to their gardens and wash their cars. Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) has decided to take his vacation at home. His neighbor Art (Rick Ducommun) either has the week off as well or is unemployed, we’re never told which, but he’s always at Ray’s house eating his food. Across the street lives the retired military man Lt. Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) who still dresses in military regalia and seems a bit unhinged. Rumsfield is having a bit of a rivalry with the old man next door, Walter, whose dog keeps pooping in his yard. Its basically your average run of the mill neighborhood where some neighbors get along and others don’t but nothing really serious or exciting is ever happening.
All this changes however with the addition of some new neighbors called the Kopeks. They have the creepy house next to Rays where the yard is never mowed, the paint is all be gone and weird noises can be heard at night. When old man Walter goes missing one night, the three neighbors become very suspicious of what is happening at the Klopek’s house. Ray, Art and Rumsfield break into Walters house and find his dog and his toupee. He wouldn’t have gone anywhere without that toupee according to Art. If this wasn’t weird enough Ray sees the Klopek clan digging what look like graves in their back yard in the middle of a rain storm the same night Walter goes missing.
Ricky (Corey Feldman) a teenager who’s home alone for the week, has been tasked with painting the porch of his parents house giving him lots of time to be outdoors and watching the neighborhood. He acts as something of a instigator, egging on Art and Ray in their assumptions about the disappearance of Walter and being a general thorn in the side of the Uptight Lt. Rumsfield.
Finally reason takes hold in the form of Ray’s wife played by Carrie Fisher. They neighbors all decide to be “neighborly” and go over the the Klopeks and actually meet them while Art pokes around in the back yard for any suspicious evidence of course. The scene at the Klopeks is great! The youngest Klopek, Hans, brings out the h’ordeuvres consisting of pretzels and sardines. Everyone picks pretzels but Ray feels obligated to take a sardine which he puts on the pretzel and eats in the slowest most awkward way possible.
Needless to say the visit to the Klopeks does nothing to erase the suspicions of the Ray, Art or Rumsfield and soon they’re devising a plan to break into the house while Ray’s wife is away visiting her sister the following day.
The ‘Burbs is directed by Joe Dante, a man that has directed some of my favorite films including Gremlins, Matinee, Explorers, the Howling and the TV series “Eerie Indiana” which I loved as a kid! Dante has a real talent for telling a story entirely with camera movements and he does that here to great effect. From the opening shot where we start in space and zoom down all the way to the spooky Klopeks house, a shot done without the aid of CGI! To just a simple shot where Ray and Art debate breaking into the Klopeks house where the camera slowly pans and zooms into the Klopeks door, presumably while Ray and Art are walking to the house and as the camera meets the door knob we see Rays hand grab it.
Dante also has a real talent for telling dark stories in these perfect suburban locales. The sun is shining bright, the yards are perfectly manicured and the people “seem” normal and that’s what makes it great! If you don’t believe me go watch Eerie Indiana’s Pilot or Dante’s recent film “The Hole”. Joe Dante is a director that I think gets kind of forgotten about by most film fans but he’s pretty great!
Of course Tom Hanks is great as Art he’s able to play the “Everyman” character and the audience will have no trouble identifying with him. He has some great freakouts and an even better breakdown near the end of the film that is hilarious! But the other actors are just as good! Bruce Dern plays Rumsfield as someone who’s unbalanced but not necessarily crazy. He’s eccentric walking outside at dawn in his boxer shorts, military boots and vest to raise and salute the flag. He has lots of military toys and gadgets that he seems to take pure delight in using. Art, Rick Ducommun, is perfect as the annoying neighbor that’s always borrowing things or bugging you while your out in the yard working. He’s says he knows a lot of things but it usually sounds like he’s making it up.
I saw this movie back when it was released in 89’ and have always loved it but its been the last few years that its become a yearly ritual to watch it. I highly recommend giving this one a watch this summer and visiting the dark and funny side of suburbia!
4.5 bloody axes out of 5