The ‘Burbs (1989, Joe Dante)

Katy and I each saw this movie when we were little. She has always hated it because it gave her nightmares, and I have always loved it because it seemed weird and awesome and had Corey Feldman in it. Watching it again, it seems neither love nor hate is appropriate… it’s a pretty good movie. Pretty well made, pretty funny, with pretty good acting and a pretty satisfying ending. As a Joe Dante fan I was cheering for another Matinee, but it seems I got another Explorers instead.

Tom Hanks (between Big and Joe vs. the Volcano, on his way to permanent movie-stardom) is a listless suburban dad with wife Carrie Fisher and nosy neighbors Bruce Dern (manic, scuzzy, Busey-esque – he should be in every movie), fat Canadian comic Rick Ducommun, and still-cool Corey Feldman (I don’t know if he lives on the block or has just been hired to paint somebody’s porch). They get into comic situations trying to spy on new neighbors the Klopeks, suspicious that they have kidnapped or murdered toupee-wearing little-dog-toting neighbor Walter (1960’s TV star Gale Gordon). Finally they break into the house when the Klopeks are away, accidentally blowing it sky high by activating the overpowered furnace in the basement. Hanks thinks they’ve proven nothing except how smallminded they’ve been, but in an incredibly unsurprising twist ending, it turns out the Klopeks were murderous evildoers after all and Hanks’ gang is off the hook.

Dante throws in some cartoonish visuals, has Feldman talk into camera at the end, but it’s not as stylish or fun as his other movies, feels more tied to the obvious script. The story seems like a mystery, then starts developing into a satire of suburbia, making the suspicious neighbors look crazy and the weird reclusive family seem like the victims, culminating in a speech by Hanks (who barely comes alive in the movie otherwise) – but this is undercut by the ending.

A good Jerry Goldsmith score – in fact that might have been the best thing about the film. Robert Picardo (theater manager in Matinee, lead in 976-EVIL) and the wonderful Dick Miller cameo as garbagemen. Besides the ever-hungry comic-relief Rick Ducommun and our blank lead Hanks and his wife, the other characters are all exciting and worth watching, especially gun nut Bruce Dern and the Klopeks. The diminutive doctor is Henry Gibson of Nashville, inbred-looking young Hans is Courtney Gains, five years after playing a lead corn kid in Children of the Corn, and horrible mean uncle Reuben is Brother Theodore, who I hear was “one of America’s most respected humorists and monologists.” Dante, or whoever was responsible for casting, put an excellent enough group together to compensate for any script problems.

I read that the ending of the script had Tom Hanks getting killed at the end, leading to the same studio-mandated rewrite that Gremlins got. Wasn’t until the Masters of Horror episodes that Joe could finally execute all his main characters at the end of the movie, just like he’s always wanted to.

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