The ‘Burbs

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Few American comedies in the second half of the twentieth century are as enjoyable as they are witty. Joe Dante’s classic satirical horror spoof The ‘Brubs (1989) is one of the wittiest and most enjoyable films of the eighties. The ‘Burbs may not rank as highly as The Second Civil War (1997), Matinee (1993) and Small Soldiers (1998), but it’s gone on to become a cult classic nonetheless. There’s a manic quality to the mayhem and all of the gags in The ‘Burbs that suggests Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) whilst still being grounded in a nuanced program of satirical gestures.

It’s worth noting that The ‘Brubs came out the same year as Bob Balaban’s film Parents (1989) which also deals with the ugly side of white suburban America. Both pictures are clearly a politically liberal reactions to the conservatism of Reagan and Bush that exist in worlds that are wholly insular. The difference between the two films is that where Parents is predominantly a horror film with some comedic elements, The ‘Burbs is a straight comedy that employs horror movie signifiers.

Beneath the surface, The ‘Burbs is Explorers (1985) redux. All Joe Dante and his regular screenwriter Dana Olsen have done is to simply make the adventurous boys of Explorers grown men who worry about what their wives will say rather than their mothers. Ray (Tom Hanks), Art (Rick Ducommun) and Mark (Bruce Dern) behave like overgrown kids and get into all of the trouble of an Our Gang comedy. Their child-like responses to an ingrained, racist, and highly prejudiced paranoia is the point of The ‘Burbs. It’s a film where any deviation from the norms of white middle class suburbia results in total chaos.

This links The ‘Burbs to Gremlins (1984) as well. Both films see a quiet hamlet turned into a battle ground with a reluctant hero at its center. However Ray is far more immature and self-destructive than his counterpart Billy in Gremlins. Unlike Billy, Ray is actually an adult with adult problems like marriage, children, work, etc. so his willingness to indulge in self-destructive behavior under the guise of solving a murder becomes a statement about the moral and emotional ennui of the demographic that Ray himself represents. With regards to characterization Ray is actually much more akin to Jack Putter (Martin Short) in Innerspace (1987) than Billy of Gremlins.

The Vietnam veteran Mark, on the other hand, suggests the fathers (played by Phil Hartman and Kevin Dunn) in Small Soldiers. In many ways Mark is one of the darkest aspects of The ‘Burbs. His character is motivated as much by psychological trauma as he is his commitment to the status quo. Mark is the macho man of the group, the soldier, the one capable of the most violence and the most bizarre flights of fancy.

If Ray is the “everyman” and Mark the “macho man”, then Art is the “ugly”. Like the Eli Wallach character in The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (1966) Art represents all of the most unlikable parts of the unbridled machismo. He is the one who poisons the weak minds of his co-conspirators. He is the one who pushes them on by undermining their own masculine personas with schoolyard taunts.

Joe Dante takes these archetypes and injects them into the horror comedy mode of the sixties, exemplified by films like The Ghost And Mr. Chicken (1966) or Ghost Of Dragstrip Hollow (1959). In this retro genre complex these figures act out their drama, poking holes in the fabric of our society and subverting our collective assumptions about our culture. As a rag-tag trio of would-be heroes Ray, Mark and Art pull back the curtain on masculinity and reveal it to be as toxic to men as those around them. All of this is tucked into the background so that the adventure and the thrills are front and centered. It wouldn’t be a Joe Dante film if The ‘Burbs didn’t embrace and celebrate the history of its own genre after all.