The Movies Made Me Do It: Confessions of a Film Actor (Issue #6)
THE BURBS, 1989, PG — I did live in the suburbs once. It was in Rockville, MD, and I remember how close the houses were to one another. How there were fences. And ‘Beware of Dog’ signs. There was always talk about strangers. Never take candy from them. Never get into their car, even if they offer you a ride. Yell and scream, if they try to kidnap you. And they’re pretty easy to spot because they usually stalk you. Or drive in rusty, beat-up Chevys. Oh yeah. They might even be one of your neighbors.
This was a strange movie. It felt like horror. Especially the opening, an elaborate zoom from outer space straight down to a scary house. With a huge lightning rod. And basement windows that flashed blinding lights. But it was also funny because of the characters. You’ve got the reluctant hero/bemused dad, played by Tom Hanks; a cocky man-child who can’t stop eating other people’s food; a Vietnam vet who’s always breaking out his leftover artillery; and the young metalhead who can’t paint his parents’ house. Most of all, the film contained a relatable mystery: What happened to Walter, the old man on the block? A cul-de-sac actually, where there’s only one way in and out.
So how exactly did this movie inspire me as an actor?
I think it’s because of the gallery of different but easy-to-follow characters, who almost play like archetypes or astrological signs. One was gonna be level-headed. Another would be vigilant. Another obsessive. And stoned. And so on. Your job as the viewer was to figure out which character you would be. Or want to play, like in the board game Clue. Even the garbage men, in one scene, are both interesting people: one can’t wait to get to the bowling alley, while the other is trying to discuss self-help seminars. To top it off, the metalhead, played effortlessly by Corey Feldman, takes time out to explain the story to his date (and to the audience), while watching the action from his front porch.
I’ve always fallen into the trap of quoting movies endlessly in the company of friends, relatives, and acquaintances, to the point where their next question is, “Are you on the spectrum?” It’s insane how much dialogue or how many film scenes I can perform verbatim, a gift that becomes a handicap if you forget the saying “a little goes a long way.” The Burbs falls into that category of instantly quotable movies — one I watched more times than I will admit, always laughing at the same jokes and idiosyncrasies of each character.
Complaints about the film today?
- The women play either clueless or exasperated wives, who simply tolerate their husbands’ childish antics, thus assuming the ‘straight’ roles, while leaving the laughs to the boys.
- The mystery in the story isn’t all that mysterious by the end, revealing the build-up to be much more interesting. But, as a kid, it WAS scary to discover these Klopeks digging holes in the night, hiding a massive Great Dane, and hosting a crematorium in the basement, fueled by their furnace. Not to mention, all those skulls they kept…
- It remains an oddball film, one on the fringe: either you get it, or you don’t. Some fellow film buffs have told me, “It’s not that funny,” or “It doesn’t know what it wants to be.” Maybe they didn’t grow up watching it as a kid. Or maybe they didn’t grow up in the suburbs.
I’ll admit mixing genres doesn’t always work, but I’ve always liked that sort of ambition, and it feels just right here. Plus, I’ll take weird over normal any day. The Burbs continues to be a re-watchable cult classic for the simple reason that it’s chock-full of memorable, quotable lines. Furthermore, it belongs in the same company of those other pitch-black comedies from the 80s, like Bob Balaban’s Parents and Michael Lehmann’s Meet the Applegates. One could even argue this sort of brand was pioneered by David Lynch’s shocker Blue Velvet. All these films poked fun at small town life while exposing a cold, unflinching realism beneath its surface.
To express my appreciation, here’s some of my favorite bits from The Burbs:
“I want to kill everyone. Satan is good. Satan is our pal.”
“I’m gonna go do something productive. I’m gonna watch television.”
“There go the goddamn brownies.”
“God, I love this street.”
“I’ve been blown up! Take me to the hospital!”
Reading these, I still smile. And look forward to the next time I watch it.