Shot on the Universal set that now permanently calls itself Wisteria Lane, Joe Dante’s The ‘burbs uses its seemingly peaceful suburban locale as a hunting ground for snoopy neighbors and secretive activity, where passive aggressive tactics and hidden agendas produce a wonderfully dark cinematic mosaic of collective doubt. Dante is a master at blurring genres and tones and The ‘burbs ranks as one of his strangest mixtures, gracefully walking the line between slapstick comedy and horror film.
A small group of male neighbors (Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun) awake from their mind-numbing routines when The Klopeks move in and raise concerns with their odd activity and complete isolation. The opening act is especially brilliant, introducing each character with a flair for the theatrical, isolating their strengths and weaknesses through sly camera movements and music parallels. In a film like The ‘burbs, space plays a crucial role, so the proximity between houses, lawns, and the connective street seems to constrict as the story progresses. Figurative and literal skeletons reside beneath the ground, within walls, even in car trunks, giving the film plenty of social subtext along with scary thrills. Even in the most benign residential spaces, shady dealings grow like weeds.
The ‘burbs subverts genre conventions by masking dark themes within confined locales, forcing the viewer to think about the horrific grey areas constantly surrounding us. In all of his best films, Dante uncovers the wars of everyday life; between people at odds, ideologies in conflict, and expectations of closure. Corey Feldman’s punk teenager Ricky knows best watching the entire finale from his front porch, flanked by slacker friends, loud music, and lawn chairs, only to proclaim, “We’re here to watch the show.” For Joe Dante, youth often equates to wisdom, and adulthood only spells distress and toil.