Review: The ‘burbs (Dante, 1989)
Companion review for Top 10 Tom Hanks Films 1984 – 1989
During the Writer’s Guild strike in the summer of 1989, Joe Dante was beginning to film his then latest offering, The Burbs. The film was jeopardized by the strike and ‘Dante’ speculated that the original script changed over the course of the shoot because of it. Whether the original vision was affected or not, it came as no surprise that the Gremlins director brought the eventual film to bizarre life, with homage paid to classic horror films of yesteryear; fun poked at television and consumerism; mad visuals akin to the likes of Sergio Leone; and a fantastic score by Jerry Goldsmith. However, what ‘Dante’ achieved to brilliant effect, was his wry satirical look at modern middle-American suburbia.
The opening shot where the camera zooms in on the Universal globe to set the scene of the impending story is memorable enough; yet it’s the simplicity of the one opening shot setting up not only the location, but the film’s major comedic target that establishes Dante’s motives. Dante’s camera moves over a cul-de-sac that resembles a model more than it does any real street; Jerry Goldsmith’s score eerily plays setting a sombre tone before the camera introduces us to an ugly rundown house with strange lights flashing in the basement. Couple this with the very next scene of a cliched pan showing a paper boy throwing newspapers on to people’s lawns and a cheesy shot establishing the cul-de-sac’s title creates the feeling that Dante couldn’t be more over the top, without breaking the barrier into slapstick, if he tried. Before the movie is even four minutes into its 102 minute duration, the opening is nothing short of genius.
And so, we are introduced to Mayfield Place; a middle American suburb home to a mixed band of people ranging from Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), a family man with a week off work who ‘just wants to do normal things’ like putting his new tool box to good use.
Then there’s Art (Rick Ducommun), who while his wife is away takes it upon himself to shoot as many blackbirds as he possibly can as there seems to be a spate of them in the neighbourhood lately. Of course, his probable motto would be, ‘if you’re round at a neighbour’s house, make sure you eat as much as you can because in this society; a society where you can’t even trust Walmart to specialise in food anymore, you don’t know where you’re next meal could be’. Or at least that’s the impression you get when you first meet this fellow!
Ex-military man Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) shows off his patriotism by raising the flag every morning but is becoming less patient with next door’s dog vacating the solid stuff on his lawn. Wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal) likes to do the gardening wearing very little indeed while ‘stoner’ Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman) watches on with glassy eyed enthusiasm.
Soon the band of cliched stereotypes find themselves similarly intrigued by the new neighbours who have moved into the rundown house on the street. Not seen by day; loud noises coming from the house by night; and stories of grave digging and cult worship speculate around the street. However, it’s not until the busybody old guy Walter disappears leaving only his toupee of which Rumsfield remarks, ‘there’s one thing about these old guys, they never leave the house without their hair’, that suspicion leads to ultimate action.
In this film Joe Dante tries to mix horror genre conventions with comedy genre conventions and largely manages to do it very well. Without going to the lengths of the post-modern teen ‘slashers’ with their self referential characters, this prelude to such genre converging film’s of the middle nineties does it much more subtly. For example, Ray is in bed and switches between television channels only to find horror movies on each one with homage paid to the The Exorcist, and with tongue firmly lodged in cheek The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2. Another example would be Art Weingartner’s tale which he tells Ray while they stand outside the rundown house, about a old guy who kept himself to himself but had a deep, dark secret where Art builds up the tension with over the top gestures and Goldsmith’s score ticking along ready to explode at the obvious cheap shock at the end.
Dante is clearly at home with the horror aspect as with the scene in question he utilises the sound to great effect before using silence as a more powerful tool to help elevate this ‘cheap’ shock to a higher value scare. Mixing the horror with humour is a much tougher task and while the film never reaches the top tiers of comedy, it still manages to have a perfectly respectable balance between the two. One major reason why, is that Dante’s horror is the humour. Whether it’s Ray being chased by a chain saw and holding his hands up as if protecting his eyes from splashing water or the spying across the street using a night vision lens, the humour compliments the horror and the horror compliments the humour. One of my favourite examples is a scene lit largely like the scene in Jaws with minimalistic backlight and a hanging center light over a table which Art and Ray sit at. Art is trying to convince his neighbour that human sacrifice and the occult aren’t things just found in books and the movies. The hanging light doesn’t sway back and forth like in Jaws, that is until Art stands up quickly and bangs his head on it revealing a clear homage to Spielberg’s masterpiece. The scene has basic horror undertones but Art provides the information like an over-excited schoolboy who has just finished watching Nosferatu or The Exorcist and Ray attempts to ignore him by placing his fingers in his ears and humming a song.
Not only this, but Dante’s homage to westerns also makes for some very funny moments like when four neighbours walk across the street in an attempt to introduce themselves to the mystery neighbours, shot like a twelve noon showdown duly complimented by Goldsmith’s Ennio Morricone style update. A mad over-the-top zoom-in, zoom-out shot reminds the ‘Sergio Leone’ educated viewer of those extreme close-ups the director put to great use.
As mentioned, I think Dante’s major masterstroke is his wry look at ‘Suburbia’. While the characters maybe over the top, you get the feeling that they are there because all suburbanites want either to be ‘that’ ex-Vietnam vet with the beautiful young wife, or the guy with the ‘American Dream’ and a week off work; or have some mystery family move in next door or an over weight neighbour coming round eating all your food knowing secretly that you’re actually best friends forever. Without taking anything away from Dante, I believe he could have pushed this idea further and maybe would have done had it not been for the writer’s strike.
Credit has to be given to Jerry Goldsmith for his score for the film because it succeeds in both complimenting the horror and the humour. The score is wonderfully paced and mannered which allows it to highlight the OTT sections by breaking into a slightly more quick and harsh tone when the need is there.
The performances in the film are mixed because at times I thought Tom Hanks was wonderfully deadpan but sometimes I got the feeling he wasn’t too sure about the source material. Rick Ducommun, in probably his best role, works well in his character but he doesn’t excel in the more physical comedy role he has, but while the script threatened to make him more annoying as the film went on, he does make an attempt at getting over this particular hurdle. One of the best performances comes from Bruce Dern who is perfectly cast and has some of the better source material, as well as being one of the more interesting characters. Carrie Fisher and Corey Feldman (who was rumoured to actually be high the entire shoot) have virtually nothing worthwhile to do and are victims of a script that struggles to keep a steady pace mainly because only so much can be done with the major characters. When the script attempts to push the boundaries using the lesser characters the film loses some momentum. This is probably where the film falls down most, but while the script struggles with pace Dante does compensate for this with reasonable results.
The climax is anticipated but while it doesn’t leave much to be desired, there are enough interesting mysteries resolved and comic moments that make the final act much more appealing than what many critics have argued.
While the script has taken much of the brunt of the criticism from major critics over the years it has to be said that because of the writers strike things had to be changed drastically and quickly. Many scenes were improvised which does draw light on why the film loses ‘points’ so to speak over the script. Additionally, many scenes that could have furthered the humour in terms of the satire on ‘Suburbia’ were chopped, of which many can be seen in the trailer.