|Review||Burbs (1989)||Director||Joe Dante|
|Cast||Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Rick Ducommun, Carrie Fisher, Wendy Schaal, Corey Feldman, Henry Gibson, Theodore Gottlieb, Courtney Gains and Gale Gordon|
“In South-East Asia we’d call this type of thing “bad karma”” – Rumsfield
Ray Peterson (Hanks) lives in the quiet suburban neighbourhood of Hinkley Hills but he has some colourful neighbours. Next door to him lives Art Weingartner (Ducommun), a nosy slob who likes to raid Ray’s fridge when he can. Across the street lives Mark Rumsfield (Dern), an ex-army man with a short temper and a few loose screws. There’s also Walter (Gordon), a senior citizen who takes extra good care of his lawn (and trains his poodle to crap in Rumsfield’s yard) and Ricky (Feldman), a spirited youth who has the place all to himself when his parents are away.
But none compare to the latest addition in the neighbourhood; the Klopeks. They’re never seen outdoor, a loud noise accompanied by fiery lights appear late at night from their house and rumors abound that they are nocturnal grave diggers. Ray and the others grow suspicious when Walter disappears and set out to prove that the Klopeks are up to no good.
Director Joe Dante is one of my favorites. He’s delivered some bona-fide classics like “The Howling” (1981), “Gremlins” (1984) and “Innerspace” (1987) and throughout his career he’s had to deal with the same type of criticism in that his movies are not consistent enough in their tone. While one can see where this gripe is coming from it doesn’t diminish their entertainment value and it certainly doesn’t lessen their qualities. He’s simply an imaginative filmmaker who can play in more ways than one with the material at hand and, therefore, make them fairly unique and original. Which is probably why Dante falls into the category of a (somewhat) “cult” director, his output not as well regarded and why he’s been relegated to directing episodes in TV series the likes of “Hawaii Five-O” and hasn’t made a feature film since 2014’s low-budget “Burying the Ex”. His career really hasn’t recovered from “Small Soldiers” (1998), another gem of an unclassifiable film that got negative feedback due to it’s “inconsistent tone” and uneven mixing of comedy and violence.
Like many of Dante’s other films (“Piranha” – 1978, “The Howling”, “Matinee” – 1993); “The ‘Burbs” pays a great deal of homage to a particular genre while also carving out a satirical standpoint that gives it it’s own identity. Here it’s suburbia that takes a comedic beating through stereotypes that typify the residents that make up the picture perfect surroundings and how they grow resentful and suspicious (and ultimately dangerous) when faced with something just outside the norm. But, as opposed to another classic like David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986), there’s a lot of disturbing atrocities hidden underneath the pretty surface and “The ‘Burbs” exposes them in hilarious fashion. While the film never sincerely tries to be scary it nevertheless conjures up some impressive nightmarish imagery and maintains a solid, semi-oppressive mood that compliments it’s outlandish comedy well.
Dana Olsen’s (“Memoirs of an Invisible Man” – 1992) razor sharp script and Dante’s realization combined with the acting talents involved really created a lightning in a bottle. Megastar Hanks was still a few years away from his Oscar win and the “The ‘Burbs” represents one of his last forays into pure comedic roles. That said; his role here isn’t one-dimensional and his character has some issues to contend with (which is made even more clear in a Work print version of the film. More on that below) and he’s simply perfect here. Ducommun gives Hanks a run for his money as the overbearing Art and his comedic timing and delivery is very impressive. Nearly a scene stealer though is Dern in a tailor made comedic role where the veteran actor really shines and he’s got some terrific lines to work with as well as some impressive physical comedy. Fisher, Schaal, Feldman, Gibson, Gottlieb and Gains round out a really good ensemble.
As a special feature on my physical copy of the film is a Work print version of the film that is sourced from a VHS copy. Needless to say it isn’t very pretty to look at quality wise but this is that rare case where at alternate version really does make for a different viewing experience and adds a little something to an already first rate product. Fans of “The ‘Burbs” have for years noticed the numerous small scenes present in the trailer but nowhere to be seen in the film and they’re all accounted for in the Work print. There are a number of alternate sequences in this version and scene extensions that are really fun to watch for long time fans but the real coup here are two additions that were deleted from the finished version. One is a longer cut (and more moody and a bit unsettling) of Hank’s dream sequence and another is an added explanation for his character’s impromptu week vacation that puts everything in a different light. Although the Work print and finished versions of “The ‘Burbs” are comedies at heart with a social statement thrown in for good measure there’s a bit more melancholic tone present in the Work print that’s fascinating for a fan to watch.
As usual for a Dante film there’s a lot of visual gags present (anyone recognize Dr. Julian Karswell?) and the requisite cameos by Dick Miller (“Gremlins”) and Robert Picardo (“The Howling”) in hilarious bits as garbagemen (and Kevin McCarthy (“Piranha”) is present in the Work print version) and pretty much everything that makes a good Dante film is in “The ‘Burbs”.