To strike a “perfect” balance between comedy and horror is an outrageously difficult task, and one that very few filmmakers pull off.
(Examples? Fine. Young Frankenstein, Shaun of the Dead, Cabin in the Woods.) And since it’s so damn difficult to pull this trick off, a lot of filmmakers wisely decide to lean in one direction or another. That’s how we get horror movies with with generous portions of clever wit (like Scream) or comedies (like Ghostbusters) that simply mess around with themes generally found in the horror section. That’s sort of where the dry, wise-assed, and slyly appealing Suburban Gothic fits in: it’s a comedy that sort of stumbles into horror territory, and the result is pretty amusing.
Suburban Gothic is the story of a glib, sarcastic, and frequently selfish young man who (reluctantly) returns to his tiny hometown, only to discover that things are a lot more haunted than he remembered. It’s not bad enough that Raymond’s mom is more than a little overbearing and that his dad is a perpetually infuriated and impossible to please bastard, but now our anti-hero has to deal with freaky nightmares, eerie visions, and (of course) things that go bump in the night. Raymond’s only ally in this madness is a droll, snarky bartender who, for some reason, actually believes the guy’s wacky stories.
I’m sure it all sounds a little “Scooby-Doo,” to be honest, and that’s sort of what makes Suburban Gothic so much fun. All the backstory about the haunting is good stuff, but Suburban Gothic works best if taken as a feature-length deadpan sitcom with a very strong ensemble. Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler) starts out obnoxious and almost absurdly self-obsessed, and gradually transforms into a character you’ll grow to like. Plus the actor is just funny, period, and he’s at his best when working next to Kat Dennings. Together the duo almost threaten to out-irony each other, but they quickly strike a few smooth and appealing chemistry while digging through attics and interviewing various (and invariably clueless) townsfolk.
Fortunately, Suburban Gothic has a lot of ammunition in the cast department. Genre fans will no doubt appreciate the small contributions from Jeffrey Combs, Sally Kirkland, and John Waters. And while veteran character actor Barbara Niven provides an adorable performance as Raymond’s doting mother, the big scene-stealer has got to be the force of nature known simply as Ray Wise. As Raymond’s ill-tempered, sports-addicted jerk of a father, Mr. Wise gets more laughs in a half-dozen scenes than most sitcoms do in a half-dozen episodes. Horror fans know Ray Wise can play evil or fatherly with equal ease, but in Suburban Gothic the man is just plain old funny.
While Suburban Gothic is quite a bit lighter (and a lot less unsettling) than the director’s previous film (it’s called Excision; check it out), it stands as another strong effort from Richard Bates Jr. It’s also a bit more “mainstream” than his first feature, which is a good thing. This guy should be working with much larger budgets, and offbeat yet well-made movies like Suburban Gothic can only help his case down the road.
Scott Weinberg (@scottEweinberg)
Suburban Gothic is on US VOD now.