Barbara Niven, cinema, dead children, father-son relationships, film reviews, films, ghosts, grown children, haunted houses, horror-comedies, Housebound, Jack Plotnick, Jeffrey Combs, John Waters, Kat Dennings, Lucas Lee Graham, Mackenzie Phillips, Mark Bruner, Matthew Gray Gubler, McKenna Grace, Mel Rodriguez, Michl Britsch, Movies, multiple writers, Muse Watson, Odd Thomas, paranormal investigators, racists, Ray Santiago, Ray Wise, Richard Bates Jr., Ronnie Gene Blevins, Sally Kirkland, scatological humor, seances, seeing ghosts, Sibyl Gregory, silly films, Soska Sisters, Suburban Gothic, suburban homes, suburban life, suburbia, The Frighteners, Under the Bed, writer-director-producer
Ah, suburbia: endless rows of identical houses, with identical lawns, with identical Suburbans parked in identical carports, tended to by identical suburbanites as they go about their virtually identical lives. For many people, suburbia is the very picture of success: after all, what really says “You’ve made it” more than your own house, family, steady job and reliable source of transportation? For the outsider, misanthrope and loner, however, the very concept of suburbia can be a kind of hell on earth: the place where all dreams go to become pureed into easily digestible slop. As the Descendents so aptly put it: “I want to be stereotyped…I want to be classified…I want to be a clone…I want a suburban home.”
For filmmakers, the concept of the dark underbelly of suburbia is nothing new: after all, films like The Stepford Wives (1975), The Amityville Horror (1979), Neighbors (1981), Parents (1989), The ‘Burbs (1989), American Beauty (1999) and Donnie Darko (2001) have been equating cookie-cutter neighborhoods with existential dread for decades now. To this storied tradition we can now add writer-director Richard Bates Jr’s Suburban Gothic (2014): proving that there’s nothing wrong with ambition, Bates Jr takes the aforementioned suburban angst films and throws in elements of “I see ghosts” films, ala The Frighteners (1996) and Odd Thomas (2013), as well as “grown children moving back home” films, such as the instantly classic Housebound (2014) and the less successful Under the Bed (2012). If Suburban Gothic never comes close to reaching the heady heights of Housebound, there’s still enough silly, funny and outrageous material here to give genre fans a grin from ear to ear. Plus, it’s got Ray Wise: any film with Ray Wise is, of course, automatically better than any film without him…that’s just basic math, amigo.
Poor Raymond (Criminal Minds’ Matthew Gray Gubler) is in a bit of a pickle, the same conundrum that might befall many twenty-to-thirty-somethings: he’s over-educated and under-employed. Despite having his MBA, Raymond must swallow the bitterest pill of all and move back in with his over-protective, smothering mother, Eve (Barbara Niven), and obnoxious, disapproving and casually racist father, Donald (Ray Wise, swinging for the rafters), an event which is sure to put a crimp in any attempt he can make to take control of his life.
You see, Raymond is a bit of a mess: bullied as a child about his weight and “gifted” with the ability to see ghosts, he escaped his one horse town as soon as he could, hoping to put as much distance between him and the past as possible. Given to wearing outrageously showy clothes (his bright, purple scarf is a definite highlight), Raymond couldn’t be more out-of-place in his old hometown, especially once he ends up back in the sights of former bully Pope (Ronnie Gene Blevins) and his small crew of miscreants. Everyone in town is glad to see that Raymond failed at life, since it (somehow) validates their own humble existences. Everyone, that is, except for Raymond’s former classmate, Becca (2 Broke Girls’ Kat Dennings), who now tends bar at the local watering hole. To her, Raymond was always the only interesting person in town and she’s mighty glad to have him back, even if she has a snarky way of showing it.
Just in time for his homecoming, however, some truly weird shit has started to happen, seemingly centered around the makeshift childs’ coffin that Donald’s gardeners have just dug up in the yard. Before he knows what’s going on, Raymond is experiencing the same ghostly visions that he used to have, this time involving a sinister little girl. As the occurrences become more pronounced, Raymond and Becca are convinced that a wayward spirit is in need of a peaceful journey into the light, while Donald and Eve are convinced that their son is losing his ever-lovin’ mind. As Raymond and Becca dig deeper into the history of the house, however, they begin to realize that the spirit in question might not be that of a little lost girl: it might just be something a bit more on the “extreme evil” side of things. Will Raymond and Becca be able to set it all to rights or will this humdrum slice of suburban life end up destroying them all?
My anticipation level for Suburban Gothic was pretty high, right out of the gate, for one very important reason: I pretty much adored writer-director Bates Jr’s debut, the outrageous Excision (2012), a slice of high school life that managed to combine Grand Guignol gore with fanciful dream sequences and arrived at a wholly unique, if often repugnant, place that wasn’t so far removed from what the Soska Sisters did with their stunning American Mary (2012). Excision was the kind of debut that puts a filmmaker firmly on my radar, which leads us directly to the sophomore film, Suburban Gothic. If his newest possessed a tenth of the gonzo energy of his first, this seemed like a pretty sure-fire no-brainer.
