The 'Burbs

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A newcomer to a surburban neighbourhood has a hard time convincing his family and the rest of the locals that his suspicions about sinister goings on next door are anything more than paranoia.


Set in Hinckley Hills, America, The Burbs (the title, one of many film in-jokes, being a reference to The Birds) has a suburban hero Ray Peterson taking a relaxing vacation at home. This is disturbed when his neighbours (Dern, Ducommun) encourage Ray in his fantasies about the Klopeks, a seldom-seen family of newcomers whose bizarre habits include digging in the garden and operating unidentifiable but noisy machinery after midnight during thunderstorms.

      Various sinister incidents nudge Ray towards a confrontation with the Charles Addams-style Klopeks. In its twisted comic-horrific approach to suburbia, the film goes along with the trend (Parents, Meet The Applegates, White Of The Eyes, The Stepfather, Life On The Edge) to go against the nostalgic, happy family vision of contemporary America by finding madness and monstrosity in the heart of the ideal home. Like most of these movies, it is not just an interesting attempt at subverting the normality-centred likes of Parenthood or Look Who's Talking, but a wickedly inventive comedy, crammed full of sly gags and bizarre characterisations. The funniest scene in the film is a parody of Once Upon A Time In The West with composer Jerry Goldsmith spoofing Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack as the camera homes in on the squinting eyes of all the residents of the close, including a distressed poodle.

      For the most part, The 'Burbs follow director Dante's Explorers in its unusual (and unpopular) narrative strategy—presenting a situation filled with threat and mystery which turns out to be entirely innocent, thus forcing the audience to reassess its attitudes to the “normal” point-of-view. The key speech, marvellously delivered by Hanks at the climax of another apparently effortless but actually marvellous performance, has Ray turning on his jovially paranoid neighbours as the Klopek house burns with “Don't you see, we're the ones who are acting suspiciously!”

Shot on the same lot as the archetypal retro sitcom Still The Beaver with a cameo from Lucille Ball's perennial boss Gale Gordon to underline the connection, The 'Burbs deliberately evokes that artificial world in which nobody seems to go out to work because only one major set exists. It fumbles at the last moment and can't quite make the final break with traditional menace-dominated storylines in the way Explorers does, but this is still mainly a pleasantly nasty delight that was strangely overlooked in the cinema.

One of Tom Hanks' overlooked performances because this bizarre thriller-comedy ends so strangely but there's much to like here.