In the 1980s, Joe Dante was unparalleled in blending comedy and horror in order to pick apart American society. The best Joe Dante films spotted an All-American behavior and promptly skewered it through reverence (or revered it through skewering). His movies in the 80s were frequently set in a small town or suburb in middle America where people wanted time to stand still and maintain their rules of society, until an outside malevolence threatened their very existence.
Dante closed out the 80s with The ‘Burbs, a zany horror movie that skewered suburban morality by focusing on paranoid masculinity and its immature expressions. Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) taking a week-long vacation to lounge around his house and neighborhood. He gets up at the crack of dawn to watch one neighbor’s dog crap on another neighbor’s lawn, fueling yet another early morning fight to gawk at outside the front window. Ray’s new neighbors have recently moved into the creepy, run down, Addams-esque eyesore next door. Because the new neighbors aren’t keen on maintaining their yard or house, and are never seen outside, the whole neighborhood targets the outsiders with the full brunt of their paranoid suspicions.
The generally bored men engage in paranoid behaviors including sleuthing, spying, breaking and entering, and massive levels of destruction. Their fear of the other, as well as random bones and a missing neighbor, causes the guys to generate fever dreams of these foreign neighbors who are intent on killing and cannibalism. One might think that Dante is making a mere ode to sitcom life, but his cynicism shines loud and clear, voiced by the neighborhood teenager Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman) who finds the whole situation as amusing as it is pathetic. Ricky invites his girlfriend to watch the neighbors snoop, and then throws a viewing party when the big finale kicks into gear.
Ricky Butler is the audience surrogate, simultaneously encouraging the neighborhood behavior while keeping a removed distance from the spectacle. He cheers on explosions, fuels paranoia, and generally gets a kick out of the asshole behavior he witnesses. His sarcastic removal from the proceedings – except as a bizarre form of Statler & Waldorf, a Greek Chorus, and a Peanut Gallery – has the same remove as an audience going to a movie to watch a spectacle unfold. By staying aloof of the proceedings, Ricky is also removed from the echo chamber that gathers around the cul de sac.
It could be easy to say that Dante was a prescient filmmaker, anticipating the form of modern warfare that would take over American culture. The ‘Burbs is filled with American imagery and sonic cues, sometimes distorted and ruined to make the point of a demented consciousness. Bruce Dern’s Lt. Mark Rumsfield is chock full of military gear and guns, using high powered binoculars and rifles to spy on everybody. One could say that Dante’s microcosm of American society almost predicted the Gulf War (which started the year after, in 1990), and that the whole film is about our passive-aggressive military subconscious. Maybe it’s a critique of that mentality, but…
The final seven minutes of The ‘Burbs are emotionally fulfilling to a suburban audience, but throw the cultural critique into an odd romanticized relief. Joe Dante, as always, tries to have his cake and eat it too, as he includes, essentially, two satisfying endings back to back. The first ending gives a solid conclusion to the critique that everybody is a paranoid moron, but the second ending gives a satisfactory ending stating that the paranoia was probably justified. Whatever messages you want to take from The ‘Burbs, Dante allows the audience to have them all.
The ‘Burbs is streaming on Netflix