Sunday, June 21, 2015

The 'Burbs + Little Monsters

(PG, Universal Pictures, 101 mins., theatrical release date: February 17, 1989)

(PG, United Artists, 100 mins., theatrical release date: August 25, 1989)

Rick Ducommun has passed on due to complications from diabetes at age 58 on June 12, 2015. This is the first time I have ever posted a review in tribute to the recently departed, but Ducommun was a familiar face throughout my movie-going childhood. And not just in the bit parts from movies such as Die Hard, Spaceballs, Groundhog Day, and Ghost in the Machine. Ducommun, a Canadian stand-up comic who first came to fame as co-host of Zig Zag, the other popular children's program from the Great White North that wasn't You Can't Do That on Television, proved himself a versatile actor in a number of mainstream projects.

Twice featured on HBO's half-hour live comedy blocks, Ducummon also made headway in the cinemas starting in 1989. Newly thin and imported to Hollywood by Alan Thicke, he appeared in two cult movies with spooky undercurrents.

The first of these black comedies was Joe Dante's The 'Burbs, released in February of that year, which was a minor success at the box office mainly due to the star power of Tom Hanks, fresh off his blockbuster turn in Penny Marshall's Big. The second arrived at the tail end of the summer, Richard Alan Greenberg's Little Monsters, and it fared even worse because of many post-production woes. Specifically, it was another project from the financially-strapped Vestron Pictures, who as I previously mentioned had shipped Bloodhounds of Broadway off to Sony where it, too, was a flop critically and commercially.

Ducommun was the kind of man who could found a skateboard equipment company with his brother Pete, crack a joke about missing gay men on Vaseline jars and then play the good-hearted limo driver in Disney's Blank Check from 1994. From the late 1980s until the mid-1990s, Ducommun was on a considerable roll in his career, but eventually settled down and cemented his career as a bit player. This isn't exactly on the level of Christopher Lee or Betsy Palmer, but I respect Ducommun's comic gifts and screen presence just the same. And it does hit me in the vulnerable area of my youth enough to start me thinking.

Unfortunately, thinking does not exactly enhance the minimal qualities of Little Monsters. The premise was interesting enough to be salvaged by Pixar a decade later for Monsters, Inc., but here the result is a sour and silly combination of Beetlejuice and The Monster Squad. Alongside the holiday release of The Wizard, you can blame both that and Little Monsters for trashing Fred Savage's ambitions to become a movie star based off his success on ABC-TV's The Wonder Years.

Savage plays Brian Stevenson, the lonely new sixth-grade student and eldest son of two combative parents, Holly (Margaret Whitton) and Glen (Daniel Stern). And yes...they not only cast Kevin Arnold, but also his older, wiser mouthpiece, too. Such awkwardness is the stuff of Nostalgia Critic videos. When his younger brother Eric (Ben Savage) is plagued by night terrors involving the monster under the bed, Brian accepts a wager to swap rooms in an attempt to calm his sibling's nerves. Besides, Brian could use the money since his irascible, jumping-to-conclusions Dad has cut off his allowance following a couple of pranks.

Scaredy-cat Eric turns out to be right and there is a monster waiting below until bedtime to make mischief and fright. Enter Maurice (Howie Mandel), a horned, wart-faced, blue-skinned freak whom Brian takes pity on as the daylight melts him into a smoky pile of denim. Maurice shows his gratitude by taking Brian on a guided tour of his grotesque underworld which the monsters call their kingdom, a kid-friendly paradise of junk food, arcade games and rampant destruction. And Brian is even allowed to tag along on many of Maurice's assigned hauntings, where the duo bond over a cavalcade of practical jokes not limited to placing saran wrap over toilet seats, peeing in apple juice bottles and smearing fudge on clean white kitchen surfaces.

