The ‘Burbs feels like a film that’s still waiting to have its great nostalgia moment, particularly when compared to fellow 1980s Joe Dante films like The Howling and Gremlins.
Those two movies, and Gremlins in particular, loom larger in the public imagination, feature flashier genre elements, and fit a little more handily into certain pop culture niches, so it makes sense that they’re still held in higher regard. But Dante’s gifts are still on full display in the 1989 Tom Hanks-starring dark comedy, and if you still haven’t seen it, or haven’t revisited it in years, you should take advantage of The ‘Burbs’ arrival on Peacock to change that.
Like both The Howling and Gremlins, The ‘Burbs is another entry in Dante’s line of films that pierce the veil of American life in the 1980s to reveal something darker lurking beneath the veneer. While The Howling takes on self help crazes and meditation retreats, and Gremlins pokes fun at 1950s nostalgia and ’80s gadgetry, The ‘Burbs turns its lens on the title setting, in particular one affluent cul-de-sac street in the Midwest. The film’s opening image is a zoom-in from the entire globe onto a single street right in the heart of America, as if Dante is letting us know right away: "This is what’s at the heart of us."
What follows, guided by Dana Olsen’s clever script, is the story of three nosy neighbors who get in over their heads when they decide that the new family on the block is just a little too weird and, very likely, up to no good. When we meet Ray (Tom Hanks), seemingly the most reasonable of these three neighbors, he’s creeping out of his house in his bathrobe in the middle of the night to investigate strange sounds coming from the house next door, a spooky old place with a dirt yard and all sorts of deliberately creepy accents. Just as much of Gremlins looks like a Frank Capra movie transplanted into the 1980s, The ‘Burbs looks like a contemporary film with an Addams Family house dropped down in the center of it, a delibrately cartoonish choice that the film eventually milks for all it’s worth.
With a weeklong staycation booked at home, and egged on by neighbors Art (Rick Ducommun) and Mark (Bruce Dern), Ray spends his days trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on with the house next door, even as his wife (a wonderfully understated Carrie Fisher) is convinced he’s just climbing the walls because he refuses to do anything better with his time. This tension creates the central dramatic question of The ‘Burbs: Are the neighbors really evil murders who are burying bodies in the backyard and conducting experiments in the basement, or are Ray and his pals just so consumed by nosiness and boredom that they can’t tell the difference between evidence and coincidence?
Dante plays with this question for almost the entire runtime of the film, layering in creepy horror imagery while never losing sight of the suburban satire inherent to Olsen’s writing. The script cleverly positions Ray as the man between two extremes, with Art’s urban legend-laden nosiness on one side and Mark’s militaristic sense of order and justice on the other. Hanks, a classic American everyman for decades now, gets to stand in the middle, wrestling with his own conscience over whether he should mind his own business or press for revelations about the house next door. Along the way, the story touches on everything from America’s obsession with true crime to the rising surveillance state of the 1980s to, through teenager neighbor Ricky (Corey Feldman), the way we’re conditioned to view the people around us as entertainment through both gossip and flat-out invasions of privacy. It’s a potent blend, even if it does get a bit messy around the edges along the way.
What really makes The ‘Burbs shine, though, is the sense that everyone working on the film is game for its heady brew of comedy of horror. Though it never goes quite as far as Gremlins, there’s a black-hearted glee oozing from the film that makes it almost as fun, as sense that Dante is ready to skewer every aspect of suburban life on his way to the plot’s final revelation. A placard of house numbers flips so it says "666." A dog is given a dramatic push-in close-up. A teenage house party is, for once, the most subdued thing about the whole neighborhood. It’s all there, and it’s all playfully laid out on carefully manicured lawns, an impish delight about how minding your own business is simultaneous overrated and always the best policy.
So, if it’s been years since you’ve seen The ‘Burbs, or if you’re looking to dive in for the first time, check out Joe Dante’s other comedy-horror classic.
The ‘Burbs is now streaming on Peacock.