Suburban Monsters: The Double Standards of Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs

The Burbs poster

VHS Revival revisits Joe Dante’s oddball suburban comedy.

They say familiarity breeds contempt, but in my experience the opposite is true.

In reality people tend to fear the unfamiliar, and the more distant a person is the more they have to hide, at least in the minds of those who have been ignored. This is never truer than when a somewhat reclusive neighbour moves into an established community. Before long, suspicions begin to breed and spread, and every little detail becomes a reason for condemnation. In the end, this is mostly about insecurities or hurt feelings, while sometimes it is down to unfortunate coincidences or even plain meanness. Other times, people’s suspicions grow valid, but how can one distinguish between fear and paranoia, between self-preservation and persecution?

The Burbs spying

For Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) and his suburban stronghold, those lines seem just a little less blurred. Not only are their new neighbours nocturnal, they spend their nights frantically digging holes in the garden or making ungodly noises in the basement as fires roar in the dead of night. When they think the rest of the neighbourhood are tucked away behind closed doors, a red-headed man reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein’s Igor emerges from the garage in the family’s station wagon, travelling the length of the driveway before jamming a body-sized bag into a trash can and pummelling it with a pickaxe.

All of this could probably be accounted for. The fact of the matter is, there could be anything in that bag. But when your dog digs up a human clavicle bone following the disappearance of an elderly neighbour, you know it’s time to take your suspicions seriously.

Ray Peterson – 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-I’ve never seen that.

What the movie’s clan of suburbanites fail to ask is: what do their neighbours think of them? They may be reclusive and at the the extreme end of quirky, but opinions are subjective, and for an outsider the habits and idiosyncrasies of modern America may be just as vulgar and disturbing. 

Theirs is no ordinary neigbourhood, and at the same time it is very typical because people, even at their most outwardly conforming, are strange and delusional by their very nature, viewing the world and those who fill it with perceptions that exist only in their minds. After all, what is ‘strange’ other than a group of people getting together to decide as much?

The Burbs hose

In reality, any one of the movie’s residents could be described as being just a little peculiar. Although, as with Tim Burton‘s Edward Scissorhands, theirs has a store-bought glow at odds with the Gothic darkness of their dilapidated newbies. Resident gun nut, Mr Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), stalks the rooftops of his house with binoculars as his ditsy wife tends to the garden in her skimpies. Paying close attention to his sultry neighbour and anything else that happens to land on his doorstep is resident stoner Ricky (Corey Feldmen), a bodacious flake who sits on his porch consuming the absurd melodrama as though his street was a giant, plasma TV.

Perhaps more acceptable as citizens of modern America are Ray and his best friend, Art (Rick Ducommun), but that doesn’t make them any less strange. Art is a compulsive eater who devours meat at every turn, a neurotic byproduct of a post-Cold War society who believes everything the television tells him, and who is willing to take extreme measures to prove his suspicions right. 

Ray is a gullible everyman living under the watchful eye of his long-suffering wife, Carol (Carrie Fisher). Initially, he is unwilling to accept that his neighbours might actually be murderers, but even he is easily swayed, and by the time the movie reaches its climax he is an unshakeable madman beset on digging up the truth.

The Burbs cast

The Burbs is an offbeat comedy with a hint of The Twilight Zone, if that show were ever to cross paths with peculiar comedies such as Dragnet, a movie which also starred Tom Hanks. Back in 1989, Hanks was in the early stages of a career that would span four decades and counting, but he had already starred in an incredible eleven movies before The Burbs opened in cinemas. Having headlined cult classics such as Splash, Bachelor Party, The Money Pit, and Big, you could have been forgiven for thinking his time in the spotlight was about to come to an end. The fact that he would go on to star in another 44 movies, becoming a romcom icon, Pixar trendsetter and Spielberg go-to-guy in the process, is credit to both his adaptability and inexhaustible appeal.

Ricky Butler – God I love this street.

Carrie Fisher acts as the movie’s subtle mediator, juggling the jumble of zany, larger-than-life characters as one revelation pogo-jumps to the next, resulting in a late twist that is perhaps unnecessary. You could argue that this final revelation robs the movie of its allegorical potential, the kind that Edward Scissorhands would explore so beautifully the following year. Still, the material is funny, often side-splitting, although its true value lies with its cast’s off-the-wall relatability.

The Burbs chainsaw

As for Tom Hanks, his is a relatively muted role when compared to those of his co-stars, but the now veteran actor refuses to be outshone, and in some ways shines brightest, not by being bigger or louder or more prominent, but simply by being Tom.

One can only pretend to understand how he does it.

Cedric Smarts

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2 responses to “Suburban Monsters: The Double Standards of Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs

  1. Too Funny I just re-watched this the other day! Still hilarious. And yes Tom grounds the show and steals the star. Carrie had to be the voice of reason, they needed one person to hold that role, and it’d have to be another that can hold their own or they’d just meld into the background – which she certainly did not, at least not in my eyes.
    Excellent post. 🙂


    • Hi, Theresa. Thanks for reading.

      Tom is one of those actors who oozes likeability, and he’s so adaptable. I never place him in the category of best of the best, but you can’t deny his appeal. He’s also a fine actor.

      In regards to Carrie, I’m going to re-evaluate my comments and agree with you. She was great in that mediative role. I wrote the article a while ago and reading through it I wondered why I had viewed her part so negatively. Hindsight is a great educator. And yourself of course. 😀


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