Director Joe Dante first made his name as a director of horror served with a twist of humour with Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981) before embracing comedy more directly on two episodes of Leslie Nielsen’s Police Squad (1982) then splicing the two together in what became his breakout feature Gremlins (1984), grossing $153 million worldwide. Science fiction beckoned next with Explorers (1985) and Innerspace (1987), but it was in 1989 that Dante returned to the comedy/horror genre and the smalltown feel of his greatest hit as he paid a visit to The ‘Burbs.
Every neighbourhood has a house that’s creepy, that doesn‘t quite fit in. If your neighbourhood doesn’t have one, the chances are that it’s you the neighbours are talking about, but for the residents of Mayfield Place in the quiet suburb of Hinkley Hills, it’s the new residents of number 669, the Klopeks, who have so far remained unseen by their neighbours.
Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) of number 671 will admit to curiosity, but it is the wild imagination of Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) of 673 who enlists both Ray and Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) of 670 into his obsession with the unobserved Klopeks, breeding fantasies about what might be occurring behind the closed doors of the dilapidated residence which is shot to recall the Marsden house of director Tobe Hooper’s television adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot (1979).
The Jerry Goldsmith score begins with a haunted organ over the visuals of the dead house at the end of the cul-de-sac, strange lights and a sinister banging emanating from the basement as leaves are blown by the cold night wind before switching to the playful contrast of the morning after as the paperboy makes his morning round the pleasant neighbourhood, the nightmare ludicrous in the sunshine, but soon even Ray’s son Dave is recounting stories he’s overheard: “There’s three of them. They only come out at night. Ricky Butler says they’re nocturnal feeders.”
Spurred by unfounded suspicions that the Klopeks have killed Walter Selznick (Gale Gordon) of 667, the menfolk begin spying on number 669, and while Ray’s wife Carol (Carrie Fisher), aware that he is in a rut, tries her best to be cautiously supportive of her husband‘s new interest at first (“So let me get this straight. The Klopeks are offering up Walter as a sort of human sacrifice to Beelzebub, is that it?”), she and Mark’s wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal) are forced to stage an intervention and take the step that their husbands have been so far avoiding: actually going round to meet their new neighbours, Hans, Uncle Reuben and Doctor Werner Klopek.
With almost an hour elapsed before the characters enter the Klopek house, the film flags once the Klopek’s have been introduced, dissipating the menace and mystery that have been created, substituting instead slapstick, and neither Carol nor Bonnie are well served, tolerating rather than participating throughout. Dante perhaps exaggerates when he comments that the film received “The worst reviews since World War 2,” but recalls that through his whole career there have been many who are confounded by the tone of his films. “Is it a horror, is it a comedy? Why can’t it be both?”
Now released on Blu-ray by Arrow after a major restoration project approved by Dante himself, while The ‘Burbs made a respectable $49 million on its original release, certainly a profit on the $18 million budget and more successful than either Explorers or Innerspace, it failed to reach the wide audience of Gremlins, even boosted by the presence of Hanks who had broken as a major star the previous summer with Big even as The ‘Burbs was filming.
Originally intended as a Hitchcock parody entitled Bay Window (Ray seeing the Klopek’s apparently burying bodies in the back garden is taken directly from 1964’s Rear Window; the dolly zoom isolating each character on their first sighting of Hans Klopek is a Hitchcock technique originating in 1958’s Vertigo) it is in many ways an expanded version of the classic Twilight Zone episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (1960), where suspicion and fear turn good neighbours upon each other.
Dante had already worked on the cartoon themed segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) entitled It’s A Good Life and would return to cartoons with Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), though the cartoon legacy of the suburban horror setup of the film is most obvious in The Simpsons’ ongoing Treehouse of Horror sequence.
Reflecting Dante’s own body of work, Rick’s story about the ice cream soda vendor at the mall who killed his family with an ice pick and stored the remains in the freezer reminds of Phoebe Cates’ recollection of finding her father’s body in the chimney at Christmas, the horror beneath the façade of joy, the permeating smell of decomposition which reveals the ugly truth, though in a more mainstream way than David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).
Many other influences are apparent even from the opening scene where the camera zooms into Universal’s spinning globe logo right down to street level, a transition inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 short film Powers of Ten, one of the first times the logo had been incorporated into the body of a film in such a fashion, and while Ray watches television in an attempt to unwind he is assailed by a montage of famous horror films, Race with the Devil (director Jack Starrett, 1975), The Exorcist (director William Friedkin, 1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (director Tobe Hooper, 1974).
Elsewhere, there are references to The Sentinel (director Michael Winner, 1977) and Ray is seen reading a book on demonology written by one Julian Karswell, the ill-fated occultist of M. R. James’ Casting the Runes, filmed as Night of the Demon (director Jacques Tourneur, 1957), the illustrations of the book previously having featured in a similar tome held by Dick Miller’s specialist bookshop in The Howling.
