The Suburbs: murder at the neighbour’s house, robot wives, aliens, big brother’s cameras, supernatural entities, kidnap and extortion…it is all there. Who needs the big city?
Perhaps because I grew up in the suburbs their depiction on film has always fascinated me. The setting is great because of its sense of isolated consciousness. Whether it is tension-filled thrills accentuated by the limited locale or laugh-out-loud comedy with characters thrust together by circumstance, suburbia has proven to be a great basis for captivating stories concerning the human condition.
The following selection of films shows just how diverse suburbia can be portrayed but there are certainly very familiar themes that are often subverted or satirised by wily filmmakers.
Prevalent in this very Americanised genre is the idea of the family unit – particularly made up of a married couple, from a middle class background (allowing them to leave the nearby cities for the more upmarket out-of-town communities) and often having two or three children with a relatively even mix of genders. This has formed the backdrop of either criticism of the American Dream (The Ice Storm), celebration of it (It’s a Wonderful Life) or satirical homage (Pleasantville, The Truman Show) while the breakdown of the family unit has formed the basis of other films such as The Ref, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and American Beauty.
For those suburban inhabitants that are either unmarried or too young to have children and settle down, the focus is often on the mundanity of suburban life (Suburbia, The Goonies, Mallrats, Clerks, Dazed and Confused). This also converts to bored, seemingly happy married men and women, who seek adventure and excitement beyond their daily routine, often aggrandising triviality (The ‘Burbs, Arlington Road).
From science-fiction (The Stepford Wives) to horror (Nightmare on Elm Street) to comedy (The ‘Burbs), Suburbia is, like all those who move to its idyllic pastures wanting a better life, what you make of it.
10. Neighbors (John G. Avildsen, 1981)
Suburban Strife: I think the new neighbour’s wife is trying to seduce me..?
Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi reunite for this film about an upstanding working man’s life being turned upside down following the arrival of some unruly new neighbours. Belushi plays the straight man, Aykroyd the loud-mouthed new neighbour who draws enjoyment from bringing chaos into the life of his new-found “friend”.
9. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)
Suburban Strife: Things are going bump in the night.
The Tobe Hooper-billed Steven Spielberg-directed horror film about a family terrorised by supernatural beings who threaten to kidnap the children is one of a number of great haunted house films of the 1980s.
8. The Ref (Ted Demme, 1994)
Suburban Strife: Big house. Perfect neighbourhood. Lots of money. Unhappy marriage.
Denis Leary is brilliantly acerbic as a thief who ends up taking argumentative husband and wife Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis hostage. As the married couple grow increasingly irritating Leary wishes he had never bothered taking them hostage. Things get interesting when the rest of the family show up.
See also: Top 10 Alternative Christmas Films
7. Arlington Road (Mark Pellington, 1999)
Suburban Strife: Meet my neighbour, the bomb maker!
In this tense thriller, suburban life is thrown upside down when Jeff Bridges begins to suspect new neighbour Tim Robbins of being a possible terrorist bomber. But will anyone believe him?
6. The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)
Suburban Strife: I can’t help but feeling…someone is watching me!
Suburbia isn’t quite what it seems. But then again, when is it ever? In one of Jim Carrey’s finest performance, he plays Truman Burbank, a happy-go-lucky chap who is completely aware his whole life has been played out on camera. His perfect suburban life is actually an elaborately constructed film set, his wife, family and friends are all actors, and his life is secretly filmed and broadcast all around the world. When a huge studio light falls from the “sky”, Truman begins to question his own existence.
5. Judgment Night (Stephen Hopkins, 1993)
Suburban Strife: …suburban’s in PERIL!
Emilio Estevez leads a fantastic cast which includes a deliciously sadistic Denis Leary, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jeremy Piven and Stephen Dorff in Stephen Hopkins’ Suburban’s In Peril movie. Estevez and his friends head off into the city from their cushy suburban homeland and find, when they ill-advisably take a detour off the freeway during a traffic jam, urban grime bite them in the ass. The crime-ridden, downtrodden squalor of the inner city they all became middle class to avoid is embodied in Denis Leary’s determined gang lord who pursues the group across bleak industrial estates and state-run welfare projects throughout a night of nail-biting tension. Judgment Night is one of the 1990s best kept secrets.
See also: Top 10 Films set over one night
4. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
Suburban Strife: There’s a severed ear on my lawn…is this normal?
David Lynch’s dark mystery-thriller is also a head-mashing, surrealist nightmare as only Lynch knows how. Starring Kyle MacLachlan, the film tells the story of a college student who becomes obsessed with a severed ear he finds while walking home. With the help of Laura Dern, he discovers a seedy suburban underworld featuring the alluring Isabella Rossellini and the psychotic criminal Dennis Hopper.
3. The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975)
Suburban Strife: I’m living with a Fem-Bot!
Welcome to the idyllic, sleepy suburb of Stepford. Women are obedient to their husbands, devoutly domesticated and robotically repetitive. When newcomer Katharine Ross moves to Stepford she begins to suspect that something may be very wrong with the town. Her investigation leads to a terribly horrifying conclusion that involves the secretive Stepford Men’s Association. Called a chauvinistic dystopia, The Stepford Wives is a 1970s satire on the prevailing gender roles of suburban life at the time.
2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
Suburban Strife: In suburbia, no one can hear you scream! Oh, and my kid was just abducted by aliens who coaxed him through the cat flap!
Richard Dreyfuss delivers one of his best performances in Steven Spielberg’s sensational film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When possible contact with beings from another planet sends Dreyfuss’s sleepy suburban family life into destructive meltdown, he figures the only way to make amends is to meet these extraterrestrials himself.
See also: Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films
1. The ‘Burbs (Joe Dante, 1989)
Suburban Strife: I think my neighbours have been killed and buried in the back garden…I can see them digging now!
Tom Hanks is great in this pre-Oscar funny-man role playing a mild-mannered suburbanite who becomes increasingly distressed at the actions of his mysterious new neighbours. Could they have killed the previous owners and cooked them in a furnace in the basement? You’ll have to watch The ‘Burbs to find out.
See also: Top 10 Tom Hanks films of the 1980s
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.
Your turn – What are your top films set in suburbia? What other great suburbia in peril films are worth seeing?
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