The intriguing proposition of seeing Nightbreed pitched to the swing-set crowd is not fully realized, though. Too much time is taken up in the first half by the puerile comedy and Howie Mandel's purposefully, pitilessly overbearing mugging, so much so that subsequent developments and new characters all register as afterthoughts. This means that the Stevenson parents confiding their "trial separation" to their children comes across as ill-advisedly hokey, and that mopey Brian's social isolation is all for naught since he's got three willing companions (including the school bully, Ronnie Coleman, played by Devin "Buzz" Ratray) to help him rescue his abducted brother.

And oh yeah, the poorly-shoehorned antagonists who resent Brian for reasons undefined. One of them is Rick Ducommon's character, Snik, who looks uncannily like the X-Men's Beast as played by W.C. Fields and rages about the realm like a mountain-shaped Mafioso. He is the stooge for the shadow villain known as "Boy," who doesn't appear until the finale without any real set-up or motivation. When we finally see this Boy (Frank Whaley), he's dressed like an English schoolboy and acts like Frank Cotton (seriously, this movie should have been written by Clive Barker) pretending to be Pee-Wee Herman.

Screenwriting team Terry Rossio & Ted Elliott clearly have a yen for suburban anarchy and subverting adolescence, seeing as how they would later go on to Small Soldiers and Shrek. It's too bad their execution is constantly disappointing. There are as many hackneyed elements, particularly in terms of character and structure, about Little Monsters as there would later be in Small Soldiers, but at least that had a genuine loon at the helm to make it seem alive. Richard Greenberg, a titles and optical effects specialist, appears hopeless in trying to pass off a skeletal back lot of a setting as magical. Much like the creature designs and the overall quality of the visual effects, this supposed Neverland is cut-rate and aweless.

However, I would be lying if Howie Mandel didn't eke out a few snickers from his non-stop Michael Keaton imitation. The phrase "over-the-shoulder boulder holder" is exactly how a nitwit 12-year-old boy would categorize a brassiere. There is at least one humorous confrontation between Maurice and Snik, easily the best dialogue exchanges the movie has to offer, not to mention a chance for both Mandel and Ducommun to play funny naturally. And with a better script and direction, Mandel could've actually come across as endearing. But just like Fred Savage and Daniel Stern, Mandel seems to be coasting.

The only grace you'll find on an acting level is the frustratingly brief appearance by Frank Whaley as Boy, who is not to be confused with Guy, the vengeful lackey of vicious Kevin Spacey he played in Swimming with Sharks. Aside from his warm job as Father Mundy in Keith Gordon's A Midnight Clear (I forgot to mention that he went on to become another actor-turned-auteur), Whaley was also the simpering Brett from Pulp Fiction, the Target store janitor hero of Career Opportunities and Robby Krieger of The Doors in Oliver Stone's film. Barely hiding his malevolence behind a frozen visage of adolescent rejection, Whaley is devilishly fey and deserving of more than the script gives him.

The movie ends with Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere," which is worthy of kudos, too. I also heard a cover of Nick Lowe's "(I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass" and Buckwheat Zydeco's overplayed "Ooh Wow," which was actually supposed to be a cue for Bobby Day's "Little Bitty Pretty One," not to be confused with the smash hit cover by Thurston Harris. I better get my facts right in front of ol' Shrevie.

Little Monsters isn't even half as novel as The 'Burbs, which nobly tries to justify its genre-specific glory through Joe Dante's typically crackpot enthusiasm. Whereas the former boasts a clip from the fifties version of The Fly not used for any thematic good, Dante throws in simultaneous passages from Race with the Devil, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and pays them off splendidly by showing you just how feverish and fearful the imagination is of Tom Hanks' neighborhood schmuck, Ray Peterson.

Ray is content to spend his week's vacation lazing around in his bathrobe instead of treating his wife Carol (straight-shooting Carrie Fisher) and son Dave (Cory Danziger). In his apathy, Ray is fixated on the next-door residency of the Klopeks, one of those decaying Gothic hell-houses which would be ideal for Macabre Homes & Gardens magazine. The Klopeks' peculiar habits of digging up their backyard, conducting electricity for a mysterious whirring furnace in the wee hours of the morning, setting front-door booby traps involving angry bees, and driving the short distance to dispose of their garbage provoke insane curiosity in the community's numb-skulled majority.

