The Film: 4/5
**This review is based on a test disc provided by Arrow Video and may not reflect the final product. We will update the review if and when the final product is received.**
Joe Dante's quirky, spirited, horror-tinged 1989 comedy The 'Burbs was a modestly profitable hit during its theatrical release and has done better than well on home video over the years. So why then has the film never received anything but a practically bare bones DVD release since home video branched out into the digital realm in the late 90's? The production wasn't a runaway affair in the vein of Apocalypse Now. The cast and crew appear to have pleasant memories of the shoot. Best of all, the growth of the fanbase that supports Dante's film has showed no signs of slowing down.
The answer may sadly reside with the fact that The 'Burbs was a Universal Pictures release and that studio hasn't exactly been a spendthrift when it comes to lavishing DVD and Blu-ray love on their less prestigious catalog titles. They'll give us yet another box set release of the Back to the Future trilogy that contains the same special features as we've seen before but this time they'll include "collectible packaging". OOOOH BABY! SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY ALREADY! Meanwhile they farm out the job of supplying films like Brazil, Repo Man, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Two-Lane Blacktop with better-than-average releases to the Criterion Collection because they can't be bothered to take an active interest in films that they public never had to be bullied into loving.
Now that I've concluded my little rant let's get to the matter of The 'Burbs. What's it all about, you ask? Mayfield Place is a quiet suburban slice of small town paradise where its inhabitants have nothing better to do with their days but work on their lawns, cook out in their backyards, and vegetate in front of the television for hours on end. Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) has taken a week off from work and in defiance of American suburbanite protocol decides to spend that time at home relaxing with his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) and son Dave (Cory Danzinger). Around this time Ray, his friend Art (Rick Ducommun), and their Vietnam veteran neighbor Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) start to wonder about the Klopeks, a family that recently moved in next door to the Petersons. The new neighbors don't come out of their house except at night and that's only to dump mysterious bags in the garbage can and dig huge holes in their backyard. Playful curiosity quickly curdles into suspicion when Mayfield occupant Walter (Gale Gordon) goes missing without his hairpiece and Art finds a femur bone in the Klopeks' backyard during while snooping around. Ray, Art, and Rumsfield become convinced that dark and evil things are transpiring in that broken-down house with the poorly-maintained lawn and will stop at nothing to prove it.
As both a crafty melding of comedy and horror and a better example of the evolving acting talents of Tom Hanks, The 'Burbs holds up surprisingly well. This is a surprise considering that it was made during a decade where every consumer product was unintentionally created to date immediately after going on the market. But over the years it has also gained in significance as a bone-deep satire of the dangers of conformity during the most conformist eras in modern American history. Director Dante, beloved for his ability to blend mirth and mayhem to great effect in the most mundane of settings (a Texas summer camp in Piranha, a Northern California New Age retreat in The Howling, a Rockwell-esque small town in the original Gremlins) took a screenplay written by Dana Olsen (Memoirs of an Invisible Man) based on the scribe's childhood experiences of growing up in suburbia and fashioned it into a uproarious dark comedy equally indebted to Hitchcock, Jerry Lewis, and the Universal horror films of the 1930's and 40's.
The 'Burbs was filmed entirely on the fabled Universal backlot - with the fabled houses used for shows such as The Munsters and Desperate Housewives redesigned by James H. Spencer (Poltergeist) - and at no point during the film does Dante and Olsen choose to venture outside of the hermetically-sealed world of Mayfield Place. Every time a character leaves the neighborhood for an indeterminate amount of time the movie never cuts back-and-forth between what they're doing and what Ray and his overgrown Our Gang are up to back in Mayfield. This lends the proceedings an effective claustrophobic intensity that heightens the moments when the story explores darker territory. At the time he made this feature Hanks was in the midst of his awkward transformation from the dependable goofball movie hero that gave him big screen stardom to the credible dramatic leading man that gave him two Academy Awards and cemented his cinematic legacy. His ability to bridge the dual paradigms that have come to define him as an actor make him the ideal lead for a film like The 'Burbs that tends to shift tones as easily and quickly as putting one foot in front of the other. Viewing the events of the story through the eyes of a normal Everyman like Ray allows us to understand the fear and obsession slowly overtaking a guy who just wanted to kick back and enjoy his "staycation" in peace. Hanks makes for a terrific straight man to the escalating lunacy, but Dante provides him with plenty of opportunities to cut loose and indulge his gift for comedic acting.
