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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Five Things You Didn’t Notice in The ‘Burbs

From obscure film references to subliminal messages, this ’80s dark comedy has it all.

The ‘Burbs, my favorite comedy horror film from the 1980s, turns 30 today. It premiered in theaters on February 17, 1989 and grossed $11 million in its opening weekend, though it was panned by critics who couldn’t see past its campy premise. While on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delved deep into the American psyche.

This film had a profound effect on me as a kid, and every time I watch it I discover something new. Have you spotted these subtle hints and references?

Breakfast at the Peterson’s

Ray and Carol Peterson (Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher) live in a quaint home on Mayfield Place 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. When Ray looks out the kitchen window to comment on the Klopek’s barren yard, you can see a box of Gremlins Cereal sitting on the counter. Joe Dante, director of The ‘Burbs, also directed Gremlins (1984).

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Summer of 84: A Suburb Can be a Dangerous Place

A gang of bicycle-riding teen boys try to track down a neighborhood serial killer in this suburban Gothic send up to 1980s horror.

Written by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith and directed by a trio known for their 1980s-style films, casual viewers will undoubtedly accuse Summer of 84 (2018) of ripping off the Netflix series Stranger Things, but it is far more subtle in its nostalgia and grounded in reality. There are no supernatural elements here, only the real-life horror inflicted by unassuming suburban dwellers like John Wayne Gacy and William Bonin.

The year is 1984, and a serial killer stalks the fictional county of Cape May, Oregon. Fifteen-year-old Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), an avid follower of conspiracy theories and reader of the Weekly World News, becomes convinced his neighbor, police officer Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer), is the “Cape May Slayer” after seeing a photo on the back of a milk carton of a missing boy he previously noticed inside Mackey’s house.

He enlists the help of his skeptical friends, Dale “Woody” Woodworth (Caleb Emery), Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew), and Tommy “Eats” Eaton (Judah Lewis) to spy on Mackey. They follow him on his nightly jog to a storage unit, where they find several suspicious items, including the missing boy’s bloodstained shirt. Davey presents their evidence to his parents (played by Jason Gray-Stanford and Shauna Johannesen), but his plan backfires when they become angry and force him to apologize to Mackey.

Davey’s friend and former babysitter, Nikki Kaszuba (Tiera Skovbye), also tries to convince Davey to abandon his pursuit, but after several strange interactions with Mackey, Davey convinces his friends to give him one last chance to prove Mackey is the killer. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is sickeningly real and terrifying. Summer of 84 pulls no punches when it comes to delivering an emotionally impactful climax.

Summer of 84‘s undercurrent of child abductions and neighborhood pedophiles is uncomfortably familiar to anyone who grew up during the 1980s. The only thing missing is a creepy white van and rumors of Satanic cults. High profile cases of missing kids in the late 1970s and early ’80s led to the “Stranger Danger” panic, and the use of milk cartons to spread photos of missing children. Before the Internet, a photo on a milk carton was the most assured way of reaching every home in America.

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My Friend Dahmer: Am I Missing the Point?

Based on a graphic novel of the same name by Derf (John) Backderf, My Friend Dahmer (2017) traces infamous Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school years, as chronicled by a former friend. Written and directed by Marc Meyers, this moody and hauntingly subtle film won best picture at Austin Fantastic Fest. Despite competent performances by its cast, My Friend Dahmer fails to leave a lasting impression. It lacked an over-all plot, and the poorly-mixed sound was barely audible.

Jeffrey Dahmer committed his first murder three weeks after graduating high school. As a teen, he coped with his parents’ failing marriage with alcohol abuse and acting out at school, and developed a fascination with death. He went on to kill sixteen people, preying mostly on young gay men in Milwaukee. He dismembered and ate some of his victims. He was finally caught in 1991, and a fellow inmate murdered him three years later.

Out of what I assume is a strict adherence to the source material, the film never goes below the surface or attempts to explain why Dahmer became a monster or what could have been done to stop him. It subtly hints at his aberrant sexuality without confronting it. What remains is a stark depiction of events without drama, tension, or conflict.

Ross Lynch gives an admirable performance as the wannabe serial killer (although the movie doesn’t give him much to do). This is certainly a departure from his other roles in Disney films and TV shows like Austin & Ally (2011-2016). His brooding, deadpan performance couldn’t contrast more with his usual upbeat, teen heartthrob characters. Such a dramatic acting range bodes well for his future career in film, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in more dramatic roles.

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IT: Classic Horror Reborn

Seven pre-teen outcasts overcome their fears to confront a shape-shifting creature that takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown and awakens every 27 years to feed on children in It (2017), the latest film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name.

