The ‘Burbs and Joe Dante’s gleeful suburban chaos

Through his films such as The 'Burbs and Gremlins, director Joe Dante made mischief in American suburbia, Ryan writes...

Mayfield Place is the perfect 80s suburbia. There are painted houses fringed by lush green lawns cut to just the right length, separated by a wide grey road. There are white picket fences. The neighbours are out, tending to their gardens beneath a pristine blue sky.

Thirty-something resident Ray Peterson stands in his front yard, surveys the scene, and sees that it is good.

Except this is a Joe Dante film, and things are never good for long in a Joe Dante film.

Queenie, the little white dog belonging to the old guy across the road, has just left a spire of brown poop on Mark Rumsfield’s lawn. Mark, a Vietnam vet and patriot, is running around in his camo shorts, threatening to eviscerate Walter’s dog. Elsewhere, Ray’s schlubby neighbour Art is lurking in the bushes with an air rifle, trying to shoot crows.

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Worst of all, there’s Ray’s reclusive and ominous neighbours, the Klopeks. Unlike everyone else, they don’t tend to their lawn, they don’t paint their house, and they don’t wash their car in the yard each Sunday morning. Their house is a troubling smear in an otherwise perfect landscape, and Ray doesn’t like it.

The ‘Burbs arrived towards the end of an extraordinary decade for director Joe Dante, which began with his fifth film, the hilarious werewolf movie The Howling in 1981, and continued with the Twilight Zone movie, the uproarious Gremlins, the underrated sci-fi adventures Explorers and Innerspace, and the comedy mixtape Amazon Women On The Moon.

In them – particularly The Howling, his Twilight Zone segment, Gremlins and The ‘Burbs – Dante expertly fused horror with comedy. Like no other filmmaker, he created his own fantasy world that provided a skewed reflection of contemporary 80s America.

There go the goddamn Brownies

The ‘Burbs, released in 1989, is a kind of companion piece to Gremlins, in that both films are about traditional suburban communities thrown into chaos by strange forces from the outside. Dante was by no means the only filmmaker to do this, of course. After a brief post-war period when suburban living seemed like an idyll to strive for, this way of life had begun to be picked apart and parodied by such artists as Leonard Bernstein, in his 1952 play Trouble In Tahiti, and Malvina Reynolds, with her oft-covered 1962 song Little Boxes.

Seminal slasher Halloween (1978) was about a sleepy suburban town invaded by a masked, knife-wielding maniac, and its premise, that a leafy, normally safe community could be punctured by something evil informed many of the horror films that followed it in the 1980s. It could be argued, in fact, that the invaded community concept goes much further back, to such sci-fi classics as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and It Came From Outer Space. But really, films like Halloween and Gremlins have more in common with two culturally earth shattering films from the 1960s: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead.

Psycho hinted at the presence of evil in the most mundane place: an ordinary motel and its handsome yet meek proprietor. Night Of The Living Dead turned the whole of American society on its head, creating a nightmare reality where once ordinary people are cannibals, children murder their mothers with garden tools and gun enthusiasts use walking corpses for target practice. After the shock of those films, the Jack refused to go back in the box, and the small towns and suburban landscapes became a rich hunting ground for horror filmmakers looking for a story. Modern horror wasn’t in the dusty castles of old, but within America’s own back yard.

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In 1982’s Poltergeist and 1984’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, we see American suburbia, commonly thought of as a safe haven from the criminal malaise and crowding of the city, become a playground for supernatural evil. Both films see that evil enter thanks to the sins of earlier generations: Poltergeist’s malevolent spirits have materialised because the community of Cuesta Verde was built on an old cemetery by a greedy property developer. In A Nightmare On Elm Street, vengeful parents murdered a child-killing janitor, only to have his demonic ghost torment and kill their own children in their dreams.

These films, and many others through the 80s, presented the suburbia as a utopia where wrongdoing opens the door to dark forces. David Lynch’s terrifying Blue Velvet went one step further, and suggested that the utopia was actually paper thin – and that the dark forces are a much deeper part of society’s fabric. In Blue Velvet’s opening scene, the camera offers a view of the perfect American life: tulips against a white picket fence, children beckoned across a wide road by a friendly lollipop lady. But then, as an old man watering his garden suffers an apparently fatal heart attack, the camera seems to lose interest in the drama and wanders down look at his perfect lawn. Down the camera goes, into the undergrowth and into the loam, where all kinds of horrible, skittering things hide from the sun. From there, Lynch’s odyssey into violence and perversion merely grows more strange.

Compared to Lynch, Joe Dante’s films are a light relief. But their view of suburbia is equally distinct, and full of mischief.

God, I love this street

Hanks was still on the cusp of breaking through as a major Hollywood star while he was filming The ‘Burbs, and his comic timing is impeccable as the highly-strung, madly suspicious Ray Peterson. Having taken a week off to recover from the stress of his job, Ray flatly refuses to go on vacation with his concerned wife Carol (Carrie Fisher, who’s great in this) and their young son Dave (Cory Danziger), and decides to use his free time to spy on the new neighbours instead.

