Monday Movie: The ‘Burbs, by David Bax
Joe Dante’s run as a director from 1984 (Gremlins) to 1993 (Matinee) is staggering. Sure, he did good work before (episodes of Police Squad!; a segment in the Twilight Zone movie; some people even like The Howling for some reason) and he did great work after (a short for Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology called “Homecoming”; and, of course, Looney Tunes: Back in Action is a modern classic). But when people invoke the idea of a Joe Dante film, they are usually referencing something from that roughly ten-year window. Right smack in the middle of the streak is pitch-perfect satire of middle-class middle America, The ‘Burbs. With its blend of affability, wackiness, smarts and B-movie horror mayhem, the film is like a starter kit for a lifelong interest in dark comedy.
The ‘Burbs stars Tom Hanks in one of the exasperated everyman roles at which he consistently excelled during the era. Hanks’ Ray Peterson takes a week off work for a little staycation at the same time as a new family of quiet foreigners moves in next door. Left to his own devices and the company of other neighborhood layabouts like the seemingly unemployed Art (Rick Ducommun) and retired military man Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), Ray becomes increasingly convinced that his new neighbors (with a patriarch played by Henry Gibson) are murderers. Much to the chagrin of his wife (Carrie Fisher), Ray and his two pals – with some help from a local misfit played by Corey Feldman – set out to confirm their suspicions.
The easiest read on The ‘Burbs would be to say that it’s about the heart of darkness that pulses under the surface of suburbia’s cookie-cutter pleasantness. From The Desperate Hours to Blue Velvet to American Beauty, that’s more or less what every suburban movie is about. In a way, though, Dana Olsen’s screenplay approaches the subject from the opposite direction. Darkness, paranoia and insanity don’t incubate in the bubble of picket fences, green lawns and cul-de-sacs; they were all there to begin with. The sameness of the subdivision ecosphere is an attempt to manufacture those ills out of life. But when the routine breaks down – when Ray spends no more than a couple of days off schedule – we immediately see that all we’ve done in building this livable amusement park simulacrum of domestic perfection is to fashion a flimsy disguise. Without all the mindless preoccupations, the bodies will come up to the surface. At least it will be funny.