Enabling Ray's fanatical snooping are gabby slob Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun), who has convinced himself the Slavic-sounding Klopeks are Satanists; patriotic wacko Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), who turns every "How do you do?" into a recon mission; and teenage burnout Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman), who is so boundlessly amused and entertained by the weirdness on his block that he invites dates and friends to spectator parties on the patio.

And then elderly Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon) disappears leaving only his toupee, causing Ray and the gang to suspect the homicidal worst.

Ever since Bosom Buddies premiered at the start of the 1980s, Tom Hanks had a reputation throughout the decade as an affably arrested smart aleck. Since becoming the award-winning dramatic juggernaut with Philadelphia in 1993, nostalgia has crept in for a generation weaned on Hanks' boyish, hyperventilating persona cultivated in films like Splash, Bachelor Party, The Money Pit, Dragnet, and The 'Burbs. The closest they got was his voiceover work as Woody in the Toy Story franchise. Dare I say this, but Tom Hanks was the Adam Sandler of the 1980s, less abrasive and more accomplished but still.

So perhaps Big was Hanks' own Punch Drunk Love, a whimsical story which busted open Hanks' Everyman charms to the point where (for Hanks, at least) he got his very first Oscar nod. Unlike Sandler, Hanks' obligations to the mainstream turned out to be even quirkier than expected, including John Patrick Shanley's Joe vs. the Volcano and Brian De Palma's calamitous adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Only Turner & Hooch stunk of hardcore formula. And The 'Burbs may as well be the nuttiest of these interim films between the certified crowd-pleasers of Penny Marshall's Big and A League of Their Own.

A lot of that is down to Senor Dante more than scatterbrained screenwriter Dana Olsen, whose amusingly paranoid sense of humor (imagine "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" as a sitcom-my farce) is capped off in the most chickenshit, "I told you so" manner. A year later, Dante would top himself with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, but there are delirious moments of pop-culture allusions ranging from possession pics to Spaghetti westerns to be savored. His penchant for stunt-casting reaps more dividends in the self-parodying glee evident in Bruce Dern and the assemblage of actors playing the Klopeks, Laugh-In comic Henry Gibson (from Dante's previous Innerspace), Kraut cut-up Brother Theodore and ginger grotesque Courtney Gains (Hardbodies).

Dante regulars and good luck charms Dick Miller and Robert Picardo turn up as garbage men more belligerent than the ones from Creepshow. But this is Rick Ducommon's signature movie more than anybody else's, his every scene alive with cocky one-liners and conspiracy theories. Sure, Tom Hanks delivers a screed worthy of Kevin "You're Next!" McCarthy in the closing stretch, but it's Ducommun's oafish fast-talking and fear-mongering which gives the real momentum.

Another sharp tool in The 'Burbs' comedic shed is Jerry Goldsmith, who provides a maniacally colorful, organ-flavored score which often syncs up with chanted renditions of dialogue ("Satan is good, Satan is our pal") and what sounds like Fairlight samples of a dog barking when Walter's poodle Queenie first scampers on-screen.

If only 'The Burbs had a bit more clarity of purpose to keep it from ending like a John Landis movie. There is subtle hilarity in the way Dante and Olsen poke holes at the suburban haughtiness which relegates a famed doctor like Henry Gibson's character to predetermined quack status, and the performances by Hanks, Ducummon and Corey Feldman are infused with enough obnoxiousness so as not to truly relate to but rarely skimping on the laughs (which was what Howie Mandel couldn't overcome in Little Monsters).

So in essence, you have the kind of movie Rick Ducummon would actually make more of in the dreary Little Monsters, and the kind of movie he deserved in the flighty The 'Burbs. Regardless of how the dice landed, I would like to once again pay my final respects to the Duke of Prince Albert.

"Sleep tight."

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