Before the ’90s Tom Hanks used to do movies like The ‘Burbs. Movies that were fun and funny and you didn’t have to think too much about. Then he started winning awards and the deeper roles kept coming. And I can’t really complain.

However, in 1989 he played Ray Peterson, a suburban husband and father living in a fairly tight-knit cul-de-sac where everyone in the neighborhood knows each other all too well. Almost like siblings. Fighting one minute, confiding in each other the next. The first third of the movie is spent setting up these dynamics.

Besides Ray and his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher), there’s Lt. Mark Rumsfeld (Bruce Dern), the old military vet who’s perennially decked out in camouflaged outfits and has a flag pole in his front yard; the elderly Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon) who’s trained his tiny dog to poop on Lt. Rumsfeld’s lawn; Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman), a rowdy teen who seems to always be painting his house and whose parents are always out of town; and Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun), a conspiracy theorist buffoon who also happens to be best friends with Ray.

But there are new neighbors, the Klopeks, who just moved in next door to Ray. Art suspects them to be murderers, or worse. They keep to themselves and never come out during the day. And at night you can see strange things coming from their basement. Ray is skeptical at first but his neighbors get the better of him, so the gang spends the majority of the movie snooping out the Klopeks’ big secret, if there’s any secret at all.

The ‘Burbs plays out as a sort of mystery. Or maybe I should say The ‘Burbs is supposed to play out as a sort of mystery. In fact, we wish it committed more to this premise. Instead, Ray and company only uncover two clues over the span of the entire film. Every other “discovery” comes from the enthusiastic speculation of Ray and his friends, or weird observations that don’t have much to do with the end result. If they do, we’re never shown how.

The lazy execution could be excused if the story were filled with details to help build the suspense, with payoffs that kept that tension rolling. But the exposition is slow and whenever suspense is built, director Joe Dante never keeps it there, and worse, never makes the results as exciting as we thought we were promised.

Ray’s paranoia is palpable, but not quite cultivated organically enough. A dream sequence is used to show his paranoia instead of utilizing actual plot points to convey and burgeon these feelings. Perhaps if I were more familiar with the film I wouldn’t have been so caught off guard by the sluggish and somewhat underwhelming narrative. But upon my first watch, every time I thought the story was ramping up, it would go back down again.

I don’t mean to make it seem like this movie is all bad, because it’s far from it. Stylishly, The ‘Burbs feels a little ahead of its time. Released in ’89, we get more of a mid-’90s vibe, but without all the cheese that comes with it. Tonally, the mixture of horror and comedy are uniquely complimentary in a way that favors the comedy in a way that’s not done too often, especially this well.

Dante gives us a cleaner counterpart to what Tim Burton was doing around that time. While Burton’s sets looked like he hand-made them, Dante’s film doesn’t feel like it takes place in a totally different universe, bringing more of a surrealistic take on that same auteurism.

A criminally uneven narrative can be made up for with an entertaining finish, which this movie definitely has. Partnered with great moments and memorable characters, The ‘Burbs is still worthy enough for our attention.

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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