Few things are as terrifying as the paint-by-numbers conformity of suburbia — but what if there’s something even more sinister lurking in the background? Joe Dante explores this idea in his genre-defying 1989 classic THE ‘BURBS.
Although loaded with laughs and starring Tom Hanks — who, while a fan favorite, isn’t exactly known for horror (outside of his big screen debut in HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE) — THE ‘BURBS offers up some truly creepy features that turn comedy on its head, and somehow manage to make the film scarier than a lot of standard genre fare.
Here are five chilling reasons this comedy classic has horror in its heart…
On the surface, THE ‘BURBS seems to have a pretty harmless comedic plot: yuppie businessman Ray Peterson (Hanks) has too much time on his hands during a week-long staycation; strange family, the Klopeks, move in; Ray and his idiot friends (Bruce Dern, Rick Ducommun, and occasionally Corey Feldman) decide to investigate the new neighbors, much to the chagrin of Ray’s wife, Carol (Carrie Fisher); hijinks ensue.
Funny, yes… but genre fans will also recognize it as a well-worn plot that would be right at home in some of our most beloved Horror films and thrillers. Swap Ray out for FRIGHT NIGHT’s Charlie Brewster, REAR WINDOW’s L.B. Jeffries, Alison Parker in THE SENTINEL (which gets its own prominent reference in THE ‘BURBS) or countless others, and change ‘hijinks’ to ‘terrifying bloodbath’, and you’ve got the makings of a true genre classic. At that point, the town’s macabre backstory about Skip the soda jerk, who offed his whole family with an ice pick, is just icing on the cake.
There’s just something about a good old-fashioned organ riff that automatically conjures up feelings of great foreboding and makes the blood run cold. It’s as ingrained in the genre as cat-centric jump scares and masked maniacs.
Created by Oscar-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith (the musical genius behind POLTERGEIST and Dante’s other great horror-masquerading-as-comedy epic GREMLINS), THE ‘BURBS features one of the best — and most memorable — scores in the genre, framing the Klopeks with ominous organs, pulsing drums, and disembodied wailing that decimates the sunny scenery of the suburban paradise they call home. It’s the perfect way to set the mood, helping to further blur the lines between charming comedy and absolute horror. While the movie does have its fair share of bouncy and upbeat rhythms, a sinister organ blast is never far behind, reminding us not to get too comfortable.
Horror is full of some pretty dysfunctional families, many of whom live out in the boondocks and try their best to keep their freak flag under wraps until it’s time to strike.
The Klopeks — themselves comprised of a pseudo wolf-boy, a mad scientist, and the gargoyle-esque Uncle Reuben — are so evil, and so twisted, that they commit their atrocities right in the heart of their picture-perfect neighborhood. Their basement-based goings-on are loud, bright, and attract attention. They’re sloppy, leaving human remains lying around for the local dogs to dig up. They acquire — and discard — their past and present properties under increasingly mysterious circumstances. They’re the types of psychos who almost dare you to turn them in, and then they make you look like the nutjob for even suggesting that something is wrong with them. Diabolical, indeed!
The Backyard Burial
The scene of the Klopek clan burying bags of… something (or someone?) under cover of night in their backyard, is straight out of the legendary Universal Monster movies of yesteryear, and instantly conjures up fond memories of Dr. Frankenstein and Fritz combing the cemetery for spare parts. With the rain pouring down around them, and the Klopeks moving silently about in their ominous black hoods, Dante skillfully adds even more doubt to our clouded suspicions, as we wonder along with Ray and company about the true intentions of these new neighbors.
Just when you think it’s going the preachy route of reprimanding us for fearing the differences in others… terror strikes! After burning their house down in a fruitless attempt to unearth evidence, Ray leaps into an ambulance, resigned to the fact that he had the poor Klopeks all wrong. Suddenly, Dr. Werner Klopek appears, shutting the doors, spilling his murderous secrets, and wielding a nasty syringe to ensure Ray stays silent forever. The ambulance, helmed by the Doctor’s two Klopek counterparts, shoots off down the street, as Ray struggles to get free.
THE ‘BURBS is packed with many genuinely funny moments, which makes the final minutes even more intense, as we watch Ray fighting for survival. We expect people to die in horror movies, but seeing our hero — played by one of the most beloved actors in the industry — facing a very real demise in a film billed as a comedy, packs an unsettling punch and ups the stakes in ways rarely seen in standard genre fare. It gets to a point where we really don’t know if he will make it out alive, and there’s something simultaneously wonderful and horrifying about that.
Ultimately, Ray is saved, the Klopeks are brought to justice, and Carol gets the lake cabin getaway she’s been clamoring for throughout the film. But Dante and writer Dana Olsen deserve all the kudos in the world for crafting a thrilling climax that puts us through the ringer one more time before the credits roll.