The dream sequence is an undeniable homage to the many similar sequences which Dante’s mentor Roger Corman used to pad out the often slight works of Edgar Allen Poe which were the inspiration for his series of adaptations of starring Vincent Price which brought him worldwide recognition, a connection which is strengthened in the extended workprint version of the nightmare included on the Blu-ray where the soundtrack is by frequent Corman collaborator Les Baxter, though the particular piece is actually sourced from director Daniel Haller’s adaptation of H P Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror (1970).
This alternate version also includes a previously unreleased appearance by Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ Kevin McCarthy, a friend of Dante’s who appeared in five of his films beyond this impromptu cameo, and he is not the only associate of Dante’s in on the fun; the workprint also marginally extends the roles of Robert Picardo and Dick Miller’s garbage collectors.
A genuine star who will forever be associated with her soon to be reprised role of Princess Leia Organa, Carrie Fisher had appeared in a segment of the anthology film Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) directed by Dante and The ’Burbs would also reunite her with Tom Hanks with whom he had worked on The Man with One Red Shoe (1985).
Star of The Goonies (1985) and The Lost Boys (1987), Corey Feldman had worked up from ensemble pictures to a leading man of teen comedy, and while the supporting role of Ricky Butler was a step back to an ensemble it allowed him to reunite with Dante with whom he had worked on Gremlins and also to work with rising star Tom Hanks; “It was okay to take a back seat.” Feldman also recalls that he was recovering from personal problems at that time, something he had in common with Fisher, saying “She and Joe made a concerted effort to be positive role models.”
Wendy Schaal who played Bonnie Rumsfield had worked with Dante before on Innerspace and would again on Small Soldiers (1998), but despite her long career in television including Knight Rider, The A Team, Airwolf, Star Trek Voyager and The X-Files is now best known for her voice work as Francine Smith on American Dad.
With roles in Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967), Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972) right through to his multiple nominations for his role in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013), Bruce Dern is a genuine legend of cinema, and though it was his first time working with Dante they have since reunited on Small Soldiers and the director’s most recent return to the suburbs in The Hole (2009); of her onscreen husband, Schaal says “We had a great time.”
Another familiar performer though not as easily placed is Rance Howard’s police detective in the final scene, who as well as Dante’s Innerspace and Small Soldiers has made fifteen appearances in the films of his elder son Ron Howard including Splash (1984), Apollo 13 (1995), both of which also starred Tom Hanks, Cocoon (1985) and several episodes of Gentle Ben in which he appeared with his younger son Clint Howard, though he also played a key role on Babylon 5 as John Sheridan’s father.
Production design James Spencer had met Dante when he worked as art director on George Miller’s closing segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, and subsequently worked with Dante on Gremlins and Innerspace before The ’Burbs and has worked with him again on Gremlins 2: The New Batch before moving to television where he has worked on Lost and Last Resort.
With John Hora, Dante’s director of photography on The Howling and Gremlins unavailable, Robert Stevens was given the job, Dante having been principally aware of his work on The Naked Gun (1988) though Stevens had also lensed two episodes of the Max Headroom television series and has worked with John Waters several times, on Serial Mom (1994), Pecker (1998) and Cecil B DeMented (2000).
Working on the Universal backlot was “comforting but odd,” according to Dante, a set which had previously served as The Munsters’ Mockingbird Lane with Feldman’s Ricky Butler occupying the same property which was once occupied by Fred Gwynne and Yvonne De Carlo as Herman and Lily, the cul-de-sac more recently having served as Wisteria Lane, home to the Desperate Housewives, though filming was repeatedly interrupted by the Universal Studios Tour (Dante resignedly stating “The tour is much more important than any single movie”), and located above the Jaws attraction the crew could frequently hear distant cries for help during takes.
With production commencing before the script had been finalised, the planned ambiguous conclusion was radically altered and instead a finale which more directly addressed the suspicious activities of the Klopeks throughout the film was created and the unresolved threat to Ray removed. Courtney Gains, starstruck in the company he kept while playing Hans Klopek though he had also starred as Malachai in Children of the Corn and has been seen more recently in Southland and Bones comments “They did what they thought best to sell the film. Horror now has gone mainstream, but that wasn’t the case then,” opining that if produced now Dante would have had more leeway to craft a downbeat ending.
The result was that many scenes were revised or reshot, included here in a separate feature which is a largely superfluous curiosity with the exception of a two line exchange between Ray and Carol from the final moments of the film where she reveals to him she has known all along that he is not on vacation, that he has in fact lost his job; while the original “alternate ending” has previously been available on imported DVD, that key dialogue was absent.
Knowing he is recently unemployed helps understand Ray, nervous, out of place, seeking reassurance, looking for something to keep him busy, and his relationahip with Carol, a woman who knows him without being told and gives him the space to come to terms with his change of circumstance on his own terms. With Hanks’ career built on representing the “everyman” demographic of the American audience, it is telling that the studio should have resisted an honest admission of the economic problems the nation was facing even though it may have helped the film connect more firmly, but in its absence Ray’s final outburst to his neighbours which remains relevant in an age of the threat of domestic terror and the manipulated climate of fear it breeds which turns everyone into monsters.
“They didn’t do anything to us. All right, so they’re different, so they keep to themselves. Can you blame them? They live next door to people who break into their house and burn it down while they’re gone for the day.”