Director: Richard Bates, Jr.
Stars: Kat Dennings, Matthew Gray Gruber, Ray Wise
Excision, directed by Richard Bates Jr., is one of my favourite modern horror films, and one of my favourite films of the decade so far, regardless of genre. A confident and daring sneak attack, it masked its subversive nature in wry humour and a colour palette that recalls American Beauty more than American Mary (another modern favourite, whose directors cameo here). While Excision didn’t break into general public consciousness, it did leave those paying attention with a new young upstart to keep an eye on. Bates Jr.’s debut felt so assured because it seemed as though it’s director was in complete control of what he was presenting and how he was presenting it. It had its own visual language, its own character. Whatever he did next was immediately very interesting.
Enter Suburban Gothic.
Dialling down the button-pushing gratuity of Excision and dialling up the offbeat humour, Suburban Gothic plays as a commendable effort to court a wider (if not much wider) audience. Matthew Gray Gruber is Raymond; foppish hipster and black sheep of the family forced to move back in with his conservative parents Donald (Ray Wise) and Eve (Barbara Niven) when getting a job at the other end of university proves harder than expected. Openly and gleefully hostile toward his father and his hometown, Raymond drowns his sorrows at a local bar – where his appearance ruffles further feathers. However, he does find a drinking partner in rock-chick bartender Becca (Kat Dennings).
Trouble is brewing at home, however. A crew of Mexican day-laborers are scared off of the property after unearthing the buried body of a child, which seems to trigger the appearance of a malevolent entity (think the Smoke Monster from LOST on a budget). Raymond reveals a history of sensitivity to paranormal activity (along with an embarrassing tattoo indebted to The X-Files). While dodging the pitfalls of living with his father, he and Becca attempt to solve the mystery and put lost souls to rest, pitching Suburban Gothic into the realms of an R-rated episode of Scooby-Doo that stars only Shaggy and Selma.
My astronomical expectations for Suburban Gothic plummeted considerably on seeing the film’s trailer late last year, where it seemed like a very dumb, very broad and particularly feeble comedy. Fortunately, that trailer was duplicitous. Kinda. The humour here is frequently quite broad (pratfalls, masturbation jokes), but it is just as often downright bizarre. John Waters makes a cameo here as he did in Excision, and his presence keys the movie into a rascal-like kookiness which it mines to terrific effect. And while all players here bring out their comedic A-game for this tiny project, two players in particular shine enough to really draw notice.
Firstly Matthew Gray Gruber wholly commits to Raymond. Dressed like Nathan Barley at a Dr Who cosplay event, he brings a modern, chameleonic flavour to the film, contrasting the cartoonish conservatism of those he encounters with an equally bold amount of exuberance. But then… then there is Ray Wise. He appeared in just two scenes of Excision, but made both of them memorable. Here he is given a lot of screen time, and he steals it all. Just as he did in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, Wise reminds us that he is fearlessly up for anything. The former Twin Peaks star goes big and goes crazy with a game face here, and every time he does the film monumentally ups its charm factor. And Bates Jr. isn’t done testing what you’re ready for either. Ever wanted to see Ray Wise getting a boner? Well, now you can.
With an infectious level of crazy bristling between the cast members, the decidedly cheap special effects get a pass. Suburban Gothic knows its budgetary limitations and therefore plays these moments as knowingly wacky, skewing them shrewdly to fit in with the garish elements elsewhere. By acknowledging the cult market, Bates Jr. plays lovingly into its hands. This feels like a film that’s for people, not just it’s director, and certainly not as a strategised cash-in, positioning it way above the ranks of your Sharknados. It may have a shoe-string budget, it may be batshit crazy, but there’s a lot of love on the screen, and it transfers.
What this means is that, at it’s best, Suburban Gothic plays like Wes Anderson directing an episode of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (good news whichever way you slice it). Bates Jr. described his film as “a slumber party in your parents’ basement with all your best, weirdest friends” which is as fitting a description as I can come up with. In short it’s a hoot, knowingly disposable, but very easy to watch and so will likely find a lovingly fan base. Bates Jr. isn’t quite out of his particularly cult sandbox just yet, but Suburban Gothic suggests he’s ready to appease that audience for the time being. It may not feel as incendiary or exciting as Excision and it certainly has its flaws (the plot is derivative in the extreme, but serves as a washing-line-flimsy excuse to string together all the fun bits), yet it’s an eminently likable film. And there’s Ray Wise.
Better than expected. Just enough for the time being. I’m still watching you, Richard.