The ‘Burbs Turns 30

This quintessential Suburban Gothic tale lampooned middle class fears in the 1980s, but remains refreshingly relevant.

Yesterday, my favorite comedy horror film from the 1980s, The ‘Burbs, turned 30. It premiered in theaters on February 17, 1989 and grossed $11 million in its opening weekend, ultimately raking in over $36 million. Though panned by clueless critics who couldn’t see past its campy premise, The ‘Burbs has since become something of a cult classic.

This film had a profound effect on me as a kid. While on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delved deep into the American psyche. 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. Carrie Fisher and Corey Feldman also play prominent roles.

The ‘Burbs was written by Dana Olsen and directed by Joe Dante. Olsen, who is usually known for sillier comedies like George of the Jungle (1997) and Inspector Gadget (1999), was inspired to write the script after hearing about gruesome crimes in his own hometown. Joe Dante directed Gremlins (1984), Gremlins 2 (1990), and the TV series Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992), Witches of East End (2013-2014), and Salem (2015-2016). Eerie, Indiana was also about the strange and unusual underbelly of a quaint, unassuming town.

Welcome to Mayfield Place

Ray and Carol Peterson (Hanks and Fisher) live in a picturesque home on Mayfield Place, a cul-de-sac in suburban Hinkley Hills with their son, Dave (Cory Danziger) and their dog, Vince. The Petersons live next door to a dilapidated house owned by a reclusive family named the Klopeks. Dr. Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson), his son, Hans (Courtney Gains), and his brother, Reuben (Brother Theodore), quietly moved into the old Victorian home, which used to be owned by Mr. and Mrs. Knapp.

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Details Emerge in Camp Napowan Story

I rescued the following post from my old website, Mysterious Heartland, and decided to re-post it here in case I have any readers interested in Wisconsin folklore or who went to Camp Napowan as a Boy Scout. Enjoy!

After posting an edited transcription of the legend of Boot Hill from Napowan Scout Camp in central Wisconsin (read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), a reader contacted me with his own insight into the story. In addition to more information about how an audio version of the tale became available, he reveals that a tragic accident in the early 2000s may have squelched its retelling. Here are his remarks:

Hi Michael,

I came across your transcription of the Story of Boot Hill on Mysterious Heartland, and I wanted to give you my recollection. I visited Napowan as a Boy Scout from 1993 to 1999. The first year I went, one of the camp staff was invited to our site to tell the story of Boot Hill. I think he was the camp director at the time, or he became camp director several years later, and I want to say his name was Eric. There were a few additional details that were added to the story in future tellings, as well as a few omissions.

I can only remember one omission regarding the event from 1992. A special needs scout from the Little City sponsored troop (which I believe is also out of Des Planes) got lost, wandered off camp property, and recalled seeing black cats with white paws when he was found. The troop is comprised of mentally challenged adults who were still in attendance during the years I visited camp Napowan. I think the lost scout was an African American guy who went by the name Horse.

Eric took a break from staffing, but returned in the late ’90s. Since he was not there to tell the story, another staff member told the story for the entire camp in 1994 or 1995. His name was Brad Shuman, and he was the director of the Nature program area. He was a creepy guy to begin with, but he did a superb job telling the story. It genuinely scarred a lot of scouts who had to later walk back to their campsites, in the dark, through many of the locations mentioned in the story.

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Lizzie: A Lackluster Revisionist Thriller

Just four years after Lizzie Borden Took an Ax and the campy TV mini series it spawned, were audiences really clamoring for another Lizzie Borden film?

An uninspiring cast sleepwalks its way through this speculative take on an all-too-familiar story in Lizzie (2018), written by Bryce Kass and directed by Craig William Macneill. The film pits Lizzie Borden and the family’s live-in maid, Bridget Sullivan, against her tyrannical father and unsympathetic step mother in what co-producer and lead actress Chloë Sevigny described as an overtly feminist take.

The film opens in the aftermath of Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and Abby (Fiona Shaw) Borden’s murder. An investigator asks their 32-year-old daughter, Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny), whether her father had any enemies. From there, the film rewinds to the family’s employment of a 25-year-old Irish maid named Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart). According to the filmmakers, that was the catalyst for the eventual double homicide, and the answer to the investigator’s question. There is never a question about Lizzie Borden’s involvement in her parent’s death. The obvious foil, and rival for Lizzie’s inheritance, her uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare), serves as a flimsy red herring.

Lizzie’s central conflict is between Lizzie, Bridget, and her domineering father, who seeks to control all the women living under his roof. While Lizzie’s sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), fades into the background, Lizzie and Bridget find themselves in a compromising position, one that leads to her parents’ gruesome murder. Sevigny herself characterized this as a literal “smash the patriarchy” moment.

In real life, Andrew and Sarah Borden were found murdered in their Fall River, Massachusetts home on August 4, 1892. Their middle aged daughters, Lizzie and Emma, lived with them, along with their maid, Bridget Sullivan. There had been significant tension in the family leading up to the murders, and Lizzie gave conflicting alibis. Lizzie was arrested and put on trial. After 90 minutes of deliberation, the all-male jury acquitted her. Her trial was a national media sensation, but to this day, there are many competing theories about “whodunnit.”

