The Ninjabot

Week End Horror: Life in The ‘Burbs

Posted on September 7, 2013 at 8:00 am by Jason Byard

the burbs poster“Did you hear the one about the zombie beatnik?”
“He’s ghoul, man. Real ghoul.”

As the above hopelessly lame joke demonstrates, horror-comedy is that ficklest of narrative mistresses. And that, perhaps, is as it should be. I mean, honestly, should it really be no big thing to combine elements of two genres so radically divergent from each other? It is such a dicey proposition that, speaking cinematically, it can really only fall into one of two distinct categories: combinations which work and those that fail, often spectacularly. It’s either bacon and eggs or it’s tin foil and the fillings in your teeth. Anyone who has sat through Tales from the Crypt: Bordello of Blood is all too familiar with the unpleasantness that can crop up when horror and comedy are blended to ill-effect. Lame jokes, sub-par action, shallow characters no audience could ever hope to identify with and a general feeling of identity crisis, with the movie itself not knowing how far to go in either direction. Yes, for every Shaun of the Dead there’s a dozen or so Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood’s.

It’s appalling odds like that which serve to render The ‘Burbs, director Joe Dante’s criminally underrated ode to middle-class derangement, such an exceptionally striking find. On the surface the movie initially comes off as Rear Window retooled for the surroundings of a bedroom community. Paranoid suburbanites go increasingly overboard in a series of ill-conceived efforts designed to prove that the new family on the block, the superbly named Klopek’s, are guilty of murder (Or of being Satanists, or ghouls, or whatever. The theories tend to shift the further down the rabbit hole our heroes go). Nothing to it, right? It’s basically the recipe for some sort of trite Disturbia style frolic through suburban Babylon. What saves The ‘Burbs from this ignoble fate is that it’s damn funny. Damn, damn, damn funny. The jokes themselves are many and their tone is pitch black. Case in point: While investigating the home of a neighbor they believed has been murdered, one makes the classy decision to swipe some sort of knick-knack. His response when called out for it? “Hey, what’s the big deal? All the junk is gonna end up in a flea market sooner or later anyway.” Like I said, pitch black.

The Burbs family

But The ‘Burbs works well as a horror flick too, of course. There’s a powerful sense of creepy foreboding that laces the whole enterprise. The old dark house trope works somehow in Dante’s capable hands, and the always great Henry Gibson, playing the main baddie Dr. Werner Klopek, manages to strike just the right balance between quirky and menacing. And while we’re on the topic of the actors, I can’t believe I got this far without mentioning that Tom Hanks (post-Big, pre-Philadelphia) is the protagonist in this thing. Well, sort of. He’s clearly doing it for the paycheck and is basically sleep-walking through the role. But the supporting cast is all rock solid. Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher and Corey Feldman (in what would be his final role before becoming a Hollywood cautionary tale). Hell, it’s even got Dick Miller in a priceless cameo as a garbage man. But the stand out is the little-known character actor Rick Ducommun as Art, the neighborhood Joe McCarthy whose paranoid fantasies get the ball rolling. It’s really a top-shelf performance from an actor who never got the credit he deserved.

Ignored upon release, and never quite amassing the sort of cult-following that a movie on it’s caliber deserves, The ‘Burbs is one of those perennial “why the hell is this not some sort of modern classic?” movies that you stumble over during the course of your life. It’s everyone’s cup of tea, even if they don’t realize it.


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