Joe Dante's 1989 film The 'Burbs was very misunderstood on its initial release, despite being a modest success. Perhaps audiences were expecting a rip-roaring, slapstick comedy, as Tom Hanks was its rising star and that was what Hanks was renowned for. This was pre-Hanks' Oscar glory days, pre-Philadelphia and Saving Private Ryan. Instead audiences were treated to a bitingly satirical black comedy, which peeled back the seemingly idyllic apple pie, white picket fences and neighbourly façade of suburban Norman Rockwell America, exposing its dark underbelly and hypocrisy.
Hanks stars as Ray Peterson, a man who has decided to spend his vacation relaxing at home, much to his wife's (Carrie Fisher) bemusement. His relaxation soon comes to an abrupt halt when the mysterious Klopek's move into the house next door. Suspicions are aroused in the neighbourhood after strange noises are heard and mysterious lights are seen at night. Suspicion soon escalates to paranoia, when a neighbour disappears and Ray witnesses the Klopek's burying something in their garden on a storm-ravaged night. Things soon get out of hand as Ray is goaded into discovering the Klopek's secret by his neighbours Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), resulting in a darkly twisted comic catastrophe.
Dante's film seems to be more relevant now, in these days of Donald Trump driven hysteria, than it did twenty-seven years ago. We the audience are led by Dante to assume that the Klopek's are evil. They speak with thick eastern European accents, they live in a ramshackle house, they are rarely seen during the hours of daylight and, most telling of all, creepy organ music and ravens accompany scenes of the Klopek's home. But then Dante cleverly pulls the rug from under us, as he reveals how dangerously idiotic seemingly ordinary suburbanites become when their mounting fear remains unchecked.
Hanks is mainly the straight man to Rick Ducommun's Art and Bruce Dern's para-military minded Mark, whom starts each day with raising and saluting the American flag on his front lawn. Carrie Fisher and Wendy Schaal play their parts as the reality checking wives to the best that their somewhat limited roles allow. Corey Feldman plays an interesting character who invites his friends to watch normality descending into chaos from the front porch, whilst he offers encouragement and less than helpful advice. When his girlfriend suggests that they go to the movies, he replies that his neighbourhood is "better than the movies". Brother Theodore and Henry Gibson provide scene-stealing scenes, and along with Courtney Gains, form the Klopek family. The scene in which Hanks is maneuvered into having to prove himself the alpha male by eating cold sardines and pretzels whilst under the scrutiny of Brother Theodore is priceless. Dante regulars Dick Miller and Roberto Picardo also turn up in the requisite cameo roles.
Regular Dante collaborator, composer Jerry Goldsmith, supplies a darkly fun and tongue in cheek score, in which he knowingly and unashamedly recycles his theme from Patton for Bruce Dern's character, and it works within this films context. Joe Dante once more showcases his talents at balancing black comedy with mounting tension and suspense, and although this doesn't quite reach the magnificence that he attained with Explorers, this is certainly one of his most enjoyable films.
THE ‘BURBS / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: JOE DANTE / SCREENPLAY: DANA OLSEN / STARRING: TOM HANKS, BRUCE DERN, CARRIE FISHER, COREY FELDMAN, RICK DUCOMMUN / RELEASE DATE: 28TH MARCH