Looking back at Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs

Joe Dante taught us to fear our neighbour in comedy horror, The ‘Burbs. Charlotte takes a look back at an 80s classic…

When you think about classic 80s films, maybe The ‘Burbs isn’t the first to jump to mind. But on closer inspection, this funny, smart, creepy tale, directed by Joe Dante, has pretty much everything you could want from an 80s film and, most importantly, it stands the test of time. Not only in the way it looks and its style of humour, but its subject matter is still relevant today.

How many of us don’t speak to our neighbours? How many of us are wary of the people that live right next to us? There’s always one house on the street you’re not too sure about. There’s always one slightly odd person that does weird things at night. That’s what The ‘Burbs deals with: paranoia, friendship and weirdos.

Now, if you were to compile a list of things needed to make an 80s film great, you’ll find yourselves ticking them off as you go through The ‘Burbs. It has an excellent cast, a funny and original plot, and a warm tender outlook on life, yet it’s cool enough to have elements of a gripping horror too.

And of course, no 80s film is complete without a Corey in it. In this one, we get Corey Feldman, which is the icing on the cake. The film’s opening is a great one. We orbit the Earth, and as some creepy chimes and synths start, we begin to zoom in closer and closer. We focus on America more and more, until we arrive at the neighbourhood this story centres on – Mayfield Place.

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The accompanying soundtrack is brilliant, giving it a spooky feel, and as soon as the title of the film appears, organs blare out to make it even creepier. Unsurprisingly, this soundtrack is by Jerry Goldsmith, the man who gave us scores to Planet Of The Apes, Poltergeist, Alien and The Omen (for which he won an Oscar), and he’s a perfect fit for this film.

I love it when a director’s style is evident straight away, and this is the case with The ‘Burbs. Off the bat, this is obviously Joe Dante’s work, and it is easy to see how this film will have inspired his utterly fantastic TV show, Eerie, Indiana, certainly in style, anyway. It holds the same magical feel, and the mix of humour and bizarre goings on.

The pace and style of the entire movie is set up in the first two scenes. In the first, we get an initial look at the street, and it is instantly apparent one of these houses is not like the others. Slightly grubby, eerie and unkempt, it’s the house neighbouring that of protagonist, Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), who in the opening scene of the film, is out on his lawn in the middle of the night in his pyjamas, inspecting strange noises coming from the house.

As the music and noise swells to a brutal climax, it quickly cuts to the next day, bright and breezy with upbeat, perky music. We are then introduced to the whole street: Walter (Gale Gordon) and his little dog, who creates mischief on their neighbour’s lawn, teenager Ricky (Corey Feldman) rocking out to some 80s hair metal, while Mark and Bonnie Rumsfield (Bruce Dern, Wendy Schaal) get ready for the day by raising the American flag.

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This clash of light and dark, of happy families and unknown strangers, is something that progresses through the film to the end, when the two merge together in explosive style. The suspicion and paranoia among the neighbours makes itself apparent straight away, as Ray’s close friend Art (Rick Ducommun) states, “I’ve been watching that house ever since they’ve moved in. No one goes in, no one goes out.”

This is a street where people are obsessed with each other. But it seems they have all formed a common alliance in finding out what goes on in the house, which has new occupants they have never seen. There is a constant mix between horror and comedy, which again adds to this theme of light and dark.

There are some truly over the top slapstick moments, and one of the most amusing scenes is reminiscent of a Three Stooges sketch. Ray and Art goad each other into knocking on the odd house like teenagers. When they work up the courage to get to the door, the house number falls from 669 to 666 and a nest of bees flies out to sting them. In a bid to help, after laughing at their approach previously, Mark Rumsfield runs towards them with a hose, only to be pulled back when it reaches its full length. Together with Ray and Art running around screaming aimlessly, it makes for excellent slapstick comedy.

While there is always comedy on the surface, the fear of what lurks behind the house is ever present. There are a couple of really cool nods to other horror films here. Corey Feldman’s character talks about the film The Sentinel, a 1979 horror film about an apartment with a gateway to hell, which fuels their paranoia as their imaginations get caught up in the moment of who these strangers are.

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Art tells an incredibly horrific tale about an old man who used to work at a soda fountain down the road, but one summer went crazy and killed his whole family. He was only found out after a heat wave hit the town and the smell was so unbearable that he tried to burn down the house.

