The ‘Burbs is a great film but we shouldn’t ignore the ending

The following post will, unsurprisingly, include major spoilers.

Joe Dante‘s The ‘Burbs, which Arrow Video are releasing on Blu-ray this week, counts among the director’s best films and represents some of the best work Tom Hanks has ever done. Nonetheless, the film has problems.

Really, it has one big problem. Its ending.

At the other end, things are ship-shape. The picture opens with the famous Universal logo of planet Earth spinning in space before the camera impossibly pushes in and through the atmosphere, making its way down into Mayfield Place, the suburban location of everything that is to follow.

The remainder of the opening sequence recalls David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Mayfield Place is, by design, a generic cul de sac filled with archetypical American suburbanites. The street is overly familiar in part because it’s actually standing set on a backlot in Universal, a fictional street also used in both Leave it to Beaver and Desperate Housewives amongst many, many others.

In many respects, the suburbanite characters become audience surrogates but they’re hardly standardised heroes. They break into not one but two of their neighbours’ houses and hey terrorise the newest family in the street simply because they act a little strangely. The Klopeks meet the wrath of the Mayfield Place residents because they don’t mow their lawn, because they don’t keep their house impeccably clean, and – rather significantly – because they speak with foreign accents. Their country of origin is never specified, but the suburbanites suspect them to be ‘Slovaks’.


It’s deeply uncomfortable that these largely likeable characters are terrorising a family simply because they’re different. The suburbanites behave in a pretty despicable way, but throughout the film, Dante sucks the audience into aligning themselves with their misbehaviour, falling in love with them and wanting them to keep up their investigations. Investigations that ultimately lead to them burning the Klopeks’ house down.

At which point there is a twist. Tom Hanks, as Ray, delivers an extraordinary and incredibly powerful speech. A rant, even, and delivered with real passion.

Remember what you were saying about people in the ‘burbs, Art, people like Skip, people who mow their lawn for the 800th time, and then SNAP? Well, that’s us. It’s not them, that’s us. We’re the ones who are vaulting over the fences, and peeking in through people’s windows. We’re the ones who are throwing garbage in the street and lighting fires. We’re the ones who are acting suspicious and paranoid, Art. We’re the lunatics. It’s not them. It’s us.

The speech was foreshadowed in Dante’s original workprint of the film, which is included on this new Blu-ray, when Ray address his wife seriously, saying “I’m not going to sink to their xenophobic level.” This particular ‘they’ is the rest of the suburbanites.

Of course, he actually does. He falls deep into a hole, even quite literally, but he comes back out of it a changed man. It’s a powerful reversal in the film and a delicious act of subversion for what is an enjoyable and accessible studio comedy.

This is one of the things that can often make Dante’s films so utterly thrilling. He’ll so often stick the knife into the belly of an American idyll and twist it. In Hanks’ speech, created by screenwriter Dana Olsen, the knife cuts very deep. It’s worth remembering that a mainstream 1989 audience would not have been expecting this kind of sentiment at all, let alone to have it delivered so forcefully.

Unfortunately, all of this good work is immediately undermined by the actual ending of the film. There’s a Twilight Zone-style twist that is somewhat amusing and unexpected but does a lot to let off the badly behaved suburbanites, not to mention any members of the audience who might have aligned themselves with their paranoia and hatred.

In this final moments, it’s revealed that the Klopeks are indeed as sinister as the suburbanites had thought. Dr. Klopek, played by Henry Gibson, makes an attempt to kill Ray. Then we discover that the trunk of his car is filled with human skeletons.

He is the monster, the ‘weirdo’ that the Americans suspected he was. This discovery still doesn’t justify the Mayfield Place residents’ actions, of course, but it’s easy to imagine a proportion of the audience letting out a sigh of relief and telling themselves it does.

In the workprint and alternate ending that originally appeared on an American DVD release and is also included on this Blu-ray, Dr. Klopek has some final words to say to Ray.

You were not quite right about the suburbs. No. Here, all you have to do is take one step out of line. You paint your house the wrong shade of pink, you buy the wrong kind of car, you make one or two human sacrifices, then when you walk down the street everybody says, ‘Oh, there goes the weirdo.’

Try reading that again without the part about human sacrifices and imagine it comes straight after Ray’s big speech, without the reveal that the Klopeks are actually criminals.

The ‘Burbs is still a fantastic film, despite the ending, and one filled with many memorable moments of cinematic flair from Dante. I do wonder, though, if I might just get in the habit of ejecting the Blu-ray after Ray’s speech and pretending the film ends there.

Arrow Video’s The ‘Burbs Blu-ray is out now and it’s a really excellent release, boasting not just a fine new transfer but a really superb collection of special features. The highlight of these is the inclusion of Dante’s original workprint, transferred from his personal VHS copy.

The commentary with Dana Olsen is also well worth a listen, not least because it includes him wrestling with the implications of the ending. There’s also a documentary, There Goes the Neighbourhood, which provides a lot of interesting thoughts from many of the film’s key players.