For the last four years, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson has hosted a late-night horror movie celebration called Terror Tuesday and if you are a lover of horror, both esoterically brilliantly and obscurely awful, this night was invented just for you. The Terror Tuesday Report will dissect the movie shown as well as provide a barometer for the audience's reaction; as many of these films demand to be seen with an audience, this proves a vital component to the evening.
This week's film: The Burbs, directed by Joe Dante, 1989
The Burbs takes place on an obliatory block in a nameless town (except they do name it and I just can't remember what it is). It's the story of simple, peaceful, suburban existence...interrupted by an unmentionable nightmare! Ray Peterson is a hopelessly average guy who decides to spend his vacation lazing around the house. The house next to Ray has recently had a change of owner and the new family on the block, the Klopeks, seems to greatly enjoy their privacy; so much so that no one in the neighborhood seems to know the slightest thing about them. But when unexplained lights and bizarre sounds begin emanating from the basement of the Klopek house, Ray begins to suspect something sinister is lurking beneath the surface. Has a brood of cannibalistic Satan worshipers moved in next door, or has Ray completely lost his mind?
I truly loved this film. I am ashamed to say that this was my first viewing but there really could have been no better set of circumstances for my first time. Universal lost a good many of its film prints in a tragic fire a few years ago and only recently began striking new ones. The film print of The Burbs that we were seeing had only been screened once before. It was beyond gorgeous and I felt especially privileged to have seen it this way. But even if it had been an old, dragged-l00-miles-in-the-mud print, it would have done little to detract from my enjoyment of it.
The film was directed by none other than Joe Dante, whose influence and genius needs no introduction from the likes of me. The thing I really love about Dante is how much of an unrepentant movie geek he is. Even in something as bland as Looney Tunes: Back in Action, he inserted not only a reference to Psycho, but a reference to the fact that Hitchcock used Hershey's syrup for blood in the shower scene. He included a reference to the behind-the-scenes magic of Alfred Hitchcock into a freaking Looney Tunes film! The Burbs is no less rife with homage and head-nods. The film directly sites the likes of The Sentinel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Race with the Devil, and The Exorcist. It was so satisfying to watch Dante spew his various geek passions onto the screen in a way that those of us in the audience were glad to experience. Hell, the entire film is a parody of one of the greatest films of all time.
The Burbs is very much a comedic version of Hitchcock's Rear Window. If you aren't familiar with Rear Window, then I'm glad you're reading because describing the plot will allow me to illustrate my comparison. Jimmy Stewart plays a photographer who breaks his leg and is forced to while away the hours staring out the window at his various neighbors. He becomes convinced that one of his neighbors murdered his wife and charges himself with handling the investigation. Sound familiar? Ray takes on the Stewart role but the twist is that he is reluctant to believe his neighbors are evil and ends up being coerced by the more paranoid elements of the cul-de-sac. What Dante does is take that film out of the crowded, faceless, apathetic big city and moves into the serene, amiable setting of the modern suburb.
What makes The Burbs so funny are the staunch juxtapositions. The comedy comes from these regular Joe slobs, who live as comfortably as one could ever dream, having to face a gravely serious situation (at least an assumed serious situation) and having no idea how to approach it. There are just as many jokes told through music cue and overly dramatic camera work as there are pratfalls and banter. The movie is funny because we know that Dante understands horror and gives us a cadre of characters who clearly do not. Tom Hanks has become a name synonymous with heavy drama, but his comedy chops are powerfully adept. He makes the everyday man as flawed and indecisive as the everyday man would be which isn't always the way big actors portray regular guys. Sufficed to say, this thing is very funny.
This week saw the return of what I would characterize as the Terror Tuesday regulars. Or at least this was the first week in quite some time where the ratio of regulars to newbies was tilted toward the former. Zack mentioned how some people had given him grief for programming The Burbs for Terror Tuesday citing that it was a comedy and therefore didn't fit the bill. I can assure you none of those pessimistic detractors were in the audience on this night. The regular Terror Tuesday faithful devoured every last inch of this film and the applause roared from the seats before the first ending credit popped up on screen. The tickets for this week's show also sold out in record time so clearly Zack is not alone in his horrorphile appreciation of The Burbs.