This story is said to have happened on “Elm”, which could be a reference to the classic 1984 film, A Nightmare On Elm Street. Both are really dark comparisons that keep flicking this from a warm-hearted film to something darker, especially when Art adds, “These towns are full of those kinds of stories. Some are happening underneath your nose.”

When nasty things that happen to people you know, in an environment you are familiar with, it is always more terrifying. Later, too, Ray is searching through the TV channels only to come across The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, both of which influence his dream later that night.

It’s always a nice addition for horror geeks to see references like these. But these aren’t just thrown in – Dante has planted them there carefully, so we can get caught up in their mischief and become as suspicious as the neighbourhood is. Unsurprisingly, it’s the women in the film that take a higher road, and are the reason we actually get to meet the strange Klopek family.

Ray’s wife Carol, played by the excellent Carrie Fisher, has already been the mother figure of the film (she even shooed away Art and Mark like an angry mother when they wanted Ray to hang out with them), so it’s understandable when she takes the initiative to sort out the mess they’re making of “getting to know” their neighbours.

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When Ray and Mark’s wives take them over to be formally introduced, it is here we find out how strange they really are. This is the first time we really see the Klopek family, and it is not a letdown. Hans is the youngest, played by Courtney Gains, an actor best known for his role as Malachi in the 1984 film, Children Of The Corn.

Hans is awkward and unnatural, his uncle Reuben (Brother Theodore) is awkward and shifty, but it is Doctor Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson), the head of the family, who is the strangest. Although he’s not physically what we may have expected – he is short and seemingly polite – there is still something not quite right about him.

The ending is exciting and hilarious every time I revisit this film. Maybe because a lot of the time, I actually forget how it exactly pans out, so I’m never disappointed when Ray is proved right. I always enjoy seeing him try to tackle Doctor Klopek in the back of a moving ambulance, and to have the Klopek’s true identity revealed by Corey Feldman, who happens to glimpse something weird in the back of the family’s car. 

This film works so well due to its eclectic ensemble of characters and the actors who play them. Some are so utterly over the top, and others, like the Petersons, balance them out. These maybe exaggerated versions of people we know, but they’re still types of people we see and deal with every day, Joe Dante style.

Up until The ‘Burbs, Tom Hanks was known for his roles in Big and Splash, so he was popular enough to play a leading man, and had proved his capabilities as a great comedic performer, but it would be a few years yet until we saw him in his most serious role, Philadelphia (1993).

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Surprisingly, though, there are elements of some great serious acting dotted throughout this performance. Tom Hanks has said since making this movie that he thought it was going to go in a darker direction than it did, and that it turned out a lot more slapstick than he thought it would be. Personally, I think it’s Hank’s dry delivery that makes this film so funny, though he can also pull it out of the bag when it comes to over the top screaming when he needs to.

As the camera zooms out, reversing its path seen at the beginning of the film, we’re reminded how small we are. We’re left with the feeling that this entire obsession with what others are doing is quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Well, maybe not on Mayfield Place, because there really were murderers there.

So maybe the message is: do be suspicious, because if you think your neighbours are murderers, they probably are. If you’re look for a moral at the end of this story, Art says it best. “I think the message to, uh, psychos, fanatics, murderers, nutcases all over the world is, uh, ‘do not mess with suburbanites’. Because, uh, frankly, we’re just not gonna take it anymore. Ya know, we’re not gonna be content to look after our lawns and wax our cars, paint our houses. We’re out to get them, Don, we are out to get them.”

When you next watch The ‘Burbs, make sure you look out for:

If the street and houses look familiar, it’s because the street is from the Universal lot where they shoot Desperate Housewives. Walter’s house hasn’t changed since this film was made.

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Ray and Art read a book about demonology written by Julian Karswell. He was a satanist character in Jacques Tourneur’s classic 1957 film, Night Of The Demon.

Writer of The ‘Burbs, Dana Olsen, has a cameo at the end of the film as a cop just before the Klopek’s house blows up.

In the basement of the Klopek house, there is a sled called Rosebud – a Citizen Kane reference. My favourite reference is the Gremlins cereal box in one of the opening scenes, glimpsed as the Peterson family is having breakfast. 

See more of our Looking Back articles here.

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