The science fiction world suffered a huge blow this week when Carrie Fisher died of a heart attack at the age of 60. Of course, Fisher’s career-defining role was her portrayal of Princess Leia Organa, the leader of the rebel forces in the Star Wars movies, but she had a pretty lengthy resume of other work, including appearances in The Blues Brothers, When Harry Met Sally…, and Hannah and Her Sisters. She even played around a bit in the horror world, playing parts in a 1984 Showtime production of Frankenstein as well as small-but-pivotal roles in the Sorority Row remake and Scream 3 (where, in pure meta-Scream style, she plays a jaded version of herself). However, aside from Star Wars, her most loved performance may well be her turn in the 1989 horror/comedy The ‘Burbs.
The ‘Burbs is about a man named Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks from Sully and Bridge of Spies) who lives an idyllic life on a suburban midwest cul-de-sac called Mayfield Place with his wife, Carol (Fisher), and ten-year-old son, Dave (Cory Danziger from “Beauty and the Beast”). When a new family by the name of the Klopeks moves into the run-down, spooky house next door to Ray, his paranoid friend Art Weingartner (Groundhog Day’s Rick Ducommun) comes up with a theory that the new neighbors are part of a Satanic cult that holds ritual sacrifices on the property. At first, Ray is unconvinced, but another neighbor, a survivalist patriot named Mark Rumsfield (The Hateful Eight’s Bruce Dern), buys into the theory. The more investigating that the trio does, the more evidence they dig up that seems to support Art’s accusations. When another neighbor disappears, Ray and the boys decide to figure out once and for all whether the Klopeks are responsible or not.
Because of its “horror-lite” tone, it should come as no surprise that The ‘Burbs was directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling) from a script that was written by Dana Olsen (Memoirs of an Invisible Man). Both have roots in comedy and horror, and The ‘Burbs falls squarely into that realm. Although it’s a lightweight horror comedy with few actual scares, The ‘Burbs is not without social relevance. Its themes of paranoia and mistrust are very much in line with the Rod Serling scripts for “The Twilight Zone.” Heck, in more ways than one, The ‘Burbs is a loose retelling of “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” with neighbors becoming suspicious of each other over silly little things.
While Carrie Fisher is not the big star of The ‘Burbs, she plays a very important role in the movie. As with most of the screwball comedies of the eighties, the wives in The ‘Burbs are the calm voices of reason while the men are off being rash and idiotic. Along with Rumsfield’s wife, Bonnie (Wendy Schaal, who has been keeping busy as the voice of Francine Smith on “American Dad!”), Fisher’s Carol serves as both a sounding board and a conscience to Hanks’ Ray. Fisher and Hanks have a chemistry that is, well, like that of a married couple in an eighties comedy, full of annoyance and exasperation, yet built on a core of love and respect. While Carol is no Princess Leia, she holds her own against the bumbling husbands who are convinced that their neighbors are evil.
In addition to the leads and the ladies, there is a great support cast in The ‘Burbs that includes plenty of familiar faces and talented thespians. Corey Feldman (The Lost Boys, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) plays a teenager named Ricky Butler who essentially provides all of the exposition in the form of a play-by-play analysis that he verbally supplies to a bunch of friends that he invited over to watch the entertaining goings-on. The Klopeks are masterfully portrayed by Henry Gibson (Monster in the Closet, Innerspace), Brother Theodore (the voice of Gollum in the original “The Hobbit” TV Movie), and Courtney Gains (better known as Malachai from Children of the Corn). There’s even a short cameo by frequent Dante collaborator and “that guy” Dick Miller (Night of the Creeps, A Bucket of Blood) who, along with Robert Picardo (976-EVIL, Jack’s Back), plays a garbage collector. There’s a colorful group of residents and visitors at Mayfield Place.
The ‘Burbs is not a pure horror film, but between the direction of Joe Dante and the appearances of Corey Feldman and Dick Miller, the pedigree is there. And there are plenty of references to remind the viewer of that pedigree. At one point, the teenage Ricky brings up the seventies spook flick The Sentinel, wondering if the Klopeks are the keepers of hell and if their house is the gateway. While Ray is trying to forget about the Klopeks by taking in some television, he channel surfs past horror movie after horror movie, including Race with the Devil, The Exorcist, and The Texas Chansaw Massacre 2. Ricky Butler’s house, although not shown prominently in the film, is the famous house from “The Munsters” (the film was shot on a suburban cul-de-sac set on the Universal lot). There’s even a painting in the Klopek’s house that sharp-eyed viewers may recognize from an episode of “Night Gallery.” It may have more laughs than scares, but The ‘Burbs has plenty to keep the horror crowd entertained.
The music for The ‘Burbs was composed by the legendary and versatile Jerry Goldsmith (Magic, Planet of the Apes, The Omen). For what it’s worth, it’s a usual Goldsmith score, serving every purpose that it needs to without calling too much attention to itself. Ever the economist, Goldsmith even recycled a theme from his score to Patton for a scene were the militant Rumsfield is introduced. Not to be outdone, Dante also borrowed a piece of Ennio Morricone’s My Name is Nobody score for a scene where Ray and Art approach the Klopek’s house as well. While not one of Jerry Goldsmith’s more memorable scores, the soundtrack for The ‘Burbs gets the job done.
An actor does not appear in an industry-changing blockbuster like Star Wars without becoming synonymous with that character, so Carrie Fisher was and always will be Princess Leia. Her mark was made on Hollywood by her performance in Star Wars, but she also left behind plenty of fun movies like The ‘Burbs for which she will also be remembered. The light of the universe is a little dimmer without her in it.