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Fangrrls on Film: The 'Burbs deserves a gender-swapped reboot
Film criticism is a very dude-heavy industry. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men account for 73% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, resulting in men often shaping the narrative of what makes a "good" film or a "bad" film — what's worth seeing and what's not. And even the most well-meaning, wokest of men wouldn't necessarily catch the microaggressions or tropes that tend to define whole genres.
Every neighborhood had that house. The one that stood out like a sore, even festering thumb. Its lawn was lifeless and cracked, yet boasted a crooked tree that looked like a skeletal hand clawing its way out of the ground. Its paint was cracked and flaking, looking like the corpse of a home. At night strange noises rumbled from within. Maybe you'd dare your friends to ring the doorbell. Maybe you'd peak into the basement windows to spy what secrets lay inside. Maybe you'd whisper sinister speculations about the strange family who lived within. All this is why The 'Burbs spoke to a generation and became a cult classic. It got how it feels to be bored and hungry for trouble in suburbia.
After gifting us the cuddly and creepy holiday horror of Gremlins, director Joe Dante returned to the suburbs for a horror-comedy about an everyman (Tom Hanks, natch) who suspects his reclusive next-door neighbors are up to no good. Ray Peterson (Hanks) has been stressed out at work, and so on his vacation he decides to enjoy a restful week at home in the cozy cul-de-sac in quiet Hinkley Hills. But it's a not-so-quiet night that sparks a dark obsession within Ray. Something loud and ominous is coming from the Klopeks' home. And while good fences make good neighbors, some creepy clues can't be overlooked, as when Ray's dog digs up a human bone. Teaming up with his conspiracy-theory-loving best friend Art (Rick Ducommun), the military man across the street (Bruce Dern), and a nosy local teen (Corey Feldman), Ray investigates, getting into an array of hilarious and horrific hijinks.
Even 30 years later, the premise works! Part of the unspoken horror of suburban life is not knowing what happens behind closed curtains. We like to think our well-maintained yards and charming decors will keep us safe from the violence and madness that seems so big city. But Art reminds us that for every crazed killer caught there's some wide-eyed neighbor on the evening news remarking how nice a guy he seemed. Every small town has an urban legend, and every urban legend serves as a warning to remind us that terror can live anywhere.
The horror of this premise hits us where we live, asking us to wonder about our own neighbors and any ghoulish bit of gossip. But this concept is also a perfect foundation for comedy. In The 'Burbs, Hanks leans into slapstick and his always-funny freakout shtick, and it's darkly delightful. All he needs to make a scene hysterical is a swarm of bees, a too-short hose, and some bumbling buddies. Even the discovery of human remains is delightful, thanks to Dante's campy zooming in and out as his suburbanites panic. The tone swings wildly from spooky to campy, whether this band of fools is spying on their neighbors, screaming over a grisly clue, or breaking into an explosive finale. But it works in part because Dante captures the zany energy of getting carried away with rumors, and in part because Hanks and the gang are game to go goofy, and their excitement is absolutely contagious.
But 30 years later, there's one thing about The 'Burbs that feels woefully dated: its female characters. FANGRRLS icon Carrie Fisher co-stars as Carol, Ray's wife. But this movie is a total waste of Fisher's charms and comedy timing. In this whole comedy, she's given no punch lines. Carol is not here for funny; her job is to be the nagging wife who eye-rolls and clucks over her husband's suspicions. She's the buzzkill. In one scene, she even takes on the role of his tsk-tsking mother. Annoyed at how these "boys" are misbehaving, she grounds her husband, and when Art and Rumsfield come to ask him out to play, she shoos them away! Women are no fun in The 'Burbs. That is, unless they are too be leered at.
The only other female character of note in the film is Bonnie Rumsfield (Wendy Schaal), the trophy wife who always wears skimpy clothes and high heels, even when she's gardening. When rowdy teen Ricky looks up her short shorts and commends her on her lack of tan lines, she smiles gratefully. Bonnie's key role is to be leered at without complaint. None of the neighbors who are suspicious of the Klopeks — and thereby in on the movie's fun and games — are female. Instead, women are the nags who either spoil the fun or only offer fun by being an object to ogle.
This grew a bit more galling in a scene where Ray channel-surfs through a string of horror movies. He clicks to The Exorcist, a possession-horror classic about a little girl plagued by a demon. He clicks to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, in particular, a scene where a young woman is being menaced by a chainsaw-wielding Leatherface. And a third movie shows a human sacrifice, where a nude woman is mutilated. The 'Burbs recognizes women are often the victims in horror movies. Yet this horror-comedy decided not only to have no women in the lead roles but also to make all the female characters ludicrously naïve of the horrors next door.
Thankfully, since 1989, Hollywood has made the remarkable discovery that women are people! And movie-goers too! We've seen a change in female representation and even a string of female-fronted reboots, like Ghostbusters, Ocean's 8, and the upcoming comedy The Hustle, which was inspired by Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. So now is as good a time as any to reboot The 'Burbs with a female cast.
Just think of it! Alison Brie or Rachel McAdams could star as the Ray, an everywoman who is very stressed out from "trying to have it all," so plans a relaxing staycation. But her peace is shattered by weird sounds coming from next door. The next day, over backyard mimosas, she talks about these mysterious neighbors to her gossip-obsessed bestie, played by Tiffany Haddish. They feed each other's suspicions and soon loop in the gun nut across the street (Kate McKinnon) and the side-eying teen (Zendaya), who seems jaded but is a deep-cut true crime fan who is feeding them all kinds of hair-raising anecdotes about secret murder dens, strange disappearances, and small-town cannibals. Even Walter, the inconsiderate old jerk who lets his dog run havoc on others' lawns, could be gender-swapped. Imagine Kathy Bates bringing her American Horror Story cackle and crackling menace to the role!
Women love true crime and are hungry for movies that are made with them in mind! The 'Burbs is STILL a great concept. And it could easily be given new life with a killer cast and a gender swap that would allow a clever filmmaker to lean into true crime tropes to come up with a story that's freshly fun. And it wouldn't have to be a strict "remake," since that word seems to spark a lot of wrath in the internet's angrier corners. This 'Burbs could be in the same universe, even the same neighborhood! This time, instead of telling the creepy story of Skip the slaughtering soda jerk, these ladies could remember how about 30 years ago, wasn't there a family of serial killers on this street who had a treasure trove of human bones in their trunk? Hanks could even come back for a neighborly cameo! The time is right to bring new thrills and fresh blood to The 'Burbs.