October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
The ‘Burbs (1989)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, and Rick Ducommun
Synopsis: In a stereotypical suburban cul-de-sac full of colorful characters, one man, Ray (Hanks), on his stay-at-home vacation becomes suspicious of the new neighbors and their strange, late night activities. The Klopeks are a peculiar eastern European family who live in a run down mansion and seem to never go out. Ray’s friends become convinced that the Klopeks are up to something and, although Ray sort of plays the skeptic to their paranoia, he develops an obsession with figuring out what’s going on over there. When one of their elderly neighbors disappears, the neighborhood guys believe he’s been murdered by the Klopeks. The wives of the men organize a visit to the Klopeks in order to put to rest their suspicions, and they discover that it’s a family of two brothers, one of whom is some kind of doctor at the University. His nephew also lives with them, a strange, slightly werewolfish boy named Hans. The family is very odd and they find all sorts of darkly portentous things in the house, but all of them are explained away harmlessly. The women are convinced the Klopeks are just eccentric, but nice, folks. Ray and his friends are unconvinced and decide to break into their basement to look for bodies. They find nothing but in the process, Ray hits the gas line and the house explodes. He is remorseful and apologizes to the Klopeks for suspecting them, realizing they are not murderers and appalled at what he’s done. In an unexpected twist, however, the doctor assumes Ray must have seen all the skulls he was hiding in the basement and tries to kill Ray. Ray manages to escape and open the trunk of the Klopeks car for the police, where there is indeed a collection of human skulls. The Klopeks are arrested and Ray decides to take his family to the lake for a real vacation.
The ‘Burbs is a classic ’80’s black comedy. It’s filled to bursting with tropey characters from the era. The unstable Vietnam vet, the provocatively-dressed sexy neighbor wife, the cranky old man, the slightly idiotic best friend who comes over and eats all your food, and the deadbeat teenager who says “dude!” way too much. The ‘Burbs throws all these stereotypes into a blender and produces a cult classic. Maybe it’s the double twist ending. Maybe it’s the fact so many of us grew up in this exact sort of neighborhood (although mine was never so entertaining). Or maybe it’s just the pure gratification of Ray being vindicated in his crazed rantings. Who hasn’t had a gut feeling about someone or something that no one else believed, but you just knew in your soul that you were right? Ray is the hero of everyone who’s ever been disbelieved by their friends and family.
There are two elements, however, that I think give The ‘Burbs most of its charm. The first is Corey Feldman as the neighborhood teen who views the crazy goings on as nothing more than high quality entertainment. He invites friends and calls for pizza, and eggs the men on when their devotion to investigating the Klopeks begins to flag. His meta-commentary on the movie allows it to be more self-aware then would otherwise be believable and invites the audience to join him in pure enjoyment of the insanity. It lets us know clearly to expect a circus, only vaguely grounded in reality.
The other thing that really sells the movie is its commitment to making the Klopeks as weird and suspicious as possible. Every single thing about them and their lives screams “Satanist serial killers”, from the dilapidated house to the strange digging late at night to their eccentric personalities – the doctor is a classic charmer who’s clearly hiding something, his brother resembles an Igor, and Hans looks like he’s just waiting for the full moon to tear your throat out. You want to believe the explanations they give you for their strange behavior (blood on hands that’s really red paint, noises in the basement that are really just the dog) because everything is just too on point for them to really turn out to be evil. You breath a sigh of relief when Ray finds nothing in the basement and are ready for a finale in which all the neighbors help rebuild the Klopeks’ house and have lemonade together. The strength of the movie is the sucker punch ending, both shocking and satisfying.
Watching Ray’s descent into madness and obsession is just plain fun, and really only Hanks could keep the character somehow likable throughout his childish outbursts and sometimes mean-spirited rants. The rest of the characters may be completely one-dimensional, but they don’t need to be more than that because Ray is a compelling enough protagonist (and Hanks a good enough actor) to keep our attention, and they all serve their function in the story, exactly as we expect and need them to. The big set piece of Ray’s nightmare about the Klopeks is also extremely entertaining, and the movie goes for broke with bad-dream tropes and silliness galore. Ray being roasted a barbecue just like the one he’s been swearing to fix is both hilarious and horrifying.
Ultimately, The ‘Burbs (much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer was to high school drama) is an amplified projection of the struggles and fears of the late century suburbanite. Neighbors that are too close and in your in business, and yet removed enough that you can’t be sure what’s really going on in their lives or homes. Not really knowing who you are living alongside, with a weird forced intimacy that comes not from the organic closeness of a small town which people were born into, but of people who just happen to move to the same place and can now see in each other’s windows. The fear that you could be living next to anyone, and that no one would care or notice if something happened to you. But the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously as an allegory, and that’s part of why it works. It’s tangentially related to reality, which makes it compelling ,but it’s also proudly ridiculous, which makes it fun.
Quality: 7 Brother Theodores out of 10. It’s not going to win any Oscars but it’s perfect for what it is.
Enjoyment: 9 stoked Corey Feldmans out of 10. Sit on the porch, open a beer, and enjoy the show.