Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) and his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) live amongst a circle of quirky neighbors at Mayfield Place; his obnoxious, nosy pal Art (Rick Ducommun), militant veteran Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) and his wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal), the snooty geriatric Walter (Gale Gordon) and his dog Queenie, the street’s young punk Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman), and the mysterious new neighbors, the Klopeks. Ray intends to take advantage of the cul-de-sac’s quiet by enjoying his week-long vacation at home. That is, until Art convinces the skeptical Ray of the notion that the Klopeks’ seclusion and the ominous noises emanating from their basement hint to their nefarious natures. The equally curious and suspicious Rumsfield joins Ray and Art as they spend the week snooping into the odd life of Hans (Courtney Gains), Uncle Reuben (Brother Theodore) and the “good” Doctor Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson).
Growing up in the country I didn’t have very close proximity to my neighbors, but it didn’t stop me and my friends from concocting creative histories about the people who lived in the old darkened houses a mile or so up the road. Writer Dana Olsen did much the same when he penned The ‘Burbs by basing its characters on experiences from his own life. That mildly scary, definitely funny story when put into the hands of Joe Dante, a director adept at melding horror and comedy, becomes undeniably entertaining.
The ‘Burbs is great not solely because it’s such fun to watch the rational Ray driven to obsession by his two nitwit neighbors, but because the archetypes are identifiable and relatable. Ray and Carol, like any well-worn couple, fight numerous times over Ray’s new hobby; Rumsfield accuses Walter and the Klopeks of having ulterior motives; Art is an instigator who loves to eat Ray out of house and home; and Ricky Butler invites friends to watch the insanity unfurl. Audiences either know someone just like at least one of these characters, or maybe they are one of these characters.
It’s also great fun to have Tom Hanks heading up your cast.?While Ducommun and Dern’s characters are consistently good for a quick laugh or pratfall, it’s Hanks’s Ray, with his more grounded perspective, that is the most fun. Every new clue gathered about his supposedly Satanic neighbors hastens his descent into mania and when he finally blows his top (among other things) it’s side-splittingly hilarious.
Fun trivia fact: The ‘Burbs was filmed on a back lot at Universal Studios and the homes of Mayfield Place have been featured in quite a number of films and shows from The Munsters to Desperate Housewives. It’s rather fitting that a movie ridiculing the abnormalcy of mundane suburban life be home to so many atypical suburban stories.