The Test of Time: The 'Burbs (1989)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



Although critically panned by most during its initial 1989 run, one flick that has garnered such impassioned ardor among horror heads over the decades - so much so that it’s arguably ascended to a sort of untouchable cult-classic status - is Joe Dante’s hilarious pitch black comedy THE ‘BURBS. I’ll tell you right now, my sister, friends and I grew up on this flick, and if pressed, could obnoxiously quote this sucker ad infinitum. And why not, this one is eminently quotable, thanks to such standout turns from the inimitably humorous Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern and Rick Ducomunn. Damn I love this movie!

But the question still looms. How have the last 28 years treated the film? Has the movie suffered massive wear and tear in the interim? Has it lost its charm, its mordant humor, it’s overall entertainment value? Have the horrific elements been rendered all but cartoonish now, given how brutal the genre has become in the last 30 years? Have funnier and more biting horror-comedies that have since been released all but gentrified THE BURBS out if its classic neighborhood? All perfectly reasonable queries, ones we’ll no doubt get to the bottom of when we officially pit Joe Dante’s THE ‘BURBS against the Test of Time!


THE STORY: The setup is a pretty simple one. When a quaint and quiet, idyllic, perfectly peaceful suburban street – replete with a cul-du-sac – is disrupted by the arrival of the creepy new family: the oddball, mysteriously introverted, shut-in Klopek clan, the various neighborhood tenants take it upon themselves to investigate their new neighbors. After all, they Klopeks appear to be sinister suburbanites, nocturnally skittish, never to come out during the day, and their house is a decrepitly moldering mansion that looks like something right out of an Edvard Munch painting. Shite’s terrifying!

After an hilariously failed attempt to introduce himself to the Klopeks, in which a swarm of killer bees are unleashed on our semi-castrated lead Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), a man sick of taking cues from his ball-busting wife Carol (RIP late great Carrie Fisher), he enlists the covert operations of his two neighborly pals: the priapic military man Mark Rumsfeld (Bruce Dern) and slovenly oafish Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun). Stress-induced paranoia, escalating suspicions and a thick air of malevolence take hold when another elderly neighbor, Walter, suddenly goes missing amid signs of a struggle inside his house. 80s hipster neighbor Ricky (Cory Feldman in perhaps his last great role) and his party-animal pals are brought into the fold as well. Trivia heads take note, indie actor Nicky Katt is among the mulleted party rockers. To wit, Dick Miller, the man who has appeared in every Joe Dante film, plays the beleaguered garbage man!

As for the Klopeks themselves? Can’t beat the great Henry Gibson as the docilely calm Dr. Klopek, nor can you front on genre mainstay Courtney Gains as young Hans Klopek (“Hey Pinocchio, where you goin!?!”). That said, the most sinister of them all just might be the man Rumsfeld continually refers to as “Rube.” And that is Brother Theodore as, yup, Rueben Klopek.

WHAT HOLDS UP: Personally speaking, the structural integrity of THE BURBS hasn’t busted, rusted or deteriorated one bit. Extremely biased, sure, but that’s how I feel. This has become a movie I make of point of watching annually, and dedicate myself to finishing it whenever I randomly happen upon it on TV. And like the movie itself, these characters have become my friends. Parasocial friends, sure, but friends nonetheless. And I think that there’s a three-pronged symbiosis here that has emboldened the flick over the years. I’d say the aforementioned characters, their hysterical, often improvised dialogue and last but not least, Dante’s deft blend of horror and humor as seen and heard directly reflected from said characters, is a strange alchemical brew that has kept the movie as potent as it is all these years later.

Take this deadpan line reading from pre-Oscar winning Hanks. After the Hans Klopek drives his garbage heap to the end of his driveway, Ray Peterson muses in horror: “I’ve never seen that. I’ve never seen anybody drive their garbage down to the street and bang the hell out of it with a stick…I’ve never seen that!” The grave demeanor Hanks gives off with this line is flat out hilarious.

