Joe Dante’s The ‘burbs, which turns 25 tomorrow, was a nice way to end a decade filled with a nostalgia for the simple 1950s idea of suburbia as well as a trend towards uncovering terrible things amidst the modern ideal of perfection of the new suburbia of tract house developments. In the latter camp, there’s Poltergeist and Gremlins, both produced by Steven Spielberg (whose own E.T. nearly fits) with the latter helmed by Dante (who’d go on to make another suburbia tale almost 10 years later with Small Soldiers). The ‘burbs is, more than its ’80s brethren, a satirical leveling of the former camp, particularly the early TV sitcoms re-introduced to a new generation through Nick at Nite and update spin-offs like Still the Beaver/The New Leave It to Beaver.
The movie, fittingly, was shot on the same cul-de-sac neighborhood lot at Universal Studios as that Leave It to Beaver sitcom sequel and co-stars Corey Feldman, who’d played the Beaver’s son in the pilot TV movie of Still the Beaver. The ‘burbs also features TV sitcom staple Gale Gordon, a regular fixture in Lucille Ball series including The Lucy Show (there are photos of him and Ball in the movie) and a main cast member on Dennis the Menace as the second Mr. Wilson. That the movie’s plot revolves around Gordon’s character going missing, seemingly murdered by the new neighbors, is a great metaphor for the loss, again, of that era. At the hands of the unknown strangeness of the Klopeks, who represent the ‘90s?
If only they’d killed off Tom Hanks’s character at the end, as was originally scripted and filmed. As our friend Mike Ryan writes on the anniversary at The Huffington Post, this was after all the end of Hanks’s early career dumb comedy streak. I don’t know if I agree with him that it’s a cult favorite, though. It doesn’t seem to get enough attention for that. Maybe I’ll find out how beloved The ‘burbs is through this list of scenes and commentary, if any fans want to chime in with their own picks and defense of this movie and/or Dante’s career.
Zoom In From the Universal Logo
Who doesn’t love a great studio logo variation? For The ‘burbs, we get Google Earth decades before Google Earth existed as Universal’s trademark revolving globe sticks around after the logo’s words disappear and then we zoom into the Midwest until we arrive on the dead-end street of Mayfield Place. Though not included in the video below, the movie also ends with a zoom out from the neighborhood and back to the Universal globe.
Introducing Hans Klopek
Among the many movies referenced in The ‘burbs, I’m certain that To Kill a Mockingbird must be one. Hans Klopek (Courtney Gains) just reminds me too much of Boo Radley when he’s introduced in the clip below, and in the classic Harper Lee adaptation one of the subplots involves the kids wondering what is up with their strange neighbor who never leaves the house. I also love this intro to the younger Klopek for the way we see the whole neighborhood look over in his direction, with each home’s dwellers given their own Spielbergian stare. You have to continue the below clip with the one that immediately follows, where Ray (Hanks) and Art (Rick Ducommun) are attacked by bees and then hosed down by the neighborhood’s token Vietnam vet (when I was a kid in the ’80s, we had one of our own on our cul-de-sac, but he was a reclusive drunk), played by current Oscar nominee Bruce Dern.
The main character of this movie may be Ray, but our identifier or proxy in the movie is Ricky Butler (Feldman). If the movie was a play in which the single-setting of the Mayfield Place cul-de-sac filled the stage (this is how Dante sorta sees it), then Ricky’s house is where the audience would go. Feldman’s character has little to do plot-wise but watch the movie right along with us. Sometimes he even brings a crowd with him to more obviously represent the viewers. He also breaks the fourth wall, which aligns us and him more certainly. Dante loves to include reflexive scenes in his movies, usually ones that are set in movie theaters. Ricky’s house and voyeurism is the closest that can be achieved for a movie that can’t have a movie theater scene. So, as a reminder, Ricky is you and whenever you watch The ‘burbs you have to call up the pizza dude first.
This Is Walter
The ‘burbs shares the Hitchockian plot of so many movies and TV shows, that of the suspicion that a neighbor or someone has murdered another person and maybe buried them in the backyard. I recall as a kid not thinking this movie was all that special as a result of such familiarity. But it’s in how Dante directs this one and how the comedic tone works so well. Dante loves classic cartoons, and his movies are really for the most part live-action cartoons. Not enough to totally exaggerate the femur found in this scene, but close. I especially love the camera zoom in and out as Ray and Art shout “nooooo!” There aren’t a lot of movies that can get away with that cliche, but this is one.
Klopek Dinner Party
For some sad reason, there aren’t many clips available online of the Klopeks. There’s the one above of Hans, but what of Dr. Werner and Uncle Reuben? Played brilliantly by the duo of Henry Gibson (who I’ll always love for this, Nashville, Magnolia, and really everything he’s in) and Brother Theodore, one of the most unknown and underrated comic geniuses of his time. You can see them a bit below in the hilarious sequence where the whole neighborhood (including level-headed wives Carrie Fisher and Wendy Schaal, though minus our surrogate, Ricky) pays a visit to the Klopek house. Aside from Gibson and Theodore’s own wonderfully straight performances, much of the humor comes from Dern as Rumsfeld, so it’s fair that we see it within a montage of the character’s best moments.
Ray’s Lunatic Rant
If there’s anything I truly miss about the early career Tom Hanks, it’s the moments when his characters lose their cool and start ranting and raving. His crazy act has carried over some into his more dramatic roles, most fittingly in Cast Away, but nothing compares to when he goes crazy in movies of the ’80s, especially The Money Pit and The ‘burbs, as you can see in the clip below when all his screws are not only loose but scattered to the wind. I want full lunatic Hanks back at some point.
Now check out Nathan’s post from 2011 about why he loves The ‘burbs.