The ‘Burbs (Joe Dante, 1989)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The ‘Burbs.

criterion logoTom Hanks is Ray Peterson, a family man whose plan for a peaceful vacation at his suburban home on Mayfield Place is soon complicated when he and the other residents of the cul-de-sac observe strange happenings at the home of Ray’s new next-door neighbors, The Klopeks.  Much to the disappointment of his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher), Ray and his buddies become convinced that a missing neighbor has fallen victim to the sinister Klopeks and, armed with assault rifles, high-powered binoculars, and shovels, they decide to see for themselves what terrors lurk just over Ray’s fence.  A stand-out, tongue-in-cheek horror-comedy, The ‘Burbs is modern cult classic that assembles a superb cast, including Bruce Dern, Henry Gibson, Rick Ducommun, Brother Theodore, and Corey Feldman, and presents Joe Dante’s most savage of lands – suburbia!

Dis Features:

  • New, restored 2K digital transfer, supervised by director Joe Dante, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary with filmmaker Joe Dante
  • Back on the Block, new interviews with cast and crew, including Tom Hanks, Joe Dante, Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern, Rick Ducommun, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schaal, Nicky Katt, Courtney Gains, and Dick Miller
  • A new video piece by Dennis Cozzalio on The ‘Burbs‘s opening sequence
  • From Colonial Street to Mayfield Place, Joe Dante on the Universal Studios back lot and its famous homes
  • Scoring Suburbia, Joe Dante on composer Jerry Goldsmith and scoring The ‘Burbs
  • Stand-up Tragedy, a retrospective on New York theatre icon Brother Theodore
  • Rick Ducommun: Piece of Mind, Rick Ducommun’s 1989 HBO comedy special
  • Alternate ending
  • Extended scenes and deleted content previously believed lost
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring a new essay by director Ti West

No living filmmaker may be going through a reappraisal of his career like Joe Dante.  Dante seems in constant demand over the last few years as an interview subject and film festival honouree, something all the more impressive when one considers that he is doing this without a recent, celebrated feature to launch himself back into the public eye.  Instead, Dante seems to benefit from making films in the ’80s and ’90s that young people held dear and that have grown with them as they became taste-makers themselves – filmmakers, programmers, critics, and movie fans alike.  Add to that the fact that fans find Dante to be appreciative of their accolades and as much an avid film fan as themselves, and a modern cult following is inevitable.  Of all his work, Dante states that none of his films generate greater and broader goodwill than The ‘Burbs, and it’s something of a surprise to him given the near universal panning the film received at its release.  Vincent Canby called the film “as empty as something can be without creating a vacuum,” but fans have found the film full of memorable lines, in-jokes, and meta-references to memorize and obsess over at screening parties.  Perhaps it’s because The ‘Burbs seems to have always been available on home viewing, either on cassette or DVD, still wringing out cash from audiences who remember Tom Hanks was once a comedic actor, or by its seemingly ubiquitous presence on cable television.  We’ve never been allowed to leave The ‘Burbs and, like many first-run failures turned fan-favourites, the film has found its audience with the passage of time, becoming something of a modern cult classic in its own right.

Dante recounts that the original script, entitled Bay Window, was provided to him as a satirical take on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).  Dante was rather unconvinced and took for his inspiration the notion that every neighbourhood has that one strange house full of weirdos that the rest of the block murmurs about.  (If you can’t pick the house on your block, you know who you are… )  The result was The ‘Burbs, a horror-comedy-satire about suburban living that banded together a group of male busybodies against an odd family who are new to the neighbourhood and keep a little too much to themselves – the Klopeks.  Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) is a stressed out family man with designs on a week long staycation in his backyard.  When his neighbour Walter (Gale Gordon) goes missing, he is swept up in the local paranoia that the Klopeks are responsible, what with the ominous sounds and lights emanating from their house, their late night digging in their backyard, their suspicious handling of their garbage, and their general foreign creepiness.  With his fellow cul-de-sac residents – the abrasive Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun), army vet Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), and teenage flake Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman) – Ray commits himself to revealing the Klopeks as Walter’s murderers, a mission with ultimately explosive results.

The ‘Burbs is a prototypical Joe Dante film in many respects.  Its focus on middle class life upset by the intervention of something unusual or fantastical is a common thread throughout his work.  The film’s plot, tone, and style are typically broader than the Hollywood norm, having an exaggerated or cartoonish quality – consider Art post-electrocution or the crash zoom during Ray and Art’s scream after finding Walter’s femur.  This looseness, even silliness, that roots The ‘Burbs may be partly the result of the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike.  The ‘Burbs was one of only two films in production at Universal at the time and while the film’s writer was on set, the strike precluded him from actually writing anything for the film.  Dante decided to shoot the film in sequence, thereby letting his extraordinary cast find their characters and improvise their way through problematic points in the story, incorporating those changes into the film as they shot later sections.  Reflecting on the film, Dante maintains that many of the film’s funniest lines or sequences were the product of his actors, particularly Bruce Dern.

