Screenwriter Dana Olsen wrote a script called Life in the ‘Burbs that he based on his own childhood. Growing up, he learned that what seemed like a normal life from the outside revealed a world of psychotic people. He said, “As a kid, it was fascinating to think that Mr. Flanagan down the street could turn out to be Jack the Ripper. And where there’s fear, there’s comedy. So I approached The ‘Burbs as Ozzie and Harriet Meet Charles Manson.”
Once the film entered the hands of Joe Dante — who we’ve often written about as someone who deftly skews the American middle-class while planting his feet firmly within it — it got even crazier. He placed the entire film on the Universal Studios backlot and brought it stories he heard all the time of that one house in every neighborhood where you never see people leave, you see the lights on all night long and the grass never gets cut. It’s kind of like that Tom Waits tune — “What’s He Building?”
“What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
He has subscriptions to those magazines.
He never waves when he goes by.
He’s hiding something from the rest of us.”
Mayfield Place is one of many identical neighborhoods inside Hinkley Hills, which is one of many identical neighborhoods in Iowa, which is one of so many identical states across the country. It’s also the name of the neighborhood from TV’s Leave It to Beaver, which was also shot on the same lot.
Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) has a week vacation, which is just enough time to learn that his new neighbor’s, the Klopeks, are at the best strange and at the worst a danger to every house on the block.
After all, that’s what Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun, Snik from Little Monsters) thinks. And so does military vet Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern!) who watch Hans Klopek (Courtney Gains, Malachai from Children of the Corn) use the family’s car to drive garbage a few feet to the curb. And that’s not all. Soon, the entire family is digging up their backyard with pick-axes in the middle of a torrential rainstorm.
Mark’s wife Bonnie (Dante favorite Wendy Schaal) finds another neighbor, the elderly Walter (Gale Gordon, long the TV sitcom enemy of Lucille Ball and you can see photos of the two of them together all over his house), missing and his dog running loose. All that’s left? His toupee.
Ray’s wife Carol (Carrie Fisher!) tires of this silliness and invites everyone over to the Klopeks. While everyone else meets Dr. Werner (Henry Gibson!) and Uncle Reuben (Brother Theodore!), Ray sneaks to the basement where he finds Walter’s toupee.
Hijinks ensue, as they must in any great movie. This is a film that you can come in on at any point and find something magical and hilarious. Are the Klopeks really killers? Has the entire neighborhood gone insane? Will Ray blow up their house? Just watch it!
Here’s some trivia that I love about this movie:
The structure used as the Peterson home was also used as the home of the character of the virgin Connie Swail in the Tom Hanks film Dragnet.
While they were editing the movie, Dante used Ennio Morricone’s “Se Sei Qualcuno è Colpa Mia” from My Name Is Nobody as the temporary track for the scene where Ray and Art walk up to the Klopeks’ house and ended up falling in love with it. It’s in the film instead of the Jerry Goldsmith score.
Walter’s toy poodle Queenie? That’s the same dog that played Precious in The Silence of the Lambs.
Corey Feldman and Michael Jackson were close friends during the filming and Bubbles the Chimp was a frequent set guest. Unfortunately, the celebrity monkey regularly defecated all over the place, so Dante had to ban him from the set. Yet dog poop was needed throughout the movie, so prop master Mark Jameson made an actor safe version from canned dog food and bean dip that he loaded into caulking guns.
The Klopeks house is filled with TV and movie references. One of the paintings is from Night Gallery. Their dog Landru is named for an alien overlord from Star Trek (or a French serial killer). The sled Rosebud from Citizen Kane is in their basement. But ironically, it isn’t their house that was from The Munsters. Feldman’s character Ricky Butler’s family lives there.
At one point, Ray studies a book called The Theory and Practice of Demonology. That book isn’t real. How do I know? Its author is Julian Karswell, the bad guy from The Curse of the Demon.
Much like every Joe Dante movie, Dick Miller shows up. Here, he’s Vic the garbage man.
Finally — on the subject of Brother Theodore — I first discovered him as a kid when he was a frequent guest on David Letterman’s early shows. These blasts of strangeness still amaze me. I’m shocked that they ever aired on a major network they’re so odd. And if you’re wondering where you’ve heard Theodore before, perhaps it’s in the trailer for Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery.
To get the best possible version of this movie, go for the blu ray from Shout! Factory.