I have loved The Burbs since it came out on video when I was 9 and my parents rented it. It made me feel smart for realizing that it was making fun of horror movies—but that didn’t stop me from actually being scared during certain parts. (I talk about this a bit in my 299 Words & 2 Images response to Gautam at Broken Projector’s Cinema 299 series.)
The Klopek family—portrayed with spot-on hilarious absurdity as “foreign” by Brother Theodore, Henry Gibson and Courtney Gains—themselves didn’t scare me. I was fascinated and attracted to them. The part of the film that scared me was Ray Petersen’s (Tom Hanks) nightmare visions of the family as murderers. His subconscious twists the horror movies he’s seen on t.v., the urban legends traded in the street by his neighbors Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman) and Art (Rick Ducommun), the images from a book on Satanism, and adds in his own suburban xenophobic fear of outsiders to create something rather scary. To a nine year old. Seeing it as an adult it looks like director Joe Dante intended it to look—ridiculous and amusing.
But my fascination and attraction for the Klopeks remains. The doctor, Henry Gibson’s character, is always endearingly genteel and sweet, whether unscrewing a small container of sugar substitute and offering it to the ladies or shaking with anger and attacking Ray with a syringe. Brother Theodore does little more than stand around looking pissed off—but he’s Brother Theodore, so he looks REALLY pissed off. Courtney Gains—who I’ve always adored as Whitey in Colors—hits career highs as Hans, the youngest of the Klopeks. Indulge me for a moment as I list Hans’ greatest moments:
1. Driving the car down to the curb, taking a bag of garbage out of the trunk and beating the crap out of it once it’s in the garbage can. Tom Hanks almost steals the scene just by describing the action and saying, “I’ve never seen that,” but the way Courtney Gains moves in this scene is so compelling it doesn’t matter what else happens, all you remember is his walk.
2. The first time you see him, standing on the porch, just scratching himself. The way he holds his body and what he does with his face in this scene is worthy of the young Brando.
3. Telling Rumsfeld (Bruce Dern) that the picture of the pretty girl “came with the frame,” and then taking it away from him, as if it were really important because of it.
4. Slipping around on the grass in lederhosen near the end of the film, before getting tackled by Rumsfeld in a wild baseball slide (at which point we get another brilliant Vietnam reference from Bruce Dern, “Sonny, I was at 18 months in the bush and I can snap your neck like a twig,” which is second only to his response to the Klopek house spewing angry bees, “In Southeast Asia we’d call that sort of thing Bad Karma.” But I digress.)
So great was my affection for the Klopeks as a child that I would sometimes be compelled to shut the video off before they find the skulls in the trunk and prove they are killers. It wasn’t that I didn’t want them to turn out to be killers—there’s nothing wrong with rooting for the bad guy. It was that I didn’t want them to be robbed of that element of mystery. I didn’t want the people of the suburbs to be able to comprehend them or believe that they had come to know them. They were foreigners. I wanted them to remain that way.