These new neighbours, the Klopeks, behave like something from a pulp horror tale: they do weird things in the basement, which involves lots of electricity and flashing lights, they bury things in the back garden during the dead of night, and peek furtively through the gaps in their tatty curtains. Naturally, Ray’s convinced they’re up to no good (“Klopeks?” Ray asks, when he learns the neighbours’ surname. “Is that Slavic or something?”).

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One day, Ray’s wig-wearing neighbour Walter (Gale Gordon, from The Lucy Show) goes missing. Ray’s convinced he’s been murdered, so he hires his neighbours Art (Rick Ducommun) and straight-backed Lt Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) to help him find the proof. What follows is a mix of Hitchcockian thriller, slapstick comedy and light horror. Interestingly, however, Dante shoots much of The ‘Burbs in the style of a Spaghetti western, with Ray as the community’s self-appointed sheriff. (In one of the best scenes, in which Ray and Art childishly dare each other to head up to the Klopeks’ house and knock on the door, Dante gives every character a Sergio Leone close-up, including Walter’s little white dog.)

Dante presents the suburban community of Mayfield Place as a huddle of small-minded busy-bodies, obsessed with cleanliness and outward appearance, and utterly paranoid about anyone who stumbles in from the outside.

Secretly, they’re even terrified of each other.

One night, Art tells a lengthy and bloodcurdling story about a local family man who snapped one day and killed his whole family. After years of going to work every day and keeping the lawn neat and tidy, this pleasant man finally snapped. Who knows who might be the next to break?

Convinced that the Klopeks are the latest bunch of killers in their midst, Ray, Art and Mark spend the rest of the film attempting to prove their guilt – blissfully unaware that their own actions (spying, breaking into neighbours’ houses or going through their bins) are alternately illegal and borderline psychotic.

Both The ‘Burbs and Gremlins present a similar view of suburbia, as do Dante’s later films from the 90s, Small Soldiers and The Hole. Suburbia is a place so thuddingly dull and sterile that it needs something anarchic and supernatural to come in and stir up the order of things. 

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Smells like they’re cooking a goddamn cat over there

Dante’s films typically present the invading forces as being more humane – or at the very least more interesting – than the average middle-class people coping with the invasion. The gremlins, for example, are the embodiment of everything the suburbanites fear most: they come from another country, they don’t speak English particularly well, they have no manners, and their ruinous antics probably lower house prices.

The Klopeks are cut from the same cloth. Had they behaved like normal suburbanites, neither Ray nor his other neighbours would have particularly cared if they’d driven around with skulls in the boot of their car. Ray and his friends might claim to be getting to the bottom of a murder mystery, like good concerned citizens, but what they’re really keen to do is restore the natural order of things – throw some grass seed on the front lawn, get their dry rot problem under control, maybe buy some new bins.

Even as Dante reveals just how crazy the Klopeks are in the final act, he also suggests that they’re only a shade more  deranged than the rest of the neighbourhood. In the process of proving the Klopeks’ guilt, an already twitchy and paranoid Ray pushes himself to the brink of insanity, and nearly kills himself when he blows the Klopeks’ house up. The parallels between Ray and the Klopeks is brilliantly summed up in a deleted scene, in which Dr Werner Klopek (a brilliant Henry Gibson) utters the following:

“You were not quite right about the suburbs.Here, all you have to do is take one step out of line. Paint your house the wrong shade of pink. Buy the wrong kind of car. Make one or two human sacrifices. Then when you walk down the street, everybody says, ‘Oh, there goes the weirdo!'”

When Ray asks Dr Klopek why he and his two equally kooky family members Hans (Courtney Gains) and Uncle Reuben (Brother Theodore) bothered to move to Mayfield, the doctor replies:

“The same as you did. For the quiet, and the privacy. The good life. The convenient shopping with ample free parking. But everywhere I met only suspicion and distrust.”

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“It’s true,” Hans chips in, providing the scene’s punchline: “In LA, nobody ever said anything.”

We are the lunatics

Where most American horror films presented suburbia as a safe refuge occasionally besieged by evil, or an artificial reality built on a terrible secret, Joe Dante depicts suburbia as a static, bourgeois nightmare, where nothing much happens and nobody has anything in common other than their fear of outsiders and their desire to keep up appearances.

To live in such places is enough to bring on madness through sheer boredom. So when various psycho killers, gremlins, or violent sentient toys arrive to disrupt the equilibrium, the sense of relief is almost palpable.

Through his films, Joe Dante looks out across the suburban landscape of perfection and agreeable neighbours, and then disrupts it with infectious enthusiasm.

A special edition of The ‘Burbs is out on Blu-ray on the 15th September from Arrow Films.