As horror movies evolve and change style, and believe me I am the last critic who should weigh in on horror, there are films which become a little more accessible to viewers who, like me, are way too much of a pussy to watch ‘real‘ horror films. SUBURBAN GOTHIC is straddling the lines of camp, horror (barely) and comedy, and like many films, it grew out of the SCREAM school of horror which made people laugh but was authentically scary. Well, it scared me. While SUBURBAN GOTHIC ends up being a funny film – which was its aim – there’s a lot more to it and writer/director Richard Bates Jr. would have better served the film by narrowing its focus a bit. There are a lot of threads running through the movie and that’s not bad, but sometimes it’s good to pick a lane, so to speak, and emphasize one over the others. The fact that the film has a cameo of John Waters is no mere stroke of casting luck. Bates clearly wants to evoke the “Watersian” over the top Technicolor surreal campyness of Waters’ films, and he does in some scenes and characters, but it is too inconsistent and that element is insufficient to carry the weaker aspects of the film as a whole.
Raymond, played by the skilled Matthew Gray Gubler, has earned his MBA and unable to find work in his desired field, returns from the big city to the small nowheretown in which he was raised. He is, as if that is not scary enough, moving back in with his parents. He is a quirky, pseudo-hipster (his lack of facial hair though keeps him from being a REAL hipster) and he has a life long gift for seeing all things supernatural. His parents, understandably, think he’s batshit crazy. His father, Donald, played by the fantastic Ray Wise, and his mother Eve (Barbara Niven) give the film a heavy dose of its camp factor and the family dynamic they create with Raymond is the best part of the movie. Niven plays Eve as a maternal Stepford-wife, an always primped clueless doormat, and Wise brings Donald to life as such an acerbic, critical and foul-mouthed father that he almost makes you cringe and that is great because he provides much of the movie’s laughs and edge. Honorable mention goes to Jack Plotnick who plays Cousin Freddy, a funny, shadowy family member who comes out of nowhere and projects a mix of camp and realism perfectly. Every time Plotnick popped up it was delightful. The luscious Kat Dennings plays Becca, the lone hot girl who stayed back home and runs a bar in town. Dennings plays Becca with a goth ‘above it all’ jaded attitude but she sadly comes across as a little too apathetic to deliver her lines with much punch. Becca would have benefited from a spike in blood pressure in at least a few scenes but sadly she’s unrealistically flat through all the spooky antics which take place.
These antics involve a buried child’s skeleton, varied supernatural entities, disappearances and a black smog tube which is the love child of 1950’s B horror movie effect and DONNIE DARKO’s water arm. SUBURBAN GOTHIC has some good laughs, and it would have been more tweaky if Bates had chosen to make the frights just a little more scary – it doesn’t take much. Much of the true humor in a film lies in the character’s reaction to what is terrifying, and it’s all the funnier when the audience is terrified. True that in doing so would have changed the nature of the film from what is really a good-natured grown up Scooby-Doo, and taken in that context Bates nails it. However, because the film doesn’t have one core story we are left wondering a bit about its aim; is it about Raymond’s paranormal abilities and what lies behind them? Is it about his simmering romance with Becca? Is it a 21st Century social commentary on the economy and the ‘horror’ of having to move back into your parent’s home because even smart, educated young people can’t make ends meet? SUBURBAN GOTHIC isn’t sure and Bates seemed reluctant to commit to one unifying thread. It’s kind of like a band with all rhythm guitar – it may sound cool but it’ll kick ass with someone playing lead wailing on a head-thrashing solo while backed by a killer bass and some bad-ass drum licks.
Interestingly enough the cinematography has moments of great style. It is highly reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s camera work and framing and in fact Gubler interned with Anderson. Of all the dialogue it is Donald’s (Ray Wise) which provides the substantive punch, and shines some quiet light on the nature of racism. The screenplay does have a quality to it which made me question if some portions of the film were ad-libbed by the actors. There is something of a lack of modulation in the film’s action and words and a little more variation in pace and emphasis would have been welcome. The ideas are there, the style is there, and funny lines are there. They just needed a funky bass line, a massive drum kit and someone to play lead to be an epic anthem.(3 / 5)
Director: Richard Bates Jr
Cast: Matthew Gray Gubler, Kat Dennings, Ray Wise, Barbara Niven, Jack Plotnick
Running Time: 90 minutes
Movie Review Suburban Gothic