Suburbanites suspect their reclusive neighbors of malfeasance.
Directed by Joe Dante
Starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Carrie Fisher
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
Directing a film is often as simple as maintaining a tone. I can’t remember where I heard that, whether it was on one of the half dozen film podcasts I listen to or if it was in an interview with someone (maybe the Coen brothers), but it’s a sentiment that rings true. Keeping the mood consistent and establishing a world that a film’s events can credibly occur in both fall under the umbrella of tone, and it’s a particular aspect of filmmaking that Joe Dante has never considered. We’ve previously discussed his Explorers, with its jarring third act spent amongst corny aliens. I only recently saw Gremlins for the first time, a film that wants to be a horror comedy but also contains a reaction shot to a fuzzy puppet when a character laments how her dad suffocated in a chimney during an elaborate Christmas prank. Both of those films are on solid ground when it comes to premise, but the tone is out of control. The same is true of The Burbs, a cogent satire with a vast distance between how it’s interpreting its characters and how they’re coming across. This is one more Dante film that has no idea what it wants to be.
Classic production code films are always hard to evaluate. It’s possible the viewer has seen dozens of iterations and imitators without knowing it, robbing the classic of any originality it would’ve had at its premiere. The workarounds required by morality censors give writers and directors hurdles that don’t improve their films thanks to an extra degree of difficulty. These kinds of films have a cadence all their own, a stilted way of speaking that can be hard to ignore. Subtlety seems to be a thing that doesn’t get introduced to American cinema til the incorporation of Italian neo-realism and the looming French New Wave. I don’t feel like I’m too far out on a limb when I say that Hollywood film was an art form with plenty of room to run in the early 50’s. The film that gets me thinking about mid-century movies is High Noon, the Western as anti-McCarthy parable. It has all the aforementioned crutches that keep it from my rating it as a great film, though I can admire it as something with a perspective and a legacy.
On our recent Best of 2018 So Far podcast, I raved about The End of the Fucking World. It’s by accident that I saw what is still one of my favorite TV series of the year before I saw I Am Not a Serial Killer. These are essentially the same pieces of fiction. A teen male who is sure he’s a sociopath bides time until the inevitable moment when he makes his first kill, but he discovers what it means to follow through on those impulses and that he doesn’t have to be like the people that do so. The lesson that brain chemistry is not destiny is a powerful one that the species has had to continually remind itself of, and it’s something pitched at my wavelength due to my preference for both skepticism and liberalism. However, I Am Not a Serial Killer is no End of the Fucking World thanks to its own choices of who the villain is and what the viewer is supposed to feel about him. It doesn’t believe that sociopathy is interesting enough on its own, and needlessly spices things up with the supernatural.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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