Ordinary Joe, Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), the central figure in Joe Dante’s blackly comic ensemble farce The ‘Burbs (1989) delivers an excellent summation of mainstream America’s seeming refusal to shine a light on itself and its paranoias, misconceptions and wrongheadedness. “They are not the lunatics. It’s not them. It’s us.” And despite the movie’s denouement which sees the mad neighbour’s interference seemingly justified, it is clear that Dante, with his custom brand of domestic satire, is suggesting that clearly, his country’s problems run deeper than the odd collision course with Foreign extremes. Many aspects of American society are represented in this cul-de-sac based demi-horror – the gun nut, the air-headed trophy wife, the embittered war vet, the heavy metal kid and the greedy freeloader. And while it’s all played for laughs, Dante never quite lets us off the hook.
Tapping into older horror comedies like James Whale’s hilarious and unsettling The Old Dark House (1932), The ‘Burbs, centres around the strange goings-on of newly arrived neighbours the Klopek’s, but more importantly on the batty reaction to this state of affairs by the incumbent occupiers of the surrounding houses. Ranging from simple curiosity, outward racism to break-ins and physical property damage, all facets of Uncle Sam’s slight problem with outsiders are highlighted here. Despite taking a stress-relieving week off work to re-charge his batteries, Ray soon finds himself in the middle of a witch-hunt cooked up largely by his overreacting suburbanite pals. Dante’s suggestion is that certain swathes of the urban middle class have grown so bored with themselves and others, they desperately cling on to whatever ‘entertainment’ comes their way. This boredom of the soul, it is hinted at, is partly inspired by the insipid TV channels which spew out mind-numbing garbage for hours at a time. “I’m going to do something productive. I’m going to watch television”
From the movie’s opening moments which see Ray, standing on the lawn outside the Klopek’s residence, feeling the ominous rumblings through his naked toes, we get hints that everything in the neighbourhood is not entirely well. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which sought to strip away the layers of the domestic idyll and expose the unhealthy fascinations that lurked behind the white picket fences, Dante too, doesn’t hold back in his jokey deconstruction of truth, justice and the American way.
And though the 80s saw more than its fair share of comedy-horrors passing through its doors, with pictures like House (1986), Evil Dead 2 (1985) and Creepshow (1982) providing us with plenty of blood-spattered laughs, it’s arguably Dante who more ably gets to the heart of the matter, with his relatable B-movie style productions replete with monsters, suspense and boatloads of satire. Perhaps what separates Dante’s work from other directors at the time, was his ability to not only create memorably entertaining features but to also wear his love of cinema, past and present, firmly on his sleeve.
Whether it be his visual or aural nods to The Exorcist (1973) or Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone in The ‘Burbs, his utter and complete immersion in his art is clear to see. Those who listen to Dante’s podcast The Movies that Made Me, which he co-presents with screenwriter Josh Olsen (A History of Violence), will know just how much of an oracle of information he is when it comes to all things cinematic. Being a protégé of Roger Corman and still belonging to a world where the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland are plastered on the walls, Dante exudes, via his work, an aesthetic which sits somewhere between grindhouse and Looney Tunes, no easy trick to pull off, and never more apparent than in his box office smash Gremlins (1984) and the segment he directed for John Landis’s Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983).
Though The Howling (1981), his dark take on the werewolf legend, may have shared more in common with the video nasty brigade than his other work, outings like Inner Space (1987) and Explorers (1985) proved that the director was able to mix modern tropes with 50s science fiction vibes. Unfortunately, these latter entries would not match the box office returns of his earlier films, even when their profits were combined they failed to reach the dizzying financial successes of Gremlins, whose worldwide takings of rocketed to over $150 million. However, Dante would continue to harbour an enviable cult following, marking him as one of the most keenly appreciated filmmakers on the boutique Blu-ray circuit.
The ‘Burbs, like his later Matinee (1993), appears to be a more heartfelt concern. Though Dante had offered convincing ensemble pieces throughout his career, The Burbs present us with a family unit that feels more real. Though they may be surrounded by odd caricatures and American grotesques played beautifully by the likes of Bruce Dern, Corey Feldman and Rick Ducommun, Peterson and his remarkably patient wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) lean closest to our audience perspective. Though his immediate peers seem convinced of The Klopek’s guilt, Ray’s continued doubt that he is perhaps not pursuing the right course is most telling of his more humanised character. And yet while it may have an emotional centre, this doesn’t fully detract from its more satirical ambitions.
In this sense, it arguably has more in common with Heathers (1989), Michael Lehmann’s wildly cynical teen comedy, released the same year. While Dante’s targets are perhaps painted with broader strokes, Heathers zooms in more explicitly on the concerns that blight a so-called free country. Homophobia, organised religion and the education system or all given short thrift in this highly stylised social commentary which doesn’t so much poke fun as bludgeon to death. Interestingly, both movies contain ‘explosive’ content both metaphorical and physical, which seems to perfectly reflect how the 80s had figuratively crashed and burned and how the coming century would blow to bits its outdated ideas about sexuality, race and the nuclear family.
But though The ‘Burbs and its cast of players might be seen as a microcosm of American society, presenting us with a fascinating inward glimpse of a culture which has somehow lost sight of itself, it is mainly, unquestionably, a fun, highly regarded piece of Hollywood entertainment. A gloriously witty depiction of a confused country that cannot decide whether to hate itself or carry on the romance with a fraudulent urban dream. “I hate cul-de-sacs. There’s only one way out and the people are kind of weird.”