Or what about that scene after Ray pretends he’s going to listen to Carol and stopping the snooping around. He retreats to his den with Art and Rummy, and when he proceeds to pull out the missing Walter’s hairpiece from his junk-area, Rumsfeld incredulously laments: “you’ve been keeping that in your trousers, all day?” Further explanation from Ray then gets this follow up in regards to said hairpiece : “they went back inside and got the hair!” I realize how unfunny these may seem out of context, but damn this comedy gold over here! Here’s another doozy of a Rumsfeld line. “Listen up mister, that scum-barking rat of yours just took his last dump on my lawn.” On and on, this movie is littered with epic one-liners and hilariously revved-up rants.

And I didn’t even touch on arguably the funniest dude of all, Art. This dude is a real piece of work. My favorite scene of his? Probably when he clears the Peterson’s breakfast table, throws an empty syrup bottle back in the fridge before pulling out old BBQ leftovers and a whole uncut pineapple. The best though? Notice how he accidentally grabs a handful of Ray’s dog’s dog-food, puts it in his mouth before wincing silently. Pure comedy (note the Gremlins cereal box in the background as well, Dante of course directed GREMLINS). So too is the scene where Art finds the femur bone in Ray’s backyard (Ray, this is Walterrrrrr!), writes a note to the Klopeks to let them know he knows, only to find the note strewn back over the fence on to Ray’s lawn. Unwilling to acknowledge the note as anything but litter, Ducommun’s blithe response of “nope, it’s my note” is just too damn funny. These guys are straight up idiots!

Of course, none of this jives without the perfect tonal balance between humor and horror. I’d argue that, by going a bit too cartoonish and slapstick at times with the violence (the Jerry Goldsmith music especially), Dante actually undercuts the damnation of camp and kitsch of the film by precisely that….intentionally going over the top. There’s a knowing playfulness here that saps the so called unintentional campiness. Hey, Dante gave us GREMLINS and THE GATE immediately following THE BURBS…dude knows what he’s doing!

As for Ricky (Feldman), keen observers might notice the house he lives in is the infamous Munster house for the TV show The Munsters (shrouded as to keep from being distractingly obvious). Ah hell, here’s some more fun stuff. Check out this outtake reel of Ricky and Art trying to perfectly time this cookie-door-smash (also note Hanks in early director mode). HERE.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Leave to another to find the anachronistic faults in THE ‘BURBS. ‘Cause it ain’t gonna be me! I love this movie so much, too much in fact, that such unconditional love will forever blind me to whatever ails THE BURBS as an overall movie. Sure there is a level of artifice to the movie being shot entirely on the Universal back-lot (a street I always make it a point to bask in when taking the tour), the very street of which was actually used in the Hanks flick DRAGNET two years prior, but really, that had to be intentional as a way to reinforce the suburbs themselves as illusory, falsely conformist, plastic, phony, etc.

Actually, here’s a fun factoid that sort of plays pertinently here. Have you ever seen the alternate ending to THE BURBS? Well, if not, you can check it out right HERE! And honestly, while only a few of the narrative beats are altered, we can see pretty definitively that the scrapped ending not only blew then, but would blow doubly hard now. It lacks the juice, the excitement, the memorable one-liners and perhaps best of all, that killer dropkick Rumsfeld exacts on young Hans. That said, it’s interesting to note what must have been a free reign of improvisational dialogue, as Art and Rums slightly amend their lines in the altered ending. A good one? “Hans, send me a license plate,” says Rumsfled as Hans is escorted away in handcuffs.

THE VERDICT: The jury’s in, folks. Due to its deft touch of horror and humor, due to its brilliantly cast stable of actors, who in turn elevated the material with side-splittingly improvised dialogue, due to Dante’s preternatural understanding of what makes a horror-comedy movie amusing, indeed, THE BURBS still sits on a foundation impervious to the erosion of time. It was one of my favorite movies 20 years ago, and remains so today. That is not often the case for a childhood favorite. The opposite usually is. You grow up and revisit a movie you loved as a kid, only to say “what the hell was I thinking.” Not the case with THE BURBS, a movie I will never get tired of!



Extra Tidbit: What's your favorite line from THE 'BURBS?
Source: AITH



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