For his follow-up to the 2012 indie success Excision, filmmaker Richard Bates, Jr. turned to the films and shows of his childhood for inspiration. In his horror-comedy Suburban Gothic, you’ll find takes on Scooby Doo and classic haunted house films – all under a glossy veneer of bright suburban colors and satire. Bates has made a worthy successor to Excision while also showing off his range of talents for fashioning both comedy and old fashioned horror. While it doesn’t always work, Suburban Gothic is a fun flick with lots of interesting moments.
Matthew Gray Gubler (best known for his role as the socially awkward genius Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds) stars as Raymond, a college graduate unable to find a job in the “big city.” This forces him to begrudgingly move back in with his parents out in the suburbs. While his mom may be excited for her baby boy to come back home, his father Donald, a tyrannical, racist despot, thinks Raymond is a complete failure (and isn’t shy about expressing his feelings).
Donald’s played by genre icon Ray Wise, who delivers the majority of the laughs in the film. Gubler’s Raymond may be a quick-witted, sardonic fellow, but Wise’s comedic chops steal the show in Suburban Gothic. Bates and co-writer Mark Bruner’s script gives him plenty to work with too. There’s heaps of razor-sharp one-liners, comebacks, insults, and even some physical comedy thrown in for good measure. For example, Wise has a great gag he repeats a few times where he moves a wheeled office chair in the most obnoxious way possible. He plays it all so wonderfully straight too. It’s certainly the best material Wise has had in a while.
After moving back into his parent’s house, Raymond begins to experience supernatural happenings – the same ones that haunted him in his youth. The haunting builds up nice and gradually as Raymond goes into Hardy Boy mode, investigating the house’s history to get to the bottom of the spirit who refuses to leave. He’s joined in his exploits by a sultry, dry-humored bartender named Becca (Kat Dennings), who quickly takes to Raymond’s charming demeanor. The two delve into a century-old murder mystery in hopes of bringing peace to Raymond and the unruly spirit haunting his parent’s house. The two work really well together onscreen as they skirt romantic territory, delivering flirty jabs at one another.
The suburb Raymond moves back to is inhabited with an impressive lineup of genre pillars, including Jeffrey Combs, Muse Watson, and in a particularly hilarious scene, Mr. John Waters. There’s also brief appearances by filmmaker Jennifer Lynch and the “twisted twins” Jen and Sylvia Soska. I was happy to see Ronnie Gene Blevins, who plays one of Raymond’s childhood bullies. Blevins recently gave one helluva villainous performance in David Gordon Green’s Joe and it was cool to see him play sorta the same character here. He’s good at playing a jerk. So many cameos took me out of the film at times, however. They can be fun, sure, but playing “spot the genre actor” shouldn’t take precedent over the actual story.
Suburban Gothic is relentless in pace and consistent in its darkly comedic tone. The story is an engaging one and emotionally honest in parts, while playfully silly in others. The haunted house gags range from goofy to macabre and are thankfully never overwhelming in their CGI. There are some overly goofy ones that kinda fell flat for me – like a UFO on a poster flying around and some severed head stuff that felt like it belonged in a Disney horror film.
Overall, Suburban Gothic is a really good time. Even during the parts that kinda don’t work (the dance sequence), I guarantee you’ll never be bored.