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Joe Dante’s “THE BURBS” (Arrow Blu Review)

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Joe Dante hit the cultural zeitgeist hard with GREMLINS, delivering a knowing horror comedy for kids at the peak of an era in which children were swallowing up genre VHS rentals at a record pace. The film was such a hit that it afforded Dante about a decade of Hollywood freedom to make strange, self-conscious, genre-bending comedies like THE EXPLORERS, INNERSPACE, MATINEE and GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH. None of them were particularly successful as Dante’s sensibility was always too dark, sardonic, and knowing for massive crossover success beyond that inexplicable Christmas monster movie hit. However, the man’s entire canon from the period has gone on to become cult classics and one in particular seems to only grow in popularity.

That film is THE BURBS, a suburban satire flavored with horror movie references that spoke to a generation of kids whose escape from white picket fences came from the same B-movies that Dante latched onto in his mockery of suburbs paranoia. Thankfully, THE BURBS finally has the collector’s edition Blu-ray it deserves from the good people at Arrow.

Tom Hanks stars as a sad little man with a nice house in a nice neighborhood containing a nice family, but one who simply can’t feel comfortable in that world. He’s got a sarcastic wife in Carrie Fisher who helps him cope with his fate. He’s also got a fat, wacky sitcom neighbor (Rick Ducommun whose career sadly fizzled before it started) and an army-obsessed nutjob (Bruce Dern) across the street with a trophy wife (Wendy Schall). Along with their inexplicable stoner teen buddy played by Corey Feldman, the trio like to hang out and indulge in paranoia. In particular, they chat endlessly about the rotting creep-out house on their street populated by the weirdo Klopeks (Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, and Courtney Gains). One night Hanks, Ducommun, and Dern catch the youngest Klopek beating the hell out of his garbage with a stick and become convinced that the family have started murdering folks and stashing bodies. They embark on a crusade to uncover the crime, but every time they come close to finding something, it becomes increasingly clear that they might be the crazy people on the block.

BurbsBluCoverTHE BURBS plays as pure, undiluted, vintage Dante. The tone is a step removed from reality into movieland. The colors are a little too bright, the characters are a little too arch, the camerawork is always stylized, and scenes play out pitched between homage and parody of the movies that came before. Dante gleefully toys with the artificiality of the movie, using LOONEY TUNES visuals, a stylized nightmare, and horror movie cues to heighten the comedy. The cast is perfectly aligned. Hanks works his everyman charm to sell a protagonist who is essentially a kindhearted maniac. Fisher greatly does her thing. Gibson delights in monster movie excess. Ducommun gets so many laughs that it’s a shame he didn’t work more. Finally, Dern delivers possibly the most entertaining performance of his career.

The social satire is sharp, yet never overwhelms the gentle laughs. It’s a comedy, but with Dante in charge the horror elements play out with a purity and effectiveness that no traditional comedy director could match. Like all Joe Dante joints from the era, the film is difficult to pigeonhole into any genre, changing tone almost from one scene to the next, but without ever giving the audience whiplash. In a way, Dante did everything that Tarantino became famous for, he was just too good at sneaking his subversive instincts into mainstream blockbusters for most critics to notice at the time. Thankfully, as the years have gone by, audiences have come to appreciate what Dante was up to at his creative peak and films like THE BURBS finally have the adoring cults that they always deserved.

Arrow Films have specialized in treating forgotten genre gems with remarkable care for years and they’ve really pulled out the stops for THE BURBS. Their HD transfer is absolutely beautiful, capturing the heightened colors and lurid details of the cinematography and art direction in a way no other home video edition has come close to. The sound mix is also crisply clear, particularly Jerry Goldsmith’s playfully diverse score that bounces out of speakers like never before. However, it’s the overflowing special features section where Arrow has spoiled starved BURBS fans the most. Things kick off with a full feature length documentary that shares more details about THE BURBS’ production than anyone has heard in 20 years. Sadly, Hanks, Fisher, and Dern weren’t involved, but pretty well everyone else who helped make THE BURBS and is still alive pops up to share fond memories about the production.

Next up, Arrow managed to get a rare workprint cut of the film from Dante’s personal VHS collection. It can be watched in it’s entirety, or in a 30 minute feature highlighting the differing scenes and sequences (with an optional Dante commentary). There’s added improv, a deleted subplot about Hanks losing his job, a new alternate ending, and best of all the original extended dream sequence featuring even more of Dante’s Bava-inspired horror surrealism and a cameo from Kevin McCarthy. Film score fans will also get a kick out of the fact that the workprint features Dante’s temp track full of Bernard Hermann, Danny Elfman, and Ennio Morricone cuts that Goldsmith played with in wonderful ways.

Things wrap up with a sweetly nostalgic commentary from screenwriter Dana Olsen and HD transfers of the trailer and alternate ending from the old BURBS DVD. Overall, it’s a spectacular Blu-ray package for a movie that richly deserves it. Anyone with a sweet tooth for Dante needs to pick it up immediately and bask in all the BURBSian glory. It’s been quite a long journey for this film from mild box office hit to beloved cult oddity and this Arrow Blu-ray cements THE BURBS’ place in cult movie history with style.

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About the author
Phil Brown
Phil Brown is a journalist, writer, and wiseacre who rattles his keyboard from somewhere in Toronto. He writes about film and comedy for a variety of websites/publications like Fangoria (duh!), Now Magazine, The Toronto Star, Comics And Gaming Magazine, Toro, Critics Studio, and others. He’s also been known to whip up the occasional comedy sketch or short film. If you feel like being friends, go ahead and find him. He doesn’t bite (much).
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