Suburban Conformity: Looking Back At The ‘Burbs

Joe Dante’s most biting satire of suburban America sadly loses its nerve at the last minute and becomes as reactionary and curtain-twitching as its central characters.

This article discusses the end of The ‘Burbs in some detail. If you have yet to see the film, this might be considered a spoiler. But then, the ending itself also spoils things…

Despite the fact that they have worked together more than once, Joe Dante often feels to me like the anti-Spielberg. They both share an affinity for telling stories that take place in a wholesome American suburban setting that feels like a cosy 1950s throwback, far removed from big city life and the complexities of the modern world. But Dante tends to subvert the white picket fenced, neatly mowed lawn world that Spielberg likes to idealise. In Dante’s films, this feels like a false environment, an artificial retreat from a real world that creeps in nevertheless. His classic exploration of this was Gremlins, a Spielberg production that nevertheless cynically mocked the world that films like ET existed in, his malicious little monsters gleefully ripping apart the comfortable existence of small-town America. In a way, Dante is coming from the same place as David Lynch in that way – Lynch too likes nothing more than to look for the corruption that exists behind the facade of suburbia. You might argue that Lynch’s is a much darker world, but it’s actually all in the telling: Dante’s films contain just as much horror and death, but has a lighter feel – and Dante at least allows his central characters to be the classic nice suburban families – bad things happen to them, but they remain thoroughly decent and pleasant throughout. Lynch’s explorations of hidden corruption and dark secrets are more cynical – and more realistic, I suspect.

Dante’s most interesting and frustrating exploration of this world was The ‘Burbs, the very title of which emphasises the importance of the setting. Here, in a film that takes place on a single street, Dante explores the curtain-twitching, fear-driven, suspicious and self-important world of American suburbia – a world that certainly resonates with people in the UK, and presumably connects internationally. Every town in every developed nation probably has streets like this. The film then trashes the comfy existence of the people who live here in a way that is almost a glorious condemnation of this sort of middle class, exclusive community – but unfortunately, and to the complete detriment of the film, it blows it in the final moments. Rarely has a film so blatantly wussed out in the final scenes as this one. What could’ve been a Lynchian destruction of the artificial, bigoted and insular would of suburbia instead ends up as an affirmation of the curtain-twitching and suspicion, a modern ‘reds under the bed’ film where actual Reds are found to be hiding under the bed after all.

Set in Mayfield Place, a nice suburban street in Hinkley Hills (a nice suburban town, presumably), the film sets the outsiders against the residents, as Ray Petersen (Tom Hanks) gets suspicious about his mysterious new neighbours, the Klopecks. Not only have they moved into an oddly dilapidated house – the classic neighbourhood haunted house – and failed to fix it up, but they are rarely seen. And when they do make an appearance, it’s hardly reassuring – digging holes in the back yard at night, a weird, inbred looking youth venturing out to collect mail or drive their garbage to the street, which he then beats the hell out of. This is a shifty looking family, and Ray is egged on in his concerns by moronic next-door neighbour Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and military veteran Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), who are both convinced that the Klopecks are up to no good, painting a picture of them as murderers, cannibals or worse. Despite the best efforts of Ray’s wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) to talk sense into him, the three men soon engage on a mission to investigate the new neighbours, an effort that becomes suspiciously like terrorism as they push threatening notes through the door, break into their house and generally make a nuisance of themselves. When fellow neighbour Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon) disappears, the three are convinced that the Klopecks are responsible, and increase the efforts to uncover the truth…

As a story of tight-knit communities who fear and ostracise anyone who doesn’t fit, The ‘Burbs is an impressive study in growing paranoia and collective insanity. It’s a neat suburban twist on the idea of someone thinking their neighbours are out to get them, in this case told from the point of view of those neighbours, who immediately jump to conclusions without having any facts to back them up. The Klopecks are weird, uncommunicative and worst of all foreign, so they must be up to no good. As a stinging indictment of how we fear that which is different, mob hysteria and how the perfect world of suburbia hides a much darker world, it’s impressive – not the grim world of Blue Velvet perhaps, but still a stinging attack on this seemingly wholesome world. And then, right at the last minute, it blows it in spectacular fashion.

