Starring: Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher
Director: Joe Dante
“I’m telling you, Walter was a human sacrifice!” Joe Dante’s satire about suburbanites going crazy as they begin to suspect that they have satanists in their midst received a critical panning upon its release in 1989. One can only assume that Reaganite America wasn’t quite ready to see the funny side of white picket fence paranoia, because today there’s much to enjoy in the film’s cast of colourfully cartoonish characters and its sparkly, too-perfect vision of suburbia, conjured on the Universal backlot (on the famous and historic Mockingbird Lane, which played host to The Munsters and Leave It to Beaver, and would later be known to millions as Wisteria Avenue in Desperate Housewives).
Too perfect? Well, apart from that one house, of course, with its dead shrubs and tumbledown porch, a source of strange noises and inexplicable flashing lights, whose owners, the Klopeks, are so wary of meeting anyone they drive their car to the dustbin when putting out the trash. Ray (Tom Hanks), home from work for a couple of weeks for some reason (stressed out? Fired?), can’t resist snooping around and soon finds himself one of a posse of increasingly curious neighbours.
The film quickly settles into a series of bustling, broadly comedic ensemble scenes, mounting in extravagance, and counterbalanced with a nicely brewing atmosphere of intrigue as the gang uncovers ever more suspicious clues. The humour is made to seem less obvious with clever casting – the hippyish and anarchic Bruce Dern as the gung-ho Rumsfield, the softly spoken Wendy Schaal as his hardbodied trophy wife, Bonnie, and the pint-sized duo of Henry Gibson and Brother Theodore as the two heavies lurking inside the old dark house. Because there was a writers’ strike on at the time and the script therefore couldn’t go through the usual refining process, there was a fair bit of improvisation by the actors on set, and this too gives things a little extra fizz.
It’s also an interesting lead role for Hanks, who was then breaking through into major stardom. Ray is a guy who would like to be Gary Cooper, but he’s sensitive, highly strung, a little henpecked. Nothing is spelled out, but it’s clear that something has gone wrong in his professional life. Disempowered at work and at home, where his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) rules the roost, he channels his resentment and his desire for order onto his neighbours.
Joe Dante helms with his usual cunning and savoir-faire, using B-movie lighting effects and extreme camera angles to milk the small town Gothic vibe, but also twinkling at the audience as if to say he doesn’t for a moment believe that we’re falling for such cheap tricks. We’re all adults here, sharing a joke, while the characters are like grown children, on a par with the kids in The Monster Club and The Goonies. Yet while it sets out to mock, the picture of a dysfunctional community The ‘Burbs evokes ends up being oddly endearing – after all, it’s really not a bad way of spending your day, trailing around with Ray, Rumsfield, Bonnie and co. It’s like Corey Feldman’s character Ricky says: “Man, I love this street!”
The film is shown in a 2K transfer from a finegrain positive, extensively restored, and with remastered sound. Even with all that effort, there’s something a little soft-looking and a touch grainy about Robert M. Stevens’ high gloss, ’80s-style cinematography in some of the more dimly lit two-shots and domestic scenes. That said, the colours are fresh and vivid, most of the exteriors are crisp and the more elaborate compositions come across very sharply – for instance, the sequence where the gang attempt to gain access to the Klopeks’ house and you’re up on the rooftops with Rumsfield, enjoying a panoramic vista. Elsewhere Carrie Fisher’s floral dress shows up in lovely detail, and during an early gardening scene you can see that no, Bonnie really doesn’t have any tan lines.
Among the extras, there’s a slickly made and very entertaining 1 hour, 6 minute documentary with contributions from Joe Dante, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schaal and others. There’s a lot of talk about what it was like shooting on the Universal backlot – apparently they had to stop every twenty minutes for the tour tram, with its burbling loudspeaker, to go by. Joe Dante says that he and Hanks decided between them that Ray had been fired but hadn’t told his wife, and that’s why he’s skulking at home. It’s also revealed that the script originally had an alternative ending in which Ray was killed. Other pieces of gossip: Carrie Fisher wore a wig, Hanks didn’t want to his character to have a son because he was afraid it would see him typecast in “dad” roles, and (according to Schaal) Corey Feldman lived up to his wild boy rep by entertaining the occasional lady of the night or two on set.
The disc also comes with a longer rough cut or “workprint” of the movie, transferred from Joe Dante’s own personal VHS copy. Obviously, it’s not HD quality, but it’s perfectly watchable, and it’s a great thing to have for completists. For those who don’t want to sit through the whole thing, there’s a handy 23-minute comparison. The workprint contains lengthier version of several scenes, mostly noticeably a greatly extended dream sequence in which Kevin McCarthy makes a cameo as Ray’s boss, and several alternative scenes, including a different version of the sequence where they break into Walter’s house. There’s also an alternative, more low key ending (which can also be seen in HD).
In addition, there’s a very down-to-earth audio commentary with scriptwriter Dana Olsen, who makes no great claims for his artistic ambitions. He explains that the story originated as a script for the pilot of a TV show, and that it started as an homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window.