Director Joe Dante’s film felt like a damp squib back in 1989 despite an intriguing question; a big star, a sinister theme, and a question; what are The ‘Burbs? After Gremlins and Innerspace, some kind of sci-fi/horror content was anticipated, so maybe the burbs would turn out to be monsters or aliens, right? Well, no, because the ‘burbs are actually the suburbs, and the suburban areas of inner cities are the target of this long-winded satire that intrigues but doesn’t quite satisfy.
Hanks is always good value, and he imbues Ray Peterson with a nice everyman quality; he’s got a week off work and he’s keen to kick back and enjoy a home vacation. But his neighbours (notably Bruce Dern as a Vietnam vet) have spotted odd goings on at the dilapidated home of the Klopecks, who have recently moved into the neighbourhood. Strange noises, comings and goings at odd times; what do the Klopecs have to hide with their anti-social behaviour? Ray’s wife (Carrie Fisher) tries to talk him down, but Ray ends up leading a team of amateur sleuths in a breaking and entering mission to uncover the secret of the Klopec house.
The casting, technique and tone of Dante’s film all work well, but there’s something missing; the pace of the film is so slow that The Burbs feels like a shaggy-dog story, and the punch-line disappoints. There’s more fun to be had with the idea that Ray and his friends are over-reacting, and the film flirts with a ‘we are the real monsters’ theme. But that gets discarded with a throwaway confrontation at the end that vindicates all the wayward impulses that the film sets out to satirise.
The ‘Burbs is a watchable, lightweight film that never quite comes to the boil; Dern is fun, but Fisher is wasted, and the single location gets a bit grating. Dante is something of a film expert, and The ‘Burbs could have used some of the manic energy and references that pepper his best work. There’s something dark about the way suburbanites view their neighbours, and The ‘Burbs picks up on that idea before reverting to a Hardy Boys scenario that feels too juvenile for the supposedly adult characters to be involved with. While easy to watch, The ‘Burbs never quite delivers on the strength of a potentially explosive premise.