Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) was awoken in the middle of the night by strange, industrial sounds emanating from the house next door. Now, during the first morning of his week's vacation, he is wondering about his mysterious neighbours who have only moved in a month ago but have so far made no attempt to make friends with anyone in the street. His wife, Carol (Carrie Fisher), wants to spend the week at the lake, but all Ray wants to do is sit around watching television and do nothing in particular. There's not much chance of that while his other neighbours are determined to find out what is going on in the mysterious house next to his, and he gets roped into their schemes...
Written by Dana Olsen, The 'burbs was director Joe Dante's return to suburbia and the dark undercurrents lurking there, but where in Gremlins the threat was from outside, the little green monsters introduced into the environment that grotesquely parodied the citizens' behaviour, here the suburbanites perform all the grotesque behaviour themselves. Ray's weird neighbours, the Klopeks, don't do themselves any favours in not fitting in, and the imaginations of the people in the street run rampant wondering what they could be up to behind closed doors. Although the film essentially works out various sketches around its theme, the conclusions it draws are interesting.
Ray's non-weird neighbours aren't quite as sane as they wish to make out. Ray's best friend is Art (Rick Ducommun), whose wife is away for the week, and he is the fuel for Ray's paranoia, spinning tales of sensational murders to back up his claims. Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) is a military veteran who is married to trophy wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal) and is all too eager to join in with the general suspicion as a change from worrying about the dog of elderly Walter (Gale Gordon) crapping on his lawn. Meanwhile, watching with great amusement is Ricky (Corey Feldman), a teenager who makes no secret of enjoying the drama unfolding on his doorstep. Watching with no amusement whatsoever is the long suffering Carol, who acts as the stern mother in reaction to the men's childishness.
Although the noises from the Klopeks' home, which is presumably set up to look like the house from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, cause Ray, Art and Rumsfield to hold nighttime surveillance vigils, things get serious when there's a disappearance in the neighbourhood. Walter's dog is found wandering free, and Walter isn't found at all, even after they break into his house to check up on him - only his wig remains. The locals' theories gather pace and they put two and two together to make five - obviously the Klopeks are responsible for the missing man, and perhaps they have killed him too! Why else would they be digging at odd hours of the night? Carol is having none of this, and arranges a visit to the Klopeks, cueing a nicely observed sequence of discomfort where Ray and company have to make awkward small talk with the eccentrics.
The 'burbs had a troubled production history, which is evident in the way the story is resolved. Well acted throughout, Hanks is consistently good as a family man whose idleness and comfortable situation gives him and his friends the space to imagine terrible events are happening nearby, and Dern is awarded many of the best lines ("You keep a horse in the basement?"), but the full potential of the plot is never quite exploited: that Ray and his cohorts are the ones acting suspiciously. However, as the Klopeks' bizarre behaviour is laid on so thickly, this great revelation has to be scuppered by a banal twist which lets down the brave scenes before it. It features some inspired moments, such as Ray flicking through the channels on TV to find only horror movies playing, which leads to a nightmare seeing him roasted on a huge barbecue, but it's frustrating overall. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.
American director of science fiction and horror, a former critic who got his big break from Roger Corman directing Hollywood Boulevard. Piranha was next, and he had big hits with The Howling and Gremlins. But his less successful films can be as interesting: Explorers didn't do as well as he had hoped, but illustrated the love of pop culture that is apparent in all his work.