Backing up the future Forrest Gump are the hilarious Rick Ducommun (Where is he now?) as Ray's curious - and constantly hungry - best pal Art, Carrie Fisher as Ray's understanding-but-skeptical spouse Carol, Bruce Dern as the militaristic neighborhood loon Rumsfield, Dante regular Wendy Schaal as the hot-to-trot Mrs. Rumsfield, and Corey Feldman as inquisitive teen Ricky. Art gets most of the script's best lines and is so quick to accuse the Klopeks of crimes far worse than the mind can process might occasionally make you wonder what's going on in his head. Ducommun's monologue about a former neighbor who went psychotic over the stress of maintaining a normal daily routine is one of the best moments of pitch black comedy in Olsen's screenplay. Dern, with his Doc Brown hair and decades of experience as a film and TV tough guy hiding behind his expressive eyes, gets huge laughs without going for them and sells Rumsfield's ability to perform physical feats apparently beyond a man of his maturity level with conviction. Fisher and Schaal get little to do but try to keep their men from going too far in their efforts to unmask the true nature of the Klopeks' nocturnal activities but at least they get to come across as the smartest people in the entire story. Feldman doesn't participate much in the action but spends most of the movie sitting on the sidelines with his friends (among them a young Nicky Katt of Sin City and Grindhouse) with beer and pizza and narrates the comical happenings with an attention to archetypes as if he were a prototype for Abed from Community.
The casting of the Klopeks is where the supporting cast really shines. As the family patriarch and breadwinner Dr. Werner Klopek, Henry Gibson (another Dante regular) oozes with the quiet charm and menace that made his oily psychiatrist in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye such a depraved delight. Playing his brother Reuben is Brother Theodore, the legendary eccentric actor, comedian, monologuist, and frequent guest of Late Night with David Letterman who can get me to laugh like a lunatic with a few well-chosen words and his priceless grumpy facial expressions. Then there's Courtney Gains as the youngest Klopek and the most dutiful, Hans. Dressed like he should be yodeling from a Swiss mountaintop and possessing of the palest skin this side of a Guillermo Del Toro movie villain, Gains' notoriety with horror fans for his performance as Malachai in Children of the Corn adds layers of unexplained malice to his thinly-sketched - and mostly mute - character. Dick Miller and Robert Picardo, two more lifetime members of the Joe Dante Repertory Players, get funny cameos as a pair of garbagemen who just happen into the insanity overtaking Mayfield Place, but famed television character actor Gale Gordon, in his final film performance, does most of his acting with one of the most obvious toupees in the history of cinema.
The only problem I've had with The 'Burbs, as much as I love the film as a whole, is with its ending. I won't spoil it if you've never seen it but it basically involves one of the finest monologues ever delivered on celluloid by Hanks as Ray Peterson finally has a mind-blowing revelation that sums up the story perfectly. The seemingly normal suburbanites have become paranoid, hostile, and destructive towards the Klopeks because their oddball neighbors dared to live on the terms of their choosing. But just as Dante's film appears poised to be a memorable comic spin on the classic Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" things take an awkward lurch into convention so the audience can go home happy and content that whatever feelings of ill will they harbor towards those they perceive to be different will somehow always be justified. All they have to do is open the sneaky little bastards' trunk.
