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 feel they 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. This is mostly due to insecurities or hurt feelings, though sometimes it can happen due 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?
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 pick axe.
Not the most conventional occurrence, but stranger things happen every day, and in a civilised society we have learned to take each suspicion with a hefty pinch of salt, looking for the most rational explanation and usually settling for it — if not for the sake of logic, then for our own peace of mind. Of course, there is a line, a nagging suspicion that tells you that you and your family are not safe, that you and your neighbours must band together to confront this alien disturbance, and 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 extreme end of quirky, but such opinions are subjective, and for an outsider the habits and idiosyncrasies of modern America may be just as vulgar and disturbing. Like many more all over the world, this is no ordinary neighbourhood, and at the same time it is very typical because people, even at their most outwardly conformist, 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?
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. This is a daytime soap opera come to life, though soap operas are rarely as macabre as The Burbs.
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 and idiosyncratic. Art is a compulsive eater who devours meat at every turn, a neurotic byproduct of irrational Cold War tensions 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 — and I mean that quite literally.
Director Joe Dante was no stranger to offbeat cinema during the 1980s; in fact, he was a veritable master at producing it. His macabre Christmas monster movie Gremlins was so against the festive grain that it contributed to the founding of the PG-13 rating, while his 1990 sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch completely flipped the script to give us the kind of comedy that leapt around every frame like a gang of insane toddlers pepped-up on candyfloss. 1987‘s hyperactive, Spielbergian sci-fi comedy Innerspace was equally unconventional, and then there’s 1978‘s Roger Corman produced ode to B-movie madness Piranha. Put succinctly, Dante was a unique talent with a seemingly endless catalogue of oddball concepts, and in spite of some grossly irregular mainstream endeavours he rarely missed the mark.
Ricky Butler: God I love this street.
The Burbs is an offbeat comedy with a hint of The Twilight Zone — the movie version of which Dante was directly involved with — if that show were ever to cross paths with peculiar comedies such as Dragnet, a zany, buddy cop parody 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 theatres to mixed reviews. 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 would soon come to an end. After all, Hanks was strictly a comedy actor back then; a fantastic presence but something of a one-trick pony, even after his incredible performance as a kid trapped in an adult’s body in Penny Marshall’s Big, a movie that would land Hanks his first Oscar nomination.
It wasn’t all roses. In fact, people tend to forget that it was pretty rough there for a while, a run of three commercial flops in Joe Versus the Volcano, dire Tom Wolf adaptation The Bonfire of the Vanities and Richard Donner’s ill-judged Radio Flyer directly following The Burbs, which itself came in for heavy criticism. By the early ’90s the actor’s stock was low, so much that Nintendo declined to cast an eager Tom in video game abomination Super Mario Brothers: The Movie, though in hindsight that was a Big Bullet Bill best dodged. The fact that Hanks 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. So creatively and commercially fruitful was Hanks following his brief barren spell that he would become one of only two actors to win Best Actor gongs two years consecutively for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994), respectively.
Carrie Fisher also stars in something of a subdued role (at least relatively), acting as the movie’s subtle mediator by 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. Yes, The Burbs has its flaws. It can feel bloated as times and the ending feels somewhat tacked-on and at odds with the overall tone of the movie. You could argue that this final revelation robs The Burbs of its allegorical potential, the kind that Edward Scissorhands would explore so beautifully the following year. Still, the material is funny, often side-splitting, though its true value lies with its cast’s off-the-wall relatability and the kind of offbeat tone that was bound to prove divisive among mainstream audiences looking for something a little more traditional.
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. What exactly is it about Tom Hanks that is so enduring? Sure, he would put in some phenomenal shifts in some truly great movies, but I don’t remember him for his characters as much as I do with someone like, say, Harrison Ford. There are exceptions — most notably Forrest Gump for obvious reasons — but I have always viewed him more as a personality. I watch Indiana Jones for Indy, Star Wars for Han Solo, Blade Runner for Rick Deckard, but when I go to see a Tom Hanks movie i go to see Tom Hanks.
One can only pretend to understand how he does it.