Recently I watched Michael Winner’s supernatural horror film The Sentinel (1977) for the first time ever. I’ve not read the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz, and despite being a fairly obvious spin-off of Rosemary’s Baby, and some not-so-great reviews, I was pleasantly surprised with how much pure fun the movie was. The cast was a delight, and while Christopher Walken barely gets a speaking part and a young Jeff Goldblum is relegated to straight-man photographer—and though I’ll never look at Mrs. Griswold the same way again, ever—the true honor of watching this movie goes back to 1989. Goes back to a kid named Ricky Butler.
It goes back to The ’Burbs.
In an eerie scene involving a late-night cigar break for everyman Tom Hanks, Corey Feldman’s Ricky Butler asks “did you ever see the movie The Sentinel, Mr. Peterson?” He goes on to make a comparison between that movie’s more-literal “gateway to hell” and that of their new oddball neighbors’ house. As another neighbor so kindly points out: “No one goes in. No one comes out. No visitors. No deliveries. What do you think they’re eating over there, Ray?”
Now I have seen the movie The Sentinel, and am one step closer to my full-on doctorate in ’Burbology. And I’m not alone; since its rather underwhelming theatrical run in February of 1989, The ’Burbs has gone on to claim cult status, with a devoted following which might seem inexplicable to those who witnessed that premiere over thirty years ago.
Director Joe Dante was coming off the triumphs of films like Gremlins and Innerspace, Tom Hanks had just filmed Big, which would release to massive box office success during the ten-week shoot, and Corey Feldman was still TEEN HEARTTHROB COREYFELDMAN (as one story goes, he was visited on the Universal Studios set by Michael Jackson + a monkey). Throw in a classy Carrie Fisher and classic Bruce Dern, what could possibly go wrong?
For starters, there was a Hollywood writers’ strike in full-swing. Screenwriter Dana Olsen, who says he approached the story as “Ozzie and Harriet Meet Charles Manson,” thus was subsequently hired on as a performer (he has a cameo as a police officer near the end of the film), which may or may not have come in handy for on-set rewrites. The film is dark, though not extraneously so, not enough to considerably sink the Tom Hanks cruise line. I mean, we’re not talking The Cable Guy here. The ending went through some changes, and a complete reshoot (the alternates can be found on various special edition releases), and even Joe Dante himself didn’t know what was really in the trunk of the Klopek’s car when filming that scene, deciding on the final reveal only after the fact.
That shot stayed with me as a kid.
Growing up in a small town in North Carolina, films playing on the eccentricities and psychoses of suburbia have always been close to my heart. Jeffery Beaumont solving his lurid mystery in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (filmed in nearby Wilmington, by the way, during the same time and on the lot directly next to Stephen King in his first and last directing gig on Maximum Overdrive—but that’s another story), Edward Scissorhands with his teachings on conformity and the individual, The Goonies and my total ignorance of irony over a character named One-Eyed Willy. These were my stories, about things that happened or could happen just down the street, if only in the shadows, and I’ll never forget the first time I watched The ’Burbs and that final reveal was burned into my prepubescent brain.
For the uninitiated, The ’Burbs is the story of Ray Peterson, an everyday suburbanite living on Mayfield Place, the perfect suburban cul-de-sac. Only he and his eccentric cohorts have one big problem: their creepy new neighbors, the Klopeks. They are indeed oddballs, no doubt about that, even stranger than the previous owners of the house. Only when Walter, the local curmudgeon, goes missing does the paranoia reach its zenith and Ray and his neighbors set out to get to the bottom of things, convinced Walter has been offered as a Satanic human sacrifice. As Ray says, “Nobody knocks off an old man in my neighborhood and gets away with it.”
The burning question throughout the film is whether or not the Klopeks are indeed a murderous cult of psychopaths, or merely down-on-lawn-care homeowners who put a premium on privacy. And wear cowls while digging holes after midnight. In the rain. Or bang the hell out of garbage bags with a stick. Or, in a classic scene, have femurs dug up from beneath their fence by the family pet.
Without giving away too much, let’s just say that the resolution of events affected not only my childhood imagination, but also my view of the greater world in general. It’s the whisper that says maybe that stranger with his arm in a sling and the friendly offer of a ride isn’t quite what he appears to be. Or that maybe sometimes things are exactly what they appear to be.
But let’s not get too serious here. The movie is also just plain fun, full of catchy dialogue and great comedic timing. When I get a text from a friend in the middle of the night that says only “You mean, kinda like gravediggers?” I know to respond with a garbled-by-a-mouthful-of-apple: “Maybe.” For us, having now viewed The ’Burbs throughout the majority of our lives, the film has become a lifeline, a constant comfort, the needle always pulling true north.
When I wrote my first manuscript years ago, my main character somehow ended up hailing from Mayfield Place. At least one character has been “about a nine on the tension scale.” I traded a furnace for a belt buckle in that catch-all proverb: “A man’s furnace is his own business.” Presently I keep waiting for the opportunity when the honest answer to a question is “it came with the frame.” And for a brief moment there, my debut novel was almost penned by “Ray Peterson.”
There’s plenty for horror lovers in the movie, as well. The youngest of the Klopek clan, for example, is ingeniously played by Courtney Gains of Children of the Corn fame. The twice-told tale of the town’s ice cream man murdering his family with an ice pick, and the steam from their bodies pouring out the windows as they decomposed in the summer heat, is flat-pedal macabre. In one scene, Ray is disturbed when flipping through the TV by a series of dreadful shout-outs: Race with the Devil, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. (Following a haunting dream sequence, he wakes that next morning to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in a rare prophetic shout-out worthy of The Simpsons and which proves The ’Burbs is beyond space-time.)
To be honest, there’s a little bit of something for everyone on Mayfield Place.
Heavy enough for adults, but with enough levity and dark humor to be enjoyed by a younger crowd. An everyman fighting some unseen (and perhaps unreal) battle on the home front. Sardines and pretzels. Oh, and who can forget that classic score by Jerry Goldsmith? “God, I love this street,” Ricky Butler says in the film’s final scene, and after so many years I can honestly say that So do I, Ricky Butler. It may not be the best movie ever made, but it has certainly survived like one of them. The enduring appeal of The ’Burbs is no mystery, unlike what’s really going on in the Klopek house. Come on inside and join the rest of the initiated if you’d like to know what that might be.
Just stay out of the basement.