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Desperate News Outlets Turn “Street” to Attract Younger Viewers

Members of the mainstream news media embrace celebrity tabloid culture in their race to the bottom.

A few days ago, I spotted two articles about U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi “throwing shade” (or “serious shade” in once instance) at New York Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposal. I guessed this meant Pelosi was dismissive of the proposal, but because I’m too lame and too white, I had to look it up.

According to UrbanDictionary, to “throw shade” means “to talk trash about a friend or aquaintance [sic], to publicly denounce or disrespect. When throwing shade it’s immediately obvious to on-lookers that the thrower, and not the throwee, is the bitcy [sic], uncool one.”

Both CNN’s Chris Cillizza and Fox News’ Adam Shaw used the slang expression, in an effort to identify with younger audiences and appear “hip”, I guess? Because, yes, I’m sure the 78-year-old Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was “throwing shade.” It would only be more perfect if she came out wearing dark sunglasses at the press conference.

Are these two articles supposed to be actual news and analysis? Or are they just click-bait designed to appeal to the celebrity gossip crowd? As if Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are involved in some kind of celebrity rivalry. At one point, Chris Cillizza even refers to Ocasio-Cortez as “one of the biggest stars in her party”. What?

That she’s only been in Congress for a month is besides the point. Referring to someone as a “star” suggests they are an entertainer with legions of adoring fans, a wealthy celebrity, or the object of a cult of personality. Is that really how we want to think of our politicians and public servants?

How are we supposed to take these news outlets seriously when they report on national politicians like they’re Taylor Swift and Katy Perry?

EIU Memories: The Blair Hall Fire of ’04

Listen to an audio version of this post!

On Wednesday, April 28, 2004 at a little after 3pm, the temperature was 72 degrees and rising, the sky was fair, and wind gusted south-southwest up to 32 mph. Humidity was low. By all accounts, it was a beautiful spring day, and Eastern Illinois University’s Spring Semester was quickly coming to a close. Students crammed for final exams, which would begin the following Monday.

I don’t remember what I was doing on campus (probably hanging out in the food court), but as I walked toward the north quad, I noticed a crowd gathering. At 3:14 pm, someone had called 911 from inside Blair Hall, an ivy-covered Gothic Revival building directly southeast of Old Main. Smoke billowed from the third floor windows.

Blair Hall is the third oldest building on campus. It was constructed in 1913 and originally called the Model School, then renamed after football coach Francis G. Blair in 1958. It completed the triad of buildings that made up the old campus, including Old Main and the fabled Pemberton Hall. Blair Hall was home to the anthropology and sociology departments, so I only ever took a handful of elective classes there.

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God Knows Where I Am

A homeless woman’s last months are recounted in this deeply personal exploration of mental illness.

Directed by brothers Jedd and Todd Wider, God Knows Where I Am (2016) tells the story of Linda Bishop, whose tragic life ended quietly in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. This powerful and captivating documentary uses Linda’s own words, left behind in a notebook, and interviews with friends, family, and social workers to piece together her last weeks on earth. The result is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

The documentary tells the story of Linda Bishop, who in 1999 abandoned her 13-year-old daughter and began wandering, convinced the Chinese mafia, or some other unknown agency, was after her. Her travels even brought her to Ground Zero in New York City after the September 11 terrorist attacks, where she handed out American flags and gave tours. While working at a Chinese restaurant, she briefly met a man named Steve, who she became convinced wanted to marry her. In real life, the man once called a jail to ask them to block her letters.

For years, she checked in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Doctors diagnosed her with schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder with psychosis, but she denied there was anything wrong. Finally, in October 2007, Linda was released from New Hampshire Hospital in Concord and squatted in a vacant home, where she survived by eating apples until winter. She then slowly starved to death, writing diligently in a notebook, with neighbors a short distance away.

There were many tragedies about Linda’s life, but when the New Hampshire Hospital simply released her into the streets without contacting her closest relatives, that was the beginning of the end. Linda refused to acknowledge her illness, and no one could force help on her. This failure of the mental health system forms the central debate in this film. Was there anything that could’ve been done differently to save her life?

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EIU Memories: Carman Hall

Welcome to the second part in a series reminiscing about my time at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. I spent eight years there, from 2000 to 2008, graduating with a Master’s in History. I got accepted to EIU out of high school and moved into a room on the 7th floor of Ruth Carman Hall on August 17, 2000. Although I love EIU and my college years, living in Carman Hall is not something I’d want to repeat. It’s a blessing the building has been closed for several years.

When I first came to EIU, freshman couldn’t park on campus and had to live in a dorm. Carman Hall, at the southeast end of campus, was considered the “freshman dorm.” It was built in 1971 to accommodate the glut of Baby Boomers entering college.

It looked like a Soviet tenement, with twin featureless beige towers, segregated for male and female, connected by a corridor with a shared dining hall. There was a computer lab and laundry room in the basement. Males had to be escorted to the female wing, and every floor had a resident assistant to look after things and make sure everyone was following the rules. That worked much better on the female side than on the male.

Our tower was disgusting. The vomit-encrusted elevator was rarely functional, trash littered the hallways, wires were pulled down from the ceiling, and fire extinguishers went missing. Someone even stole the drinking fountain on our floor! It got so bad the spring semester of my freshman year the college newspaper, Daily Eastern News, ran an article about the vandalism.

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