Few places in this world are as simultaneously placid and terrifying as the American suburbs. Though cookie-cutter houses and bright green lawns may seem idyllic at first, poison can run underneath the heartland. Films like The Graduate and Edward Scissorhands attempt to critique the obsession and consumerism that live in America’s sprawling neighborhoods. A surprising amount of certified classics have taken place between sidewalks and recycling bins — and, had things gone slightly differently, they might be joined by another title: The ‘Burbs. Joe Dante‘s dark comedy about a man obsessed with his weird neighbors is clever in its satirical beats and maintains a zany balance of humor and horror throughout. What might be its most memorable component, however, is its ending — and it’s the very thing that’s still dividing fans.
The End of The ‘Burbs As We Know It
The main character of The ‘Burbs is an Everyman. Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), freshly on holiday from work, really just wants to relax. Putting a hitch in those plans is his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher), who would rather go somewhere. And there’s an even bigger hitch — the neighborhood has just welcomed some new nonconformist residents. The vaguely threatening Klopeks have moved in seemingly overnight, and engage in strange behaviors like refusing to listen to small talk and driving their garbage to the end of the driveway to hit it repeatedly with a shovel. This underlying tension sets the scene for a week of Ray becoming more and more paranoid about their true nature. Are they Satanists? Cannibals? After all, they have accents and their yard is a mess.
But it isn’t just Ray — his bumbling friend Art (Rick Ducommun) and war-obsessed neighbor Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) are hellbent on finding out the Klopek’s secret. Weaving in and out of pastel nightmare sequences and the lilting theme tune of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, we watch as they bumble through an amateur investigation. Ray is horrified by an unexplained neighborhood disappearance while Art seems perversely energized, a kind of robe-clad personification of his environment. Soon enough, they’re getting dangerously close to what they assume is a murderous family. It can’t end well — and it doesn’t. If you rent the movie through any traditional means, this is the ending you’ll get: Ray, Art, and Rumsfield meddle too far. The Klopek house is burned down, and Ray comes to the conclusion that — just maybe — they’ve made something out of nothing. But surprisingly, he’s proven wrong. The strange family has, in fact, been killing residents and cremating their remains in a huge furnace. The weird digging at night? The horrifying sounds? They’re all real. Ray is the good guy, and he was right to be paranoid. It’s a hard turn left, especially after Hanks’ monologue, and picking up on that dissonance makes sense — neither this ending nor another alternate ending, released later on DVD, are original to the script. And though the movie remains entertaining — and has a loyal fan base — perhaps this was one element that prevented it from being great.
Behind the Picket Fence
The ‘Burbs’ long journey to fumbling for an ending began when Hanks was cast. Though there seems to be some discrepancy online, the movie’s original script shows that its intended ending was to see Ray killed by one of the Klopeks, taken away in an ambulance while life on the street proceeds as normal. The other neighbors are left assuming the Klopeks are indeed innocent, and that Ray by extension has lost it. It makes sense: Writer Dana Olsen has said that he based the script off a morbid childhood interest in small-town crime. Every neighborhood has an urban legend, after all. But this darker ending wouldn’t work if Hanks was involved. After all, America wouldn’t want to see such a likable guy killed off.
The ending would have to be changed — and casting wasn’t the only thing affecting the movie’s finale. The Washington Post reported in 1988 that the Writer’s Guild strike of that year was negatively affecting the production. None of the “several endings” written were working, and they couldn’t hire a writer. Instead, the actors ad-libbed their lines, hoping to pick an ending later. Olsen played a bit part on set, presumably to offer advice. These changes, combined with a lack of decision, resulted in three endings being filmed. As of now, however, only two have been released — the final version and the alternate DVD ending. (Its changes are mostly minor, other than a meaningful monologue from one of the Klopeks about the social problems inherent to suburbia.) But an ending with innocent Klopeks or a dead Ray? As of now, they’re out of our reach.
We’re the Lunatics!
Toward the end of the movie, in all versions, Ray delivers an explosive speech to his staring neighbors. Roaming sleeplessly through the burning remains of the Klopek house, he waxes poetic. “We’re the ones who are throwing garbage in the street and lighting fires,” Ray says, his head burned and bandaged. “We’re the ones who are acting suspicious and paranoid, Art. We’re the lunatics! Us! It’s not them!” It’s an indictment of the suburbs, as well as the kind of bullying that comes from the paranoia that environment can breed. The spirit of ‘The Burbs’ original ending can be seen best in this one fiery moment, in Ray’s insistence that the pressures of conformity-obsessed ’80s America have turned him into the very thing he’s most afraid of.
“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,” Ray says. “It’s not them. That’s us.” Hanks’ manic energy is used here to its fullest potential, building to a delivery that threatens to outshine the burning house in the background. Unsurprisingly, this scene has come to define the film. The argument has been made that simply stopping the movie after Ray’s big speech would improve its conclusion, and perhaps this would miss some of the comedy derived from the evil being proven real. But one could see this moment as a fourth potential ending — and perhaps a more fitting one, too.