In reality, Suburban Gothic is a good full-step (certainly at least a half-step) down from Bates Jr’s debut, although it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable romp on its own terms. The big difference ends up being tonal: unlike Excision, which buried its blackly comic sensibilities under a lot of very unpleasant material, Suburban Gothic is a much sillier, goofier affair. Nowhere is this made more explicit than the impossibly silly scene where Raymond watches his toenails rise and fall to the tune of the old chestnut “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Shoddy CGI aside, the scene has the feel of something truly slapstick and goofy, perhaps closer to The ‘Burbs than anything in Bates Jr’s debut.
This “silly” elements end up seeping into almost every aspect of the film: John Waters shows up as the blow job-obsessed head of the local historical society, the medium’s daughter is named Zelda (et tu, Poltergeist (1982)?), Raymond and Becca dress up in the most ridiculous ghost costumes ever (think Charles Schultz), anonymous hands grab Raymond from every-which direction and there’s more mugging going on than a thug convention. In one of the film’s most notable bits, Raymond masturbates while checking out his favorite site, “Latina Booty,” as an overhead light slowly fills with “ghostly” semen: at the “appropriate” moment, the light shatters, showering poor Raymond in about fifty gallons of spooky spunk. Disgusting? You bet yer bottom dollar! Terrifying? Not quite.
The aforementioned example, however, is also a good example of Suburban Gothic’s ace-up-the-sleeve, as it were: for all of the film’s silliness and scatological humor (along with the jizz, we get a lovingly filmed vomiting scene and a nice, long shot of a turd in a toilet), there’s also genuine intelligence and love for the genre. The light gag might be an easy-shot gross-out joke but it’s always a subtle, kind of brilliant nod to Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead (1981). There’s also a not-so subtle reference to del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), lots of visual ques for The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist and plenty of cameos by genre royalty (the legendary Jeffrey Combs gets to play a bugshit-crazy doctor (natch), while the Soska Sisters pop up in a crowd scene).
While the actual plot is nothing revolutionary, Suburban Gothic is such a good-natured, eager-to-please popcorn flick that it’s never painful to watch: the CGI is fairly well-integrated (save that rather dreadful toenail bit) and if the color-timing on the cinematography seems constantly off (the film has an odd red cast that’s pretty noticeable), cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham (who also shot the much more striking Excision) serves up plenty of nicely composed, evocative images.
On the acting side, Gubler is pitch-perfect as the sarcastic, quietly suffering schlub who must swallow his distaste for everything in order to save his (decidedly undeserving) childhood home. Gubler has a rare ability to mix wiseacre dialogue delivery with Stoogian physical comedy, an ability which serves him well here: one of the film’s easy highlights is the hilarious scene where Raymond accidentally drops an ice cream cake, over and over, until he finally stamps on the damn thing in an abject display of childish tantrums writ large.
While Dennings takes a little longer to get revved up (her early scenes have a rather distracting “I don’t give a shit” quality that’s off-putting), she fully comes into her own by the film’s final reel and her and Gubler make for a believable enough couple. Although she’s never as consistent as Gubler, Dennings shows enough steel, here, to make me interested in her next move: here’s to hoping she spends a little more time in the horror genre…we could use a few fresh faces!
While Niven is fun as Raymond’s mom, Wise really gets to run roughshod over the proceedings: whether he’s proclaiming that all of his Latin American workmen are “Mexicans,” telling his son to “take a knee” as he rolls up to him in a squeaky office chair or apologizing to his black football players for his lack of “grape pop,” Wise is an absolute blast. If anything, his performance as Donald makes a nice comparison to his role as Satan in Reaper, albeit tempered with more than a little lunk-headedness. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if there’s ever a Mount Rushmore for iconic genre personalities, Wise is guaranteed to be there.
Ultimately, Suburban Gothic is a thoroughly entertaining, amusing and mildly outrageous horror-comedy: fans of this particular style will find no end of delights, I’m willing to wager, although I still found myself slightly disappointed by the time the credits rolled (the less said about the ridiculously sunny coda, the better). Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by standout films like Housebound and The Frighteners, a pair of horror-comedies that are pretty much the first and last word on this particular subject…perhaps I was hoping for something with a little more bite, ala Excision. Whatever the reason, I have no problem whatsoever recommending Suburban Gothic (provided, of course, that potential viewers are prepared for the often rude humor), although it’s not quite the Richard Bates Jr joint that I hoped for.
I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that Bates Jr is going to become a force to reckon with in the next several years. If that doesn’t blow yer toenails back, pardner…well, I don’t know what will.