Dante is full of tales about the film’s production and a Criterion edition of the film should largely focus on delivering this minutiae to The ‘Burbs cult.  Dante has spoken about Tom Hanks’s concerns about how playing a father would effect his Hollywood image and his on set questions if his filmic son really needed to be in the scene, about the makeover given to Dante by Carrie Fisher to rectify his general scruffiness, and Tom Hanks inability to get along with Rick Ducommun, which was “perfect for the movie.”  (Dante lovingly admits that there was “something so obnoxious” about Ducommun.)  He’s discussed in-jokes, like the box of Freakies cereal that Ray and Carol snack from, and the iconic houses of the Universal backlot that he tried to disguise, most notably The Munsters‘ house that serves as Ricky’s home.  He’s recounted the challenges of shooting on the Universal lot, about how the tram loaded with tourists would frequently pull through the set, causing so much noise that they would have stop shooting until the gawkers had their fill of a real live movie set, or how the proximity to the Jaws ride made its sounds and screams audible from the Mayfield Place set.  He’s even spoken about the challenges with the film’s ending, as the studio objected to the film’s ending of Ray being killed by Dr. Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson) once Hanks was cast in the lead role and Big (Penny Marshall, 1988) launched him to the status of Hollywood royalty.  Dante shot multiple endings beyond the theatrical version wherein the Klopeks’ car concealed a trunkful of bones, alternatively stuffing it full of dead cheerleaders and the neighbourhood’s garbagemen, Vic and Joe (Dick Miller and Robert Picardo).

Of all Dante’s anecdotes about The ‘Burbs, the one with the greatest impact on the film’s reception concerns the back story developed between Dante and Hanks to explain Ray’s seemingly unreasonable, over-determined resistance to going out of town for his week vacation.  Between the star and the director, they came to the conclusion that Ray had in fact been fired from his job, but was not yet prepared to reveal his circumstances to his family.  Dante acknowledges that this was more than merely the private background developed by the actor as part of his process, but an element of the narrative that was left on the cutting room floor.  The film’s dream sequence wherein Ray is sacrificed on a man-sized barbeque is purported to have been much longer than the one contained in the film and originally included a portion depicting Ray’s firing.  This unspoken plot point gives Ray a new edge that explains his unusual level of stress at the film’s beginning and motivates his need for control over something (read: anything) that translates into his growing obsession and compulsion over the goings-on next-door.  It’s less of a movie retcon, a conspiracy theory, or a counter-reading than an unusual and hidden tic that lets the film’s cult of fans drill deeper into The ‘Burbs and draw even more out of it.  This tiny, unspoken detail is emblematic of the film – something initially unappreciated but becomes significant in repeat viewings and with the passage of time.  It’s taken a while for both Dante and The ‘Burbs to find their audiences and get the recognition they deserve, but having done so, it’s now time for fans to get the edition of they deserve.

Matt Owen The BurbsThe reappraisal of Dante’s work has already extended to The ‘Burbs hard media presence, as Arrow Films has announced a Blu-ray edition for the UK market with an array of yet to be specified special features.  We would certainly hope for something similar in North America and with Dante’s film making up part of the Universal catalogue, access to The ‘Burbs by the Criterion Collection could be a possibility.  It’s difficult to imagine that any cover treatment would avoid putting Tom Hanks front and centre, but the Collection has established a precedent for maintaining its minimalist cover treatments even in the face of big star power.  With that in mind, we’ll put forward Matt Owen’s cleverly simple poster treatment as a potential cover design.

Credits:  Joe Dante’s frequent and forthright discussions of The ‘Burbs makes an audio commentary an obvious special feature for a Criterion edition.  There is lots of content on the interwebs, but we would recommend Rodrigo Perez’s post at The Playlist as it collects a number of Joe Dante interviews and Q&A sessions on the film, as well as other material also.  With the film’s stellar cast, a collection of interviews reflecting on the now 25-year old film is a must.  (It also helps that nary a bad word gets spoken about Tom Hanks, who seems universally praised as a good guy deserving of all the success that has followed him.)  The opening sequence of The ‘Burbs is frequently cited as a remarkable element to Dante’s film.  There, the Universal globe is zoomed in upon, the Earth’s surface quickly approaches and the American Midwest comes nearer until eventually the camera arrives at the film’s setting, the Mayfield Place cul-de-sac.  This sequence may not seem as notable now, but Dante’s incorporation of the studio logo into the film was an unusual tactic at the time and it serves as a kind of parody of the God’s-eye view.  Dennis Cozzalio provides an overview of the sequence at Jim Emerson’s blog and it would make for an easy special feature on a beloved component of the film.  As noted, the Universal back lot set that appears in The ‘Burbs contains a number of famous TV and movie homes, and so a featurette with Dante employing his encyclopedic knowledge of classic television to discuss the set and how he utilized it would be rewarding.  Dante has also spoken fondly of composer Jerry Goldsmith, although he has commented that Goldsmith was never able to quite capture the Spaghetti Western style of music that is often associated with Ray, requiring him to eventually purchase the use of a Morricone score to resolve the dilemma.  Dante could discuss the film’s score, as well as its evolution as Dante’s frequently used Bernard Herrmann for temp tracks (connecting back to Hitchcock and Rear Window again) and used Morricone at points here.  Brother Theodore, who plays Uncle Reuben Klopek, was a New York monologist and theatre personality, an East Coast phenomenon unto himself who described his performances as stand-up tragedy.  A retrospective on his career would be a highly enjoyable extra.  Those looking for more of Brother Theodore should seek out his appearances on Late Night with David Letterman (many of which are available on YouTube) or Jeff Sumerel’s portrait of the man, To My Great Chagrin (2008).  Flavorwire recently included Rick Ducommun’s Piece of Mind as one of its 50 funniest stand-up specials of all time, and so we thought it would be good to show Ducommun in a different light.  Dante maintains that much of the extra footage for The ‘Burbs has been lost by the studio, including the alternate endings and the full dream sequences, but we’ve included that content on the fanciful hope that it might just be hiding in some Universal archive waiting to be rediscovered.  Finally, we’ve tapped director Ti West for a booklet essay based on his review of the film for Dante’s Trailers From Hell webseries.

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3 thoughts on “The ‘Burbs (Joe Dante, 1989)

  1. Mick Mize October 1, 2015 / 10:17 pm

    This is a fantastic overview of the film, and a great reminder of why I love this movie so much. Thanks for a great, compelling argument for this film. 🙂

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