Underrated: Joe Dante’s “The ‘Burbs”

burbs“I want to kill everyone. Satan is good. Satan is our pal.”

Like so many others, I first saw The ‘Burbs, Joe Dante’s brilliant comedic ode to suburban rut and paranoia on cable when I was a kid. To say the movie has stuck to me like some lost, drunken night’s tattoo is to understate its impact. It’s a film I have gone back to time and time again over the last 25 years, be it via a worn and fuzzy VHS copy recorded off of HBO when I was in grade school, or the DVD copy I scored years later. I never grow tired of it. The story, the scenes, the dialog are so engrained within my psyche, that quoting lines from the thing has become a kind of litmus test as to whether or not we can be friends (see also The Monster Squad).

Over the years, I have found that I’m not the only one. It’s almost like fans of this movie are part of an underground, exclusive club, a congress of likeminded individuals who just get it. We exchange knowing glances and/or nods when the film is referenced like it’s some sort of secret code or handshake.

We are the Klopeks.

If you have never seen the film before, first off, shame on you, and second here’s the rundown. Tom Hanks plays Ray Peterson, an overstressed suburbanite who, along with two of his neighbors, a doofus (Rick Ducommun) and a paramilitary nut (the ever unhinged Bruce Dern), becomes convinced that the new family on the street is actually a ritualistic cult of murderers. The three neighbors then make several attempts to unearth evidence to support their wild suspicions…and shenanigans ensue.

Along with the three leads, rounding out the cast are Carrie Fisher, Wendy Schaal, Henry Gibson, and Corey Feldman in what I dare say is one of the best comedies of the 1980’s. Hanks in particular is in top form here. He’s just the right mix of quirky humor, straight man posture, and gradually unraveling unease, a classic example of everything we love about Tom Hanks. (This is a few years before those two Oscars and all that dramatic weight loss/gain stuff essentially ruined him for me.) Seated next to Ducommon’s obnoxious Art and Dern’s spastic and manic Rumsfield, Hanks’ performance grounds the film into a sort of semblance of suburban reality as Dante skillfully dissects and points fun at the decorative shrubs and picket fences therein. Joe Dante’s direction*, along with Dana Olsen’s script, flows effortlessly for 100 minutes, never growing stale or dialing back on the ridiculousness of the characters’ situations or delusions, a lighter fare of black comedy. The film is never a direct indictment of suburban decay, or xenophobia, or the kind fear mongering that runs rampant in our society. Rather, it skims the surface, putting a mirror to those negative attributes of humanity, satirizing, but retaining its comic wackiness to keep the atmosphere lighter. The comedy is dark…but it’s not that dark. This is a family friendly Tom Hanks vehicle after all.

burbs2The rest of the cast brings their “A-game” to the film as well. And their chemistry on screen just shines in every scene. Each actor and actress plays off of each other like a group of old friends who have known each other for forever. More than anything else, that chemistry is probably what makes this movie pop for so many people.

Well, that and the one-liners.

“About a nine on the tension scale there Rube.”

The weird thing about quoting dialog from The ‘Burbs is that out of context, the lines really aren’t that funny or significant. There are no catch phrases or pop cultural edifices for the masses to absorb and devour. Generally, one quotes The ‘Burbs solely to quote The ‘Burbs, a kind of throwing up a flag to see where all the other fans are at. That recognition though, in and of itself, can be consequential, as for most of us, our pop culture likes and preferences are the things that connect us with other people out there, even if it’s just on a surface level at first. Our art, no matter how consumable, has the potential to create community.

The ‘Burbs does this in spades. It’s just another reason to love it. You should give this underrated comic gem a chance. The fact that it is so under appreciated is one of the things that make it special. So, watch the movie. Join the cult. Bury the bodies in the backyard.

“Nobody knocks off an old man in my neighborhood and gets away with it.”

*I easily could have concocted a whole “Underrated” essay for director Joe Dante’s entire career. He never gets the credit he deserves. Piranha, both Gremlins movies, The Howling…I mean, come on man.


You should easily be able to find this fine film on Amazon or any streaming service. Get to it.


Thomas H Williams

Thomas H Williams

From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas H. Williams spends most of his time with his wife, his two sons, and his increasingly neurotic dog. He listens to a lot of music, drinks a lot of excellent beers, and gets out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit heavenisanincubator.blogspot.com.

2 Responses to Underrated: Joe Dante’s “The ‘Burbs”
  1. Shawn C Baker

    Shawn C Baker Reply

    You two moved into being two of my favorite people in all of history rather quickly over the past year or so, but this makes you literal GODS in my book. The reason I dislike SO very many comedies is that NOTHING lives up to this. The reason I didn’t take Hanks seriously for years as his career led him into more dramatic – and admittedly accomplished – territory? THIS. I quote this daily. I think about this hourly. I’d gladly sacrifice ALL original Star Wars movies to keep Carrie Fisher here. This is the defining of funny to me since the day I brought it home from the video store – so long ago now I remember wishing I could dress and act like Corey.

    “Klopek? Is that Slavic?”

  2. Chester Whelks Reply

    Yes, yes, and a million times “YES!” about everything…

    “It came with the frame.”

    “Hey Pinnochio, where’re you goin’?!”

    “is this your vee-hickle Mr Klopp-ek?”

    Not to mention that Studio-bastardised but still profound and mesmeric movie ‘Explorers’ by Dante, and his X Files precursor, ‘Twin Peaks Jr’ = ‘Eerie Indiana.’

    Just ‘yes’.

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