Saturday, 14 February 2015


Why is Joe Dante so inconsistently consistent? I look back over his career in movies and see some of my favourite films growing up. Dante's first film was released in the year I was born, and Piranha still has more teeth than a lot of horror movies made today. It wasn't until 1984 that I started paying attention though, with the release of one of my all time favourite movies, Gremlins. Innerspace followed in 1987, The New Batch arrived in 1990 and sandwiched somewhere in between was The 'Burbs. Starring Tom Hanks, Corey Feldman (of course, it was the '80s) and Carrie Fisher, The 'Burbs is the kind of movie that gets better with age. "There go the Goddamn brownies..."

Joe's output became more infrequent in the 90s, with standouts being Small Soldiers in '98 and 2003's Looney Tunes: Back In Action. I only mention this because it sum ups Dante's career in pictures perfectly. At his best, Dante is the master of looney tune escapism; zany comedy gems that never get tired. He keeps himself busy with TV work these days, and 2014's Burying the Ex is yet to see the light of day, but Joe Dante's early work will always have a place in my life. I wasn't a big fan of The 'Burbs when I was younger, to me it was Joe Dante's 'lesser' movie. I've never really been a big fan of Tom Hanks either, not since he started playing it straight at least, so this was a good time for me to rediscover the film on shiny Blu.

In 2011 Dante said, “I always thought all horror is comedy”. You only have to check out his back catalogue to see that. Gremlins, and particularly its sequel The New Batch, The Howling and The 'Burbs were all capable of striking the balance between big laughs and genuine scares. On paper, the plot for The 'Burbs doesn’t really do the film justice; an experience that lurches from situation comedy to dark, demonic territory overnight. Dante's love of all things Mad helps to explain the films lure. “The beauty of Mad magazine was that you could read it over and over and in the corner of the frame would be these little gags that you hadn’t noticed when you were reading it for the continuity,” Dante said. Which kind of explains why I appreciate The 'Burbs more now than I did back then.

Family man Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) is looking forward to a week of putting his feet up at home in the quiet, leafy cul-de-sac of Mayfield Place. But his plans are scuppered by the arrival of new next-door neighbours, The Klopeks, whose behaviour and habits are more than just a little kooky. But things go from kooky to downright sinister when local old boy Walter disappears, leading Ray and his buddies to suspect their new neighbours of killing and eating him. Boredom can play havoc on the mind, you see, and it doesn't help when your other neighbours are deliriously cuckoo too. Ray is joined on his adventure by trigger-happy Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), unhinged Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and hippie stoner Ricky Butler (that would be Corey Feldman then).

Tom Hanks is a gifted comedy actor. It's a shame we don't get to see that side of him much these days. The playfulness is still there, you only have to witness him guest on talk shows to realise that, and I would never knock the career path he has chosen (that would be utterly insane), but I do miss the innocence and eagerness of parts in Big, Bachelor Party and even Turner and Hooch. Tom Hanks is brilliant here, losing the plot and questioning his own sanity as the tone shifts and the plot thickens. He's shouty, zany and mostly sympathetic, not to mention relatively normal in comparison to his quirky neighbours.

It's a great cast. Rick Ducommun just about stays onside, making the most of some memorable dialogue along the way. Bruce Dern is outstanding as always and Carrie Fisher is at her snarky best. She was looking great back then too, though she'll never top the gold bikini, of course. The only other female character is Bonnie Rumsfield, played with perfect comedy timing by Wendy Schaal. She looks fantastic too, or as Feldman's Ricky Butler would say, "Hey, Mrs. Rumsfield, no tan lines. Looks nice." As for the better half of the Corey's, well, I've always had a soft spot for Mr Feldman. I'm still hoping somebody will give him another shot at the big time, because there's something about Corey that will always captivate. Maybe I just wanted to be him too much as a kid.

The bad guys are a joy as well, particularly Henry Gibson as The Doctor. Brother Theodore is all fiery menace (in a good way) as Uncle Rueben and Courtney Gains is both creepy and kooky as Hans, the youngest member of the clan. The 'Burbs is awash with great comedic talent, and the endlessly quotable dialogue enhances the overall enjoyment of a movie that deserved to do better first time around. Perhaps audiences didn't get it at the time, maybe it just wasn't the kind of experience they were expecting. Whatever the reason, if you're living in the UK, there has never been a better time to reacquaint yourselves with the madcap eccentricity of The 'Burbs.

The Blu-ray release is loaded with a bumper crop of bonus features including an all-new high definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the theatrical cut, and the original work print cut of the film transferred from Director Joe Dante’s personal copy. On home video for the very first time, no less, which includes deleted and alternate scenes. This is complimented by A Tale of Two ‘Burbs, an all-new video featurette comparing the differences between the work print and theatrical cuts of the film, with optional audio commentary from Joe Dante. The disc also features a newly recorded audio commentary with writer Dana Olsen, moderated by author Calum Waddell. As well as an alternate ending, presented in HD for the very first time, and an exclusive collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kenneth J. Souza, author of Scared Silly: The Films of Joe Dante.

"As soon as they're gone, I'm going over that fence, and I'm not coming back until I find a dead body." The plot is slight and the set-up is more satisfying than the pay-off, but it's the unconventional characters that bring The 'Burbs to life. Smart dialogue, looney tune characters and Tom Hanks on top comedic form bring this quirky little tale to life. Over to you Ricky...

"God I love this street."

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