After having Ray blow up the Klopeck’s home in the culmination of a series of incidents that are, at best, harassment – and more accurately a hate campaign waged by a whole community – it seems as though the film will end with a rebuke for the three idiots who have been carrying all this out. Instead, it vindicates them. No matter which ending you watch – the one that’s the main feature or the alternative one that appears as an option on various disc releases – it turns out that the Klopecks really are monsters, with a furnace full of corpses and a car trunk full of skulls. So what sort of message is the film giving us? That if you live somewhere where a neighbour keeps to themselves, seems a bit odd and doesn’t keep their lawn in pristine condition, then you are entirely entitled to make their life a living hell because they probably are up to no good? That you should burn their house down because if people seem a bit weird, then they are obviously murderers or deviants and deserve everything they get. It’s hard to take any other message from the movie’s ending.

This is hugely disappointing. I really love The ‘Burbs until this point, but the ending always leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it’s so reactionary. It would be much better to have had the three main characters exposed as the villains of the piece – not as pleasing for mainstream audiences, who are always encouraged by the media to fear the Other, but more honest, and more true to what we have seen in the rest of the film. I really wish the ending of The ‘Burbs was a notorious studio imposition, but sadly, it seems to have been made entirely through the choice of Dante and writer Dana Olsen. As Olsen has said: “as a kid, it was fascinating to think that Mr Flanagan down the street could turn out to be Jack the Ripper.” Maybe – but as adults, perhaps we should think about the living hell those snotty little kids probably put the innocent Mr Flanagan through because of that suspicion.

You might argue that The ‘Burbs is a horror film – admittedly a lightweight one – and so needs its monsters. I’d argue that it already has them. Give that Dante is a fan of The Twilight Zone, you might have expected that he would see the parallels to one of the more famous episodes, The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, where a similarly polite suburban community tears itself apart with suspicion and paranoia. While that episode certainly does have its alien invaders, the story explores how we don’t actually need monsters from outside when we can become them ourselves, turning on others over petty suspicions of anyone who fails to conform completely. The ‘Burbs is essentially this episode if it had ended with the local residents all rallying together and taking up arms against space monsters who suddenly appeared at the end. It’s not a narrative improvement.

This final revelation is a particular letdown because the rest of the film is so good. It has moments of subtle humour and moments of slapstick, it’s shamelessly populist but still oddly subversive and Dante skilfully mocks the suburban lifestyle and the way it is often portrayed on film – even Jerry Goldsmith’s schmaltzy score seems to be mocking the Spielberg style. The performances are mostly great – Ducommen is a bit too much of a doofus, the kind of obnoxious asshole that Hollywood producers think we’ll all find hilarious, but Hanks is on good form in one of the everyman roles he excels in, and Dern is entertainingly excessive as the gung-ho military man. There’s good support from Fisher, Wendy Schaal as Bonnie Rumsfield and Corey Feldman as Ricky Butler, the teenage metalhead who Rumsfield calls a “meathead” but who seems to most clued-up of the lot, happily joining in the surveillance but clearly seeing it as a joke and a sideshow to invite his friends to watch. Also great are the Klopecks – Henry Gibson as the urbanely sinister head of the family and Brother Theodore and Courtney Gains as the less sociable members of the clan.

Dante fills the film with nods to other genre pieces, some subtle – there’s a neat reference to Night of the Demon – and others more blatant, with clips from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and The Exorcist. His love and knowledge of the genre are unquestioned, and he was unquestionably the best man for this film, being both mainstream and underground, a family entertainment guy with a taste for the macabre. He keeps the film light and entertaining, but knows how to deliver the darker moments too. What a pity that he didn’t see how bad the ending was.

DAVID FLINT

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