Joe Dante hasn’t had a film in cinemas since 2009’s The Hole 3D (comedy horror Burying The Ex is currently without a release date), but the Gremlins veteran has been busy co-curating the Trailers From Hell website, where name connoisseurs savour neglected but cult-ish films. Guillermo del Toro embraces Hitchcock’s I Confess, Edgar Wright The Fury. Ti West, meanwhile, honours Dante’s own 1989 satiri-horror The ’Burbs: and it slots in like a nice carpet in a suburban dream home.
’Burbs may not boast a Goonies-sized fanbase, but Dante’s madcap comedy has the right furnishings for cult rehabilitation. As per cult-flick dictates, critics slated it. It brims with quotable lines, in-jokes and movie nods, there to be teased out. It invites multiple interpretations with ever-shifting perspectives. It hints at serious themes – xenophobia, mainly – but isn’t too lofty (or daft) to take itself seriously. And it stars a Corey (Feldman), as ’80s cult items must.
Like a fresh-mown lawn, the plot is clear and groomed on the surface. Tom Hanks is in ‘beleaguered comic everyman’ mode as Ray Peterson, a family fella spending his at-home holiday bickering with his wife (Carrie Fisher) and bonding with his neighbours in suspicion of a new family in their ’burb. Ray, food-lover Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and army vet Lt Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) all think they have good reason. These new folks are all men who, yikes, keep themselves to themselves. Their basement glows and rumbles at night. Their garbage disposal routines are odd. And their name, the Klopeks… “Is that a Slavic name?”
As Ray, Art and Mark investigate, the film starts to resemble a Scooby-Doo romp (food gags included) given a simple but smart twist. By shuffling viewpoints, Dante flags up the relativity of normalcy and shows how our ’burbanites might be no more “normal” than the Klopeks. Viewed from alternative perspectives, they might look weirder. Feldman’s head-banging Ricky certainly thinks they’re a rum lot: he invites his date round to watch Ray’s gang spy on the Klopeks, tickled as the madness amplifies. And amplify it does.
Dante gives things a self-aware spin from the moment he dissolves the Universal logo into a camera’s-eye descent to Mayfield Place. He shot on the Universal backlot that hosted Leave It To Beaver, a ’50s-’60s apple-pie sitcom. Movie echoes range from The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to Hitchcock (Rear Window’s voyeurism, Shadow Of A Doubt’s suburban suspicion). Jerry Goldsmith’s score is richly referential, all Alien flutters, horror-show organs and – for a squint-off between suburbanites and a poodle – mock-Morricone portent.
But The ’Burbs never buckles under its self-awareness. The gags revel in cartoon-ish glee; it’s the kind of film where characters fall off electricity poles and leave body-shaped holes in shed roofs as they tumble through them. Sight gags are cut tight, like the one where Ricky decimates a plate of cookies in a single door strike. Dante shot during a writers’ strike, forcing the cast to improvise because the scriptwriter couldn’t contribute dialogue changes. It shows, in a good way: the plot’s pell-mell tumble thrives on what Dante calls “fly-by-night, off-the-cuff” handling.
Even so, Dante is smart enough to indulge his actors, particularly the Klopek cast. Surreal stand-up Brother Theodore’s evil stare is so hysterical, Dante just enjoys watching him unnerve Hanks for five delicious minutes; Nashville/Magnolia star Henry Gibson is smoothly unsettling as Dr Werner Klopek. The double-twist climax left critics confused. Dante admits he was compromised on it: he couldn’t have a Hanks character killed, as was his first plan.
But The ’Burbs leans towards a wrong-footing “behavioural” (Dante’s word) portrait of characters behaving madly in a combustible set-up anyway, rather than a mystery-thriller or moral missive with a clearly plotted end-point. At any rate, there’s so much to enjoy along the way that you’ll want to do as Ricky does: pull up a pew, dial the “pizza dude” and enjoy the lunacy. This ’burb welcomes the revisits.
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