Right now, I’m working on an essay about one of my favorite 80s movies, The Burbs.
Here’s the gist:
For a small-town middle-class family like mine, the setting of The Burbs was familiar. We had conspiracy theorist neighbors, and those who yelled at people for their small dogs that relieved themselves all over the cul-de-sac. Our lives were just normal enough that we marveled at suspicious situations rumored about town. As a child, I knew horrendous stories about city tragedies, and I was far enough removed from them to be more excited than scared.
Screenwriter Dana Olsen knew the bizarre nature of the undercover violence in mid-America, and he wanted to capture the feigned shock that answered voyeuristic neighbors’ speculations. When he wrote The Burbs, he did not conclude the story without testing a few endings first.
The original film script called for a much darker ending with Ray Petersen (Hanks) being murdered in an ambulance by the neighbor he accuses of committing human sacrifices. An alternate filmed ending provides more oddball explanations from the deviant Klopek family before police carry them away. They explain that in suburbia, people pry, but in big cities like Los Angeles, no one questions crimes committed in front of them. It’s funny, but it swings too far opposite the first written ending.
Olsen and his crew ultimately chose to tell a safe story of suburban crime without gore, and without responsibility. I hate to take shots at one of my treasured childhood movies, but I can’t ignore the discomforting question: What if there had been no bones in the Klopeks’ trunk and no crazy doctor waiting in the ambulance to kill Ray Peterson?
The existing narrative actually affirms longstanding suburbanite suspicions by targeting and condemning the dysfunctional or foreign neighbor without taking time to get to know any specifics.
Had the film closed after Ray’s line, not one of the audience members would have known what to do. No one would have had a tidy ending. The story was never intended to be more than a goofy comedy, but I find it fascinating how one simple change could have affected the message.
I find my possible ending more disturbing and more satisfying, but it is not because I’m hardwired to attach greater value to a film such as American Beauty that bares the inner evils of white suburbanite culture. Artists can accomplish a great deal through comedy. The Burbs could have communicated the same idea without any iconic rose petal bath fantasies or cheesy slow motion shots of floating plastic bags.
The essay explores how Ray’s statement bears on my own life and observations, particularly pertaining to life in an apartment complex.
More to come