When actor/writer Dana Olsen told people what the subject of his script The ‘Burbs was about, he said almost everyone responded by saying, “There was this one house in my hometown…” or “Let me tell you about the family that lived down at the end of the block.”
White flight and redlining helped turned small-town America into what became known as the suburbs, those little towns that no one would consider rural because they had thousands of acres of tract housing with shopping centers galore and fast food restaurants up and down the main commercial areas. People who lived within the houses often had to commute into the city or the outskirts for their work, but mostly they were seeking some sort of solitude from the urban neighborhoods their ancestors lived in.
Released in the middle of winter in 1989, The ‘Burbs was a modest success for director Joe Dante and Universal Pictures. Surprisingly, it was filmed all on backlots and in sound stages. All the action takes place in Mayfield Place, a cul-de-sac neighborhood in a town called Hinckly Hills presumably in the Midwest from how there is a zoom in on the Universal spinning Earth logo.
Tom Hanks plays Ray Peterson, your typical suburban dad in his mid to late 30s who has a two-level house. Carrie Fisher plays his wife, Carol, and they spend their nights watching Jeopardy! and in the morning, she makes a big spread of breakfast. He goes out in his robe to catch the morning paper with a cup of coffee in his hand. They have a tween son, Dave (Cory Danzinger) and for the most part, life is fine.
That was the case until the Klopeks moved next door. No one knows who they are, what they look like, but they’ve been in the house to the right of the Peterson’s house for months. Since then, the house has gone into disarray. The lawn is gone. But every now and again, there’s a lot of strange noises coming from the house.
The movie opens as Ray is on what we presume a weeklong vacation from his work around the July 4 holiday. His other next-door neighbor is the loud and sometimes obnoxious, Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommon) who Ray has a mutual relationship with. They’re not exactly friends but they share that connection neighbors have.
Across from them are the Mark and Bonnie Rumsfield (Bruce Dern and Wendy Schaal). Mark is a retired lieutenant in the Army and a Vietnam vet. Bonnie is his younger trophy-esque wife. Even though they’re relationship is never really discussed, I’m certain this is Mark’s second marriage as he’s going through a mid-life crisis. Mark is constantly at odds with Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon), a much older and more refined but grumpy man who lives down at the end of the cul-de-sac and always has his poodle, Queenie, to defecate in the Rumsfield’s yard.
Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman), a latchkey teenager, leaves on the right of the Rumsfields. Not much is mentioned about Ricky but his parents are out of town for the week and he’s suppose to paint the house in their absence but seems more interested in other things.
All of the residents seem to have a distance to them. When Ray tries to tell Walter “Good morning,” he doesn’t reply but grumbles. Mark calls Ricky a meatball for making comments about Bonnie. Even Ray doesn’t think highly of Ricky either as he tells Dave stories about the Klopeks. And Mark thinks Ray is a bit of a wimp at first.
All that changes when one morning, one of the Klopeks, Hans (Courtney Gains) steps out to collect the mail. Now, everyone is interested. But when Walter and Ray go to introduce themselves, they are accidentally irritate a beehive in the wall causing them to get attacked.
Later that night, while walking his dog, Ray talks with Art and Ricky about the Klopeks where Art recalls a town resident who worked at a soda fountain who murdered his family during a heat wave summer when him and Ray were younger. Strange events start being witnessed at the Klopeks. Mark, Ray and Art watch as Hans goes to take out some trash but violently beats it with a rake. Ray later sees them digging in the rainstorm in the backyard.
The next morning, the trash bag is missing with the sanitation truck comes to collect. And Queenie shows up in the Rumsefield yard. When Bonnie goes to Walter’s, he’s not there. They all sneak in and find a chair overturned, the TV set on and Walter’s toupee. Art, Ricky and even Mark all begin to think the Klopeks may have done something to Walter.
However, things change as Carol suggests they go introduce themselves to the Klopeks. Hans is just very shy. His Uncle Rueben (Brother Theodore) gives off some of the best laughs thanks to his appearance and voice. Finally, they meet Dr. Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson) a well-respected pathologist. Initially realizing the Klopeks are just not too open, Ray discovers something that makes him suspect they’re not so innocent.
To give away what happens would ruin the fun. This is a dark comedy and examination of how people become eccentric about their yards and their homes. They want their neighbors to be open but not too open. Art practically invites himself into the Peterson’s home and rummages through their fridge. Who is the better neighbor?
Part of the mystery over the Klopeks is that the previous residents, the Knapp, seemed to move without anyone knowing it. Ray says he hardly talked to the Knapps, who are only referred to as an elderly family.
How much do we really talk to our neighbors? I live out in the country and I hardly speak with some while I occasionally wave to the others. My next door neighbor who live to the north of my house moved in the summer of 2016 and we didn’t speak until the following spring when he saw me outside and said someone shot one of his dogs and was wondering if I had seen or heard anything.
We live in our own worlds and follow in our own circles. But yet when others don’t choose to follow the same patterns the majority do, we consider them “weird” as Ray says in this movie. At one point, he shows Art his new tools. Why? Because that’s what men in the suburbs are expected to do, show their tools to one another. Walter and Mark fight over who has the better lawn on the block because they need that competition.
People left the more urban and metropolitan areas because they felt an abundance of people created more problems. However, all we’ve done is brought those problems to the smaller towns and neighborhoods and even created newer ones. I find it fascinating that the movie is within a certain space and Ray, Art, Mark, Ricky and others just spend their time on the block. It’s almost like they’re trapped. The Klopeks leave. Carol and Dave leave. Ricky has friends coming to see him. They don’t really like Walter but become concerned when he’s not home.
By the time The ‘Burbs hit theaters, black comedies were entering the megaplexes and making money, thanks to hits like Beetlejuice and Ghostbusters. The idea that you could blend laughs and thrills didn’t originate in the 1980s. Abbot and Costello did it. But filmmakers took it to the next level. Dante is one of those directors who understands both comedy and horror. Gremlins gave him a good payday.
The ‘Burbs could’ve easily been forgotten once Hanks began to focus his career on more serious work, even though he’s always does well at comedy. Here he’s asked to kinda play the straight man to the quirky behavior by Dern and Ducummon. One funny moment has Mark and Art trying to get Ray to come out with them as Carol dismisses them and there’s a little boyish qualities to the way Mark and Art react, kicking the ground and putting their hands in their pockets.
For some who grew up in small-town America where they think everything is a Norman Rockwell painting, there’s always a dark underbelly underneath. Olsen said this was what it was like to every now and again read about the local librarian killing someone. Mayfield was the name of the town the Cleavers lived in on Leave It To Beaver. It’s no surprise that true-crime podcasts are now so popular or that true-crime docuseries are all the rage. We want a little excitement to our normal lives while at the same time demanding a return to normalcy whenever that excitement does happen.