The ‘Burbs (1989)
Dir. by Joe Dante
Starring Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher and Bruce Dern
When an elderly resident of his neighborhood disappears overnight, mild-mannered suburbanite Ray Peterson becomes convinced that his eccentric new neighbors are actually serial killers, and will stop at nothing to prove his suspicions.
This one is yet another cable and video store rarity that I watched quite a bit when I was in middle school. Like many of the movies that I’ve done for this project, we never actually owned a copy on either VHS or DVD, and I haven’t had a chance to watch it since the 1990s.
Man, I watched a lot of really dark movies when I was younger, didn’t I? This one might be even darker of a movie than Cloak & Dagger, despite being billed as a comedy. Heck, it even has a dream sequence that involves Satan worship and human sacrifice – in a PG movie!
That the movie was directed by Joe Dante, of Gremlins fame, isn’t very surprising in retrospect. It has that movie’s same blend of over-the-top slapstick humor and borderline-nihilistic commentary on suburban life. Unlike in Gremlins, which was a horror-comedy, this movie was clearly envisaged as a comedy first and foremost, and the darkness sits uneasily besides the laughs. And don’t get me wrong: I still found good portions of the movie to be funny, even alongside the darkness. But the two are much less expertly blended than in Dante’s previous works, and the movie suffers tonally as a result. There are wildly slapstick moments, such as when the camera zooms in and out rapidly in the style of a cartoon on Hanks’s Peterson and his neighbor/co-conspirator as they find what they assume is a human femur, juxtaposed with scenes detailing the disintegration of Peterson’s marriage as he becomes more and more obsessed.
There’s also a very lengthy scene which descends into some really awkward cringe comedy, a style that I barely tolerate at the best of times and has actively made me leave the theater for a few minutes out of discomfort in the past. Basically, the wives of the conspiracy theorists convince their husbands to knock on the creepy neighbors’ door with cookies and invite themselves in for a chat. What follows is five minutes of uncomfortable silence and awkward questions, culminating in Bruce Dern’s character Rumsfield flat-out accusing the Klopeks of murder to their face. I didn’t end up muting the movie or fast-forwarding, but it was a close thing.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this rewatch. I actually found a lot of the humor to be still quite funny, and managed to catch several jokes now that I’d never understood in the 90s (most notably an extended homage to the cinematography of the climactic gunfight in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, only with a poodle as one of the combatants). But I did see the seams much more on this rewatch than I ever had before.
Nowhere was this more notable than the ending of the movie, which has a major problem that undercuts the movie’s own message, which has only gotten worse with today’s current political and social climate involving immigrants. Though the narrative never actually identifies them as such, the Klopeks’ names and accents codes them as Eastern European immigrants, on a street otherwise comprised entirely of stereotypical white Midwesterners. The movie is very quick to Other them, with their unkempt yard, odd behavior and unwillingness to engage with their fellow suburbanites. Even before the elderly neighbor disappears, Peterson and his friends are clearly scared and suspicious of them.
At the end of the movie, after Peterson’s meddling has resulted in the destruction of the Klopeks’ house from a gas main explosion, it is revealed that Dr. Klopek is a well-known, respected pathologist, and that the elderly neighbor was taken to the hospital during the middle of the night by his family and is in fact still alive. Peterson has a very public crisis of conscious, berating all of his neighbors for letting their suspicion and mistrust of somebody different run wild, before attacking his own former best friend and being taken away in an ambulance.
If the movie had ended there, it would have had a perfectly fine resolution in my opinion. However, the movie has to add one final twist to the proceedings: sure, Peterson was wrong about the murder of his neighbor, but he was right about the Klopeks being serial killers. Dr. Klopek assumes that Peterson had found the evidence before the house blew up, and attempts to murder him on the way to the hospital. Peterson manages to fight him off as his gurney goes careening down the middle of the street, and the Klopeks are arrested when the trunk of their car is revealed to contain dozens of skeletons.
This has the effect of completely undercutting and undoing everything about Peterson’s earlier speech. As the movie ends, it appears that not only were all of his suspicions and paranoia justified, but that he’s going to get away with multiple counts of trespassing, breaking and entering and property destruction without any consequences to himself or his co-conspirators. I remembered the ending from the last time I’d watched it, of course, but I hadn’t remembered Peterson’s big speech. The thing is, everything he says is completely right. The movie just discards it for a shock and an action climax.
So yes, this movie was still fairly funny, but has some significant problems, especially with the ending, that have just gotten more apparent in the last twenty years. I didn’t find it flat-out offensive, but I was definitely giving it the side-eye quite a bit.
Rewatch: C+/B-, depending on how generous I’m feeling about the ending.
-Originally, the ending was actually going to be even darker. Apparently, Dr. Klopek was originally supposed to kill Peterson in the ambulance and get away with it.
-The street used for this movie would later become the Wisteria Lane neighborhood in Desperate Housewives.
-I managed to go the entire movie without ever once thinking about Rear Window, which is I guess a credit to the screenwriter. “Rear Window, but as a comedy” is actually a pretty good elevator pitch for this movie.