“I hate cul-de-sacs. There’s only one way out, and the people are kind of weird.”
THE ‘BURBS makes me anxious. Leaving aside the fact that I saw it far too young (either my babysitter or my parents were under the impression that it was a loveable Tom Hanks comedy; my sister and I both lost sleep because of their mistake) the film still leaves me twitching in my seat. It is funny, but never light, and honestly creepy. The film’s isolation and insulation are the major sources for my angst and the genuine sources for the horror in THE ‘BURBS.
Suburbs are defined by their juxtaposition to a city. They are not organic locations for settlements, as cities are along trade routes, but rather they are parasitic towns that erupt due to the need for residential space near the city. Even though the very nature of the suburb is to coexist with a paired urban area, the adjoining city in THE ‘BURBS is not mentioned. The location does not matter, for the film never leaves suburbia.
It is also significant that the film takes place in a cul-de-sac. As the quote above mentions, there is only one path in or out of the neighborhood. While this certainly limits the practical options for a quick escape from the street, it also focuses the scope of the action. All of the characters who are involved in the plot’s shenanigans have their attention split between the two houses that bookend the street: Walter’s and the Klopeks’. First, a quick recap of the film.
Ray (Tom Hanks) lives in this idyllic suburb with his tolerant wife Carol (Carrie Fisher), son, and dog. His next door neighbor Art (Rick Ducommun) pops in for breakfast the first morning of Ray’s staycation to steal some bacon and gossip about the new neighbors. The Klopeks are an odd bunch. Their house has little curb appeal and none of them have introduced themselves around the neighborhood. And in this tightly-knit neighborhood, that looks like trouble. When Walter, the older man who lives at the end of their street, disappears overnight, everyone but the wives suspects the Klopeks. Ray, Art, and their militarized neighbor Mark (Bruce Dern) shift into high gear to get to the bottom of the mystery.
On its surface, THE ‘BURBS is a cliche film about the fear of foreigners. The Klopeks are vaguely Eastern European, and their alarming behavior can be explained away by crediting it to being “exotic.” They dig holes in their backyard at night in the rain. They serve pretzels and sardines to their guests. They move nearly every year to find work. Carol and Mark’s wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal) are sympathetic to the outsiders and try to get their men to calm down. But the satirical nature of THE ‘BURBS actually turns on this fear of the other and instead makes the source of fear and the grotesque in the film the suburbs themselves.
Though the nature of suburbs mean that they have easy access to other cities and highways, THE ‘BURBS never leaves the cul-de-sac. Every single shot of the film is contained along a small stretch of this dead-end road. And with Ray’s time away from work, Art’s absent wife, and Mark’s military retirement, the crazy ideas that these men have condense without any outside influences. These three get together and scheme; their isolation from the world beyond their suburb adds fuel to their insane fire. Had they left their neighborhood, ventured beyond the end of the street, they may have come to their senses or at least met someone who could reason with them and talk them out of their destructive plans.
Ray’s nightmare early in the film also points to the suburbs causing him more anxiety than the foreign neighbors. Though the Klopek’s are featured in this dream sequence they are only one of the horrors featured. Art makes an appearance as an urban legend of a killer ice cream man, going after Ray. Throughout the entire dream Ray is strapped down to an oversize Webber grill, as if he is to be barbequed alive. He could escape the onslaught of these monstrous people coming at him if only he could get away from that grill. Being physically restrained to a symbol of the suburb’s domesticity and exaggerated normality is a representation of his waking entrapment within the confines of his street. The suburb is restraining Ray, and he is terrified.
It is this lack of interaction with anything beyond the cul-de-sac that makes my skin crawl. Ray and friends might as well be trapped in the abyss or a deserted island given how much contact they have with the outside world. But to put them in a location adjacent to other neighborhoods and towns heightens the idiocy of their self-imposed seclusion. Without any physical barriers, THE ‘BURBS creates a claustrophobic experience in the hell of the suburbs.