The ‘Burbs: An American Gothic Tale
A cul-de-sac in an unassuming Midwestern suburb is the setting for this classic dark comedy from the ’80s. Though underappreciated, The ‘Burbs (1989) is one of my favorite movies and helped spark my interest in the unusual. It stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun as three friends who suspect an eccentric and reclusive family is up to no good in their neighborhood. Though on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delves deep into the American gothic and the double-sided nature of modern American society, a society that consumes true crime, horror, and paranormal books, movies, and television behind picket fences and manicured lawns.
On Mayfield Place in the fictional suburban town of Hinkley Hills, Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and retired Lieutenant Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) suspect a family named Klopek, who live in a dilapidated house next door to Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), are really satanists responsible for the disappearance of the house’s previous occupants, and later, an old man named Walter Seznick. Ray Peterson is skeptical, simply wanting to enjoy a quiet weeklong vacation at home with his wife (Carrie Fisher) and son. Strange events gradually convince Ray his friends are right, and they break into the Klopeks’ home seeking evidence of their crimes.
In a fiery climax, Ray hits a gas line while digging for bones in the basement and the Klopeks’ house explodes. Walter, who they thought was ritually murdered, comes home from the hospital. For a moment, it seems Ray and his friends were wrong. Then Dr. Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson), who suspects Ray found a human skull in his basement, attempts to kill him in an ambulance. A neighborhood teen named Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman) then makes the final shocking discovery–old human bones filling the Klopeks’ car trunk.
Everything about this movie works, from the dialogue to the music, editing, and pacing, which is somewhat surprising because its writer, Dana Olsen, is responsible for turds like George of the Jungle (1997), Inspector Gadget (1999), and Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992). Childhood experiences in the suburbs inspired Olsen’s script. Recalling stories of a 1930s ax-murderer and reading headlines about household homocide in his ultra normal town, he described his concept as “Ozzy and Harriet Meet Charles Manson.”
The film’s strength comes from its cast and their director, Joe Dante. Dante also directed Gremlins (1984), Gremlins 2 (1990), and the TV series Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992), Witches of East End (2013-2014), and Salem (2015-2016). Incidentally, Eerie, Indiana was also about the strange and unusual underbelly of a quaint, unassuming town. Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Rick Ducommun, Corey Feldman, and all the supporting cast play their roles perfectly. Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, and Courtney Gains slip naturally into character as the Hunnish Klopeks. A unique score, written by Jerry Goldsmith, also accompanies each character.
The ‘Burbs contains too many great scenes to mention in detail, so I’ll briefly discuss one of my favorites. In this nighttime scene, Ray Peterson leaves his wife at home to walk his dog and smoke a cigar. Along the way, he runs into Art Weingartner and Ricky Butler, who are hanging out on the porch. They talk about the eeriness of the night and the oppressive summer heat, and their suspicions about the Klopeks. Ricky asks Ray if he’s ever seen The Sentinal, a 1977 horror film about a woman who moves into an apartment in Brooklyn and discovers it contains a gateway to Hell.
Not to be outdone, Art tells the story of Skip, a “real” psycho from 1950s Hinkley Hills. Skip worked at a soda fountain and murdered his family with an ice pick, hiding their bodies in the basement. He didn’t count on the heatwave that summer, however, and the smell from their rotting corpses made everyone in the neighborhood suspicious. It wasn’t until his house caught fire that rescuers discovered the basement bodies. Later, Ray references this story when he says, “Remember what you were saying about people in the ‘burbs, Art, people like Skip, people who mow their lawn for the eight hundredth time, and then snap?”
The story of “Skip” is the kind of real-life story that inspired writer Dana Olsen to create The ‘Burbs, and Tom Hanks recognized that this reality is what makes the film so compelling. He later said in an interview, “What’s so bizarrely interesting about this black psychocomedy is that the stuff that goes on in real life in a regular neighborhood will make your hair stand up on the back of your neck.”
The ‘Burbs was filmed on the Colonial Street set on the backlot at Universal Studios Hollywood. Colonial Street was home many iconic locations, including the Leave it to Beaver house and The Munsters house. Most recently, it served as Wisteria Lane on Desperate Housewives, a show about mysterious occurrences in a quaint suburban neighborhood. Like The ‘Burbs, a real-life crime (Andrea Yates) inspired Desperate Housewives. Both The ‘Burbs and Desperate Housewives tap into American Gothic aesthetic and the suspicion that dark human impulses lurk behind the facade of an idyllic community.
Because Tom Hanks went on to star in blockbuster roles, The ‘Burbs is not often remembered among his pantheon of films. However, The ‘Burbs is an intelligent, quirky, and most of all, funny dark comedy that explores the undercurrent of American culture. It is as relevant today as it was in 1989, as these themes continue to ruminate and find expression in popular culture.