REVIEW: ‘The ‘Burbs’ is a delightful dark comedy

The ‘80s cult classic jabs at American suburban life


Rahul Lal

Graphic made in Canva by Rahul Lal.

Bradley Hinkson

With Halloween quickly approaching, why not spend that time recommending some horror films to get everyone in the mood for the spooky season?

We all like to keep things the way they are. We’re not big fans of change. There’s nothing that likes a sense of sameness more than the American suburban neighborhood. So what happens when that normality is broken? Well, if “The ‘Burbs” is any indication, chaos will ensue.

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Ray Peterson, played by America’s dad Tom Hanks, is taking a much needed vacation and is hoping for a nice quiet week at home. Unfortunately for him, the Klopeks have moved into the neighborhood and there is something sinister about them. With the help of some of his neighbors, Ray must figure out if the Klopeks are hiding something.

When “The ‘Burbs” starts, we move into the Universal logo to find ourselves in the middle of any normal street in Midwestern America. We don’t know what city or state the film takes place in, though we don’t need to. This isn’t just one select American street, it’s most of them: the colorful houses, the bright green lawns and the wide variety of characters. Ray could go anywhere for his vacation. His wife, played by the late great Carrie Fisher, pesters him to go to the lake, but he’d rather stay home and enjoy some time in the backyard.

The Klopeks are a disruption to Ray’s perfect tranquility at home. Just from the aesthetics of their own home, they’re a disruption to the neighborhood. The Klopeks’ lawn is completely dead, their house has no color and a simple step on their lawn can lead to a strong gust of wind. It also doesn’t help that they’ve got strange noises coming from the basement and are throwing away some suspicious garbage. Of course, there’s only one explanation for their strange behavior: they’re satanists. Well, that’s what Ray and some of the neighbors think.

In an age of far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, it’s not hard to imagine middle-class Americans becoming suspicious of strange new people. Sure, the film does take a more literal approach to the Klopeks towards the end, which may come as disappointing to some, but there’s still this understanding throughout the film that the concern of the whole neighborhood is based around them disliking this change. The neighbors liked the people who previously lived there, who were nice and quiet, while the Klopeks seem to always have a lightning storm following them.

As the young neighbor Rickey says, Ray doesn’t want to believe the Klopeks are up to anything because then he’ll have to do something about it. Ray needs that sense of complacency so he can feel normal. If the Klopeks are truly psychopathic murderers, that safe feeling will be broken. As more events unfold, Ray becomes more and more stressed. Is it because the Klopeks are breaking the status quo of the neighborhood, or is the mundanity of suburban life taking a toll on Ray?

Even with all this dark subject matter of death and supposed satanism, the film holds a consistent humorous tone. Director Joe Dante is no stranger to a sense of heightened reality. He’s very much inspired in tone by classic Tex Avery and Looney Tunes cartoons, which comes as no surprise as he went on to direct “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.” Though his film “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” stands as the greatest Looney Tunes film ever, but that’s a conversation for another day.

The horror aesthetics of the Klopeks feel so heightened. The lightning and wind storms seem to come at just the perfect moment. Even the Klopeks’ address can be knocked over to turn into 666. They feel like they’re straight out of a Halloween special on TV, though everyone else gets to be a part of that heightened reality.

Ray has a nightmare filled with imagery of giant barbecue grills and satanists. One of the neighbors, Art, played by Rick Ducommun, electrocutes himself and falls down into a shed and leaves a Roger Rabbit-esque silhouette on the roof. Then there’s neighbor Mark Rumsfield, played oh-so-wonderfully by Bruce Dern, an overly patriotic Vietnam vet who uses his experience from the war to help infiltrate the Klopeks’ house. If you’re not too sure on Rumsfield’s patriotism, keep an ear out for the “Patton”-esque music cue that follows him around, or an eye out for the American flag he puts up every morning.

It’s hard to categorize “The ‘Burbs” as one specific genre. The overt horror aspects of the Klopeks’ behavior can make this prime viewing for the Halloween season, but the film also boasts a great over-the-top sense of humor. A moment where the camera zooms in and out at the realization over the discovery of a human bone not only feels like an amalgamation of the tones, but is the best moment in the film. 

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Dante gets to have his own Christmas film with “Gremlins,” so why not let him have a film to watch around the Halloween season? For a film that stars big names like Hanks and Fisher, it’s bizarre this hasn’t become a household name. Its satirization of suburban life can be relatable to so many people who have always thought the worst about their weird neighbors. Though unlike the characters here, you may want to just leave them be.

“The ‘Burbs” is available to stream with Starz, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.