Written by Chase Palmer and Cary Fukunaga and directed by Andy Muschietti, It was filmed on a budget of $35 million and grossed over $117 million in its opening weekend. It revives classic American horror by delivering more than just jump scares. It was genuinely scary, but also at times heartfelt, funny, and sincere.

It‘s success is even more surprising given its director’s lack of experience. Andy Muschietti, an Argentine screenwriter, has only directed one other full-length feature. To entrust the long-anticipated reboot of one of Stephen King’s most iconic horror tales to an inexperienced director is, well, incredible. That he actually pulled off making It into a blockbuster will ensure a long career. It‘s opening box office earnings completely eclipse The Sixth Sense‘s and that film made director M. Night Shyamalan a household name.

I’m not a Stephen King fan and I don’t get the fascination with clowns. I never read the novel or saw the 1990 TV mini series staring Tim Curry, so I came to the theater without any preconceptions aside from bits and pieces of things I’ve heard about It over the years. Like most Stephen King novels, the horror element is a vehicle for exploring other issues, issues related to family, coming of age, bullying, confronting mortality, etc., all of which appear in this story.

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First Impressions of IT

I watched It (2017), the latest film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name, in a packed theater this weekend. I’m not a Stephen King fan and I don’t get the fascination with clowns, but I have to admit there is a lot of genuine excitement surrounding this movie.

I never read the novel or saw the 1990 TV mini series staring Tim Curry, so I came to the theater without any preconceptions aside from bits and pieces of things I’ve heard about It over the years. Here are some of my first impressions:

  • A good horror movie is also a good movie. This was a good movie–it was genuinely scary, but also at times heartfelt, funny, and sincere.
  • It was set in 1989, so there are nostalgic elements, but It doesn’t bash you over the head with nostalgia.
  • In one scene, there are posters advertising A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, which came out in 1989. I thought it was fitting to make reference to that franchise because many of the effects in It are reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street, especially when the hair comes out of the sink and pulls Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) toward the drain.
  • All the child actors in this movie are great. In a film that pits children against adults, the children are funny, relatable, and courageous, while the adults are creepy, sadistic, and often indifferent.
  • That being said… There are almost too many protagonists. I realize the film is just copying the number of characters in the book, but it’s difficult to become attached to the characters when there are so many. I don’t even remember their names. There’s the fat kid, the black kid, the girl, the stutterer, the one with asthma, the Jewish one, and the pervy one. There’s seven altogether… I think.
  • I’m not sure what to think about Bill Skarsgård‘s performance as Pennywise the Clown. Again, I’m not afraid of clowns and don’t think they’re creepy or funny. But Skarsgård pulled off a performance that was at the same time creepy, threatening, and maintained a weird air of innocence.
  • I’m not sure if this was a malfunctioning projector or what, but everything in the movie seemed really blurry.

Look for a more complete review on Monday! One last thing: This movie is the first of what I assume will be two parts. My understanding is that the book and mini series shows the protagonists as kids and again as adults. It (2017) only covers the period when the protagonists are kids.

Gold Glitters

Greed and obsession collide in Gold (2016), a gritty morality tale set in 1980s Nevada, Wall Street, and Indonesia. Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a prospector desperate for a lucky break. He teams up with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez), and together they descend into the uncharted jungles of Indonesia hoping to find one big score. This poorly-advertised film almost escaped my notice, until I saw it playing at my local theater. I’m glad I took a chance on it. Gold is a solid film and surprisingly entertaining. Matthew McConaughey disappears into the role, achieving absolute rock bottom in body and spirit.

Gold is loosely based on a true story. In 1995, a small Canadian mining company called Bre-X, owned by David Walsh, claimed to find a massive gold deposit deep in the Indonesian jungle on the Island of Borneo, near the Busang River. Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman and John Felderhof convinced Walsh to invest $80,000 to purchase and develop the gold mine.

In 1997, Bre-X collapsed and its shares became worthless in one of the biggest stock scandals in Canadian history. On March 19, 1997, de Guzman committed suicide by jumping from a helicopter in Busang, Indonesia. An independent investigation of core samples from the mine determined de Guzman had been “salting” the samples with gold flakes, some from his own wedding ring. Walsh died of a brain aneurysm in the Bahamas in 1998, and in 2007, Felderhof was acquitted of securities charges. The scandal cost investors an estimated $3 billion.

Gold follows Nevada prospector Kenny Wells, who inherited his father’s company, Washoe Mining, in the early 1980s. Stress-induced alcoholism caused by the economic downturn leads him to sell the last of his jewelry and fly to Indonesia to meet geologist Michael Acosta. There he endures hardship and survives malaria. When he emerges from the illness, Acosta tells him he made what might be the largest gold discovery in history.

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