One of the lesser-known and lesser-appreciated entries in the Egyptian Theater's series "The Atomo-Vision of Joe Dante" is his 1989 film 'The Burbs, playing at the Egyptian Theatre Friday the 12th at 7:30pm (on a bill with Matinee). Why The 'Burbs? Perhaps it starts with the title, reductive and absurd, the apostrophe helping shorten an already-abbreviated derivation of "suburban." The "sub" denotes its relation to a metropolitan area, but also suggests its landscape - and by extension its residents - are somehow "lesser than." But "the 'burbs" elides such concerns. It eliminates the socio-economic connotations to create a fact so plain it had to be monosyllabic. How to explain the silliness of so much of the life? That's the 'burbs for ya.
Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks, at his everymanliest) is taking a vacation from work, but like many men of middling ambition, he doesn't really want to do anything. A traditional vacation - driving to the lake, cleaning up the house, firing up the grill, cramming in all the necessary activities - can quickly turn into just another job. So he stays home and takes an interest in his new, unusual neighbors, the Klopeks. They're never heard from or seen, they keep bizarre hours…and they stuff large, dense, body-shaped garbage bags into the trash in the middle of the night. Before long, Ray's roped fellow neighbors Art (Rick Ducommun) and Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) into the game, which has turned from casual curiosity into outright espionage. The evidence is considerable, but who's crazier - the Klopeks, or the goons chasing them?
The 'Burbs kicked off a defining streak of filmmaking for director Joe Dante. He would follow it up with his singularly masterful Gremlins 2: The New Batch and the surprisingly bleak Cold War-themed Matinee, which would end his reign as a major Hollywood filmmaker. That the three get progressively darker, more cynical, and more daring in their thematic reach might have contributed. The 'Burbs sees the filmmaker at his commercial height, finding new angles (literally) to tell this deceptively simple, clearly marketable concept. Geographically, we never leave the cul-de-sac where Ray lives. Psychologically, we traverse nightmares; some living. He builds his jokes and his suspense the same way, leaving the audience aching for a payoff, but not knowing whether they'll laugh or scream when it emerges. Jerry Goldsmith's score - bouncy, sensational, macabre - is key to this confection, matching Dante's ecstatic mania at just getting to make motion pictures.
Screenwriter Dana Olsen worked from his childhood memories, but rather than conform to nostalgia, The 'Burbs is a film very much of the present. The effects of Vietnam still linger, the teenagers seem almost repulsively disengaged with their community, the men profess a sense of independence they cannot quite sustain once their wives come a-calling. All around, waiting for the next shoe to drop, the next battle to fight, even if it must be manufactured. So why The 'Burbs? Maybe because it never plays a false card, but never feels safe either. It's a film by outsiders and film maniacs taking full advantage of a system they adore, realized by actors willing to play fast and loose. It's a beautiful, self-contained gem. Like the title, it eliminates all the fat, which frees it to be silly, simple and pure yet somewhat surreal. The 'burbs, man; it's a state of mind.