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January 15, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #54 - The 'burbs

I've spent a lot of time talking about movies that defined my journey as a growing film fan over the years.  Instead of talking about myself in the About Me section on the side of this page, I listed the films that first inspired me to fall for the oddities of the supernatural and disfigured.  But I don't spend as much time talking about how I was introduced to the other side of horror; the side that deals with every day horrors from the madmen who may live in our own neighborhood.
Many horror fans remember their first experience with Leatherface or some kind of slasher or something like Hannibal Lecter, but my first memories of real world terror....well, my first memories of real world terrors go back to the fateful night when 8-year-old Mini The Mike went to the theater with his father to watch Tom Hanks star in The 'burbs.  I didn't know what I was going to see, but I remember being entirely excited that Dad was taking me to a movie that was rated PG.  I'm not sure why, because as I look back I realize that I'd seen plenty of PG rated movies before then (it would be less than two years before the 'rents took me to my first R rated movie in that same theater), but that doesn't change the fact that pudgy little hyperactive The Mike was bouncing up and down the aisle like he'd just won the lottery.  And the film?  It didn't disappoint.
As much as I can recall the excitement of going to the movie, that sensation pales in comparison to the feelings I had after the movie ended.  I'd just seen demonic cults, mass murderers, and piles of bones in a trunk.  It wasn't a full dose of those things...but it was a taste.  Like the future alcoholic who'd just savored his first sip, I was hooked.  I didn't know why, and I couldn't explain what it was I loved about the movie to others without feeling a strange new sensation.  These things I wasn't supposed to have seen had come over me...and I liked it.
Not even Mini The Mike could mistake The 'burbs for a full-blown horror film, which helped the film go down smooth.  All I had to tell The Masha was that the film was "funny", and that was more than enough to get by.  But the film wasn't in my head because it was funny, or just plain fun.  It was in my head because it made incredibly dark and potentially disturbing things funny and just plain fun.  My mind was stained forever, but it was a socially acceptable stain.
Does that mean The 'burbs is single-handedly responsible for the mountains of macabre that have been built inside The Mike's head?  Probably not, but that doesn't make the film any less charming.  I've been a big fan of Hanks' early comedic work ever since, and would watch this or Dragnet or The Man With One Red Shoe over his latter acclaimed work any day.  There's a natural neurosis to Hanks' performances in these films, and The 'burbs lets him show off his physical comedy skills while still delivering great dialogue from Dana Olson's script.  He's supported well by Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommun, who play his more paranoid neighbors, and Carrie Fisher gets to play his concerned wife before slipping out of the spotlight for the '90s.
Now, as a much larger The Mike, the tone of Joe Dante's black comedy impresses me even more.  Assisted by Olson's script and a pitch-perfect musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, the plight of Hanks' Ray Peterson feels like it's designed specifically for voyeuristic viewers who are interested in escaping their everyday life.  The images balance between everyday suburban settings and horror movie scenes, while the music enhances the horror portion of the film while also borrowing from Sergio Leone and even pilfers tones from military cinema to follow Bruce Dern's Mr. Rumsfield around.  This is escapist Hollywood cinema in its most simple form, allowing the viewer to witness as a bunch of people who are bored with their surroundings begin to get carried away by the more interesting ideas that fill their minds.
As Corey Feldman's sage-like Ricky Butler - perhaps the most sane male character in the film - likes to point out, this is real life.  It isn't a movie like The Sentinel, which he references, nor is it one of those Leone westerns we all love, but it's still more interesting for the characters to treat their neighborhood as if it is.  Crazy little The Mike didn't know it, but this film would introduce him to the voyeuristic and diabolical side of cinema.  And, as fate would have it, Dante's dark comedy still represents exactly what he loves about escaping into horror and genre cinema today.


Enbrethiliel said...


Dude, I definitely need to see this one again! I've been developing a new appreciation for 90s Horror lately, but nothing beats 80s Horror--even 80s Horror hybrids--for sheer camp!

Emily said...

This is a film that I NEVER get tired of. It's definitely one of my "feel-good" movies that I can watch when I'm happy to make me happier and sad to cheer me up. It's one of those go-to films that I feel like I recommend a lot because it's AWESOME!

The Man-Cave said...

I too saw this in the theater as a tyke and I too miss the old Tom Hanks. The funny Bachelor Party - Man with One Red Shoe Tom Hanks. After Nothing in Common, I knew that it would soon be the end of that Hanks.

Jinx said...

I watched it again recently and had almost forgotten how awesome it was. It did make me feel very happy on that Sunday night. I also watched Big over Christmas which it turns out I just find disturbing now.

The Mike said...

E - I really - as can be seen from the screenshots - tried to look very closely at the horror aspects of the flick this time around. I've always noticed them, but never really thought about how horror-themed so many of the images are. Hope you dig it on revisit!

Emily - Awesome is certainly the best word for this movie, and I too can never get enough of it! E-High Five!

Geof - Glad to see another fan of the oldschool Hanks (and Man With One Red Shoe, which seems to get forgotten too often)! I still haven't seen Nothing in Common, sadly. I got really, really excited when the Coens' The Ladykillers was coming out, and enjoyed it enough, but it's clear that Hanks' comedic bests are behind him. sadly.

Jinx - Y'know, I'm with you on Big. I like the movie, but there's just something weird about it these days. Once I was old enough to understand the "OK, but I get to be on top joke", something about the movie kinda died.