Arrow Video's dual-layered Region B Blu-ray release of The 'Burbs was a true labor of love, beginning with the sparkling new wonder of a transfer. The film was transferred and restored in 2K resolution by Arrow (with the assistance of NBC Universal's post-production facilities) and the final product was personally approved by Joe Dante, who had specific instructions on the color grading. Before the movie begins we get some white text against a black screen describing the work that went into cleaning up the print for its 1080p high-definition debut. Thousands of traces of dirt, scratches, and debris were digitally removed and problems with image stability and other issues were also corrected.
Many asses were busted to make The 'Burbs look as good as it did on the big screen a quarter-century ago and the results are not surprisingly impressive. Framed in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the picture quality is a revelation. Colors are warm and vibrant, details look sharper than ever, and the amount of grain has been kept to a necessary minimum in order to maintain a wondrous filmic texture. The quality never falters once from first frame to last. Universal would be foolish not to use this transfer for their eventual U.S. Blu-ray release because the work of director of photography Robert M. Stevens (The Naked Gun movies) has not looked this good since its theatrical debut.
The sole audio option (outside of the ones provided in the extra features) is an uncompressed English 2.0 PCM stereo track that was mastered from the original sound elements by NBC Universal and preserves the film's Dolby mix with astounding clarity and a complete absence of distortion or long-term damage. From the comical dialogue to the bustling sound effects mix to the mirthful Jerry Goldmith score, every piece of the sound mix comes through better than even I could have imagined. English subtitles have also been included.
Writer and co-producer Olsen is joined by Arrow Video's Calum Waddell for a low-key and informative commentary track. The discussion is rarely limited to the writing process and the evolution of the story and Waddell keeps the commentary going with plenty of good questions. It would have been even better if director Dante had been on hand to make the duo a trio, but his presence on the rest of the supplements is quite immense. The other alternate audio option is an isolated music and effects track in 2.0 PCM stereo.
For starters there's the new retrospective documentary "There Goes the Neighborhood: The Making of The 'Burbs" (66 minutes), which is comprised of interviews with Dante, actors Feldman, Gains, and Schaal, director of photography Stevens, and production designer Spencer. There are a lot of interesting and often hilarious stories about the production and everyone involved seems very proud to have been a part of this film.
The original workprint of The 'Burbs, transferred in 1080p from Dante's personal VHS copy which is reported to be the only one in existence, is included here and runs four minutes longer than the theatrical version. It contains many deleted and alternate scenes including a brief cameo by the late Kevin McCarthy, a veteran of several Dante features and a slightly different version of the alternate ending available on Universal's Region 1 DVD. The quality of the print is rough to say the least but it is watchable. The opening credits and effects shot provided by Industrial Light and Magic is missing from this cut and some of the music cues are different as well.
If you don't feel like watching the workprint to glimpse the deleted and alternate scenes they have been given their own video featurette "A Tale of Two 'Burbs" (24 minutes), which compares the differences between the workprint and the final cut and offers optional commentary from Dante. The aforementioned original ending from the earlier U.S. DVD (7 minutes) has been transferred in high-definition for the first time and included here. The 93-second theatrical trailer (also in HD) rounds out the disc-based extras.
Arrow's Blu-ray will also include a reversible cover featuring new artwork by Graham Humphreys and a collector's booklet that contains a new essay on the film written by Kenneth J. Souza, author of Scared Silly: The Films of Joe Dante, as well as one exploring the creative collaboration of Dante and composer Goldsmith. The booklet is illustrated with archival stills and posters. A steelbook edition is also available.
The 'Burbs remains one of Joe Dante's most consistently amusing and subversive comedies, one that has aged gracefully as its underlying themes have become more relevant with the passing of time. If you're a fan of this movie (and why wouldn't you be?) then Arrow's Blu-ray is the edition to own because you just know that the eventual Region A release will be a bare bones affair. This is one of the best Blu-ray releases of 2014 and I can't recommend it more.