Director: Richard Bates Jr.
Writer: Mark Linehan Bruner, Richard Bates Jr.
Producer: Dylan Hale Lewis
Stars: Matthew Gray Gubler, Kat Dennings, Barbara Niven, Muse Watson, Sally Kirkland, Mel Rodriguez, Jeffrey Combs, John Waters, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Jack Plotnick, Ray Santiago, Shanola Hampton, Mackenzie Phillips, Ray Wise
An unemployed business school grad reawakens his paranormal sensitivity to solve a haunting plaguing his parents’ house.
The copout way of describing “Suburban Gothic” is to simply point to its cast and confirm that they combine for the eclectic potpourri one might expect given the alternative pop culture appeal of the associated names. So of course the main ingredients in the movie’s melting pot of madness naturally include the sleepy-eyed sass of Kat Dennings, the casual charm of Matthew Gray Gubler, and Ray Wise being Ray Wise. To put it another way, “Suburban Gothic” captures the kind of hard-to-pinpoint aesthetic that can only come from supporting appearances by B-movie maestro John Waters, Jeffrey Combs of “Re-Animator” fame, Oscar nominee Sally Kirkland, and Mackenzie Phillips from “One Day at a Time.”
If that doesn’t paint a particular mental portrait, yet another way to describe the film comes directly from its mastermind, director and co-writer Ricky Bates, as his cast affectionately refers to him. Introducing “Suburban Gothic” at Screamfest, Bates recalled that his project was born from a profession-related depression that saw him revisiting fun flings from his youth for respite, e.g. episodes of “Are You Afraid of the Dark” and Hardy Boys detective stories. It’s no wonder then that “Suburban Gothic” carries a vibe of what a Scooby-Doo mystery might be like if it was drunk on Maker’s Mark and fueled by a Pixie Stix sugar high.
Fresh out of business school and unable to land a job in “upper management,” Raymond Wadsworth is forced to move back home with his socialite mom Eve and obliviously bigoted dad Donald. Raymond bounces between encounters with his hometown’s quirky denizens including gay Cousin Freddy, crowbar-wielding bartender with attitude Becca, and still-stuck-in-his-high-school-stereotype bully Pope.
But the encounter causing Raymond the most concern is the supernatural spirit unearthed when a landscaping crew disturbs a corpse unknowingly buried on his parents’ property. Having suppressed a susceptibility to paranormal presences because of the nightmarish grief it caused during childhood, Raymond is compelled to reawaken his psychic awareness with Becca’s help in order to put a stop to the poltergeist and to finally lay its spirit to rest.
In keeping with that Hanna-Barbera sensibility alluded to earlier, “Suburban Gothic” is a lot like a live-action cartoon aimed at adults with an affinity for juvenile humor, and not just because of Matthew Gray Gubler’s ascot-heavy wardrobe and colorful fashion sense. The script is stacked with boner jokes and satirical racist humor while the visuals add their own sight gags involving masturbation, vomit, and unflushed toilets. Think along the lines of “South Park” with a moderately less raw angle of approach.
What you won’t find is a supernatural story of serious substance. The mystery on hand is a typical vengeful ghost yarn complete with a stolen necklace (why do ghosts always want physical trinkets in the afterlife?) and backstory involving a tragic murder. The screenplay deliberately follows clichés of how the spirit requires an item’s return, a proper burial, etc., and “Suburban Gothic” plays along by staging the usual scenes of séances, summonings, and routine paranormal activity.
Rough-edged visuals amplify the campiness, although their cheesiness fits into the tongue-in-cheek tone. A post-screening Q&A revealed that the FX were done with Adobe After Effects and without a dedicated visual effects team, so that should give you an idea of how seriously “Suburban Gothic” takes itself as a horror film, and how seriously the film wants you to take it at the same time.
John Waters’ one scene exists simply to say no in order for another character to say yes. Jack Plotnick’s Cousin Freddy provides Raymond with a car and the audience with scenes forgotten once the credits roll. In fact, nearly half of the cast could be culled from the roster with no impact whatsoever as most of the movie’s wandering asides are largely purposeless. However, “Suburban Gothic” is well aware of its nonsensical structure and expects the audience to simply enjoy each scene as an individual vignette.
Those attracted to the usual allure of the cast’s varied personalities and bearing no expectations for something above lowbrow humor will get what they came for. “Suburban Gothic” has some of the maverick auteur tone that Ricky Bates Jr. captured in his previous film “Excision.” But this movie aligns its mood much closer to traditional mainstream comedy, likely so its sights can be set on broader appeal than “Excision” had.
Personally, I fall in the camp of those who would rather see Ricky Bates Jr. play future films closer to the dark eccentricity that “Excision” exhibited. Few filmmakers have a firm handle on that mix of Wes Anderson/David Lynch/John Waters style that is bitingly funny without triggering uproarious belly laughter, and Bates belongs to that group. “Suburban Gothic” doesn’t follow up on the specific promise that “Excision” showed. But it’s hard to fault Bates’ aim for something more easily classified as fun and then succeeding, even if it isn’t as smart or as stylized in its subtlety.
eview Score: 75