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“SUBURBAN GOTHIC” (Fantasia/Screamfest Movie Review)

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SUBURBAN GOTHIC is a very different kind of genre film from writer/director Richard Bates Jr.’s previous EXCISION, but both are clearly products of the same colorful, idiosyncratic mind.

A world premiere at this past summer’s Fantasia festival in Montreal, and playing tomorrow at LA’s Screamfest, SUBURBAN GOTHIC is playful where EXCISION was visceral, even as both explore the strange underbellies of small-town surfaces. In its basic storyline—a young man returns to his old home and teams up with a local girl to solve a mystery with nasty implications amidst a supporting ensemble of eccentrics—GOTHIC carries echoes of David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET, though it’s no imitation of Lynch’s aesthetic. Indeed, the amateur investigation here is more akin to the Hardy Boys or SCOOBY-DOO—two of Bates’ admitted inspirations.

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That young man is Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler), who has failed to make it in the big city despite possessing an MBA and has come back to the house where he grew up with father Donald (Ray Wise) and mother Eve (Barbara Niven). Eve is happy to see him return, but Donald, a former jock and current high-school football coach, never approved of the son he considers a sissy and continues to belittle and insult him (along with any number of ethnic groups). Things haven’t changed outside Raymond’s home, either; when he retreats to his local bar, he discovers that Pope (Ronnie Gene Blevins), who used to bully him in high school, is now an equally antagonistic alcoholic. Fortunately, he finds a soulmate in bartender Becca (Kat Dennings), who becomes his confidant, potential girlfriend and partner in getting to the bottom of a century-old crime whose specter hangs over Raymond’s old/new home.

As it happens, Raymond sees dead people, cuing a series of cheerfully old-fashioned visual FX and an unpleasant discovery by a group of day laborers doing renovations on the family’s property. Bates and Mark Bruner’s script comes to encompass both occult and science fiction themes, but it’s not the fantastical elements that either take center stage or make the strongest impressions in SUBURBAN GOTHIC. Rather, it’s the string of individualistic characters that command the most attention, starting with Raymond, who has a wisecrack or sarcastic comeback for every occasion. Snark is very hard to make appealing (as has been proven by too many films these days), but Gubler knows how to dance on the right side of the fine line between charming and overbearing. He’s got a fine partner in Dennings, bringing a sparky personality and dry delivery that make Becca more than just a simple girlfriend or foil.

The movie is stolen, however, by Wise. Donald is a font of bigoted invective, and while racism isn’t necessarily funny, Wise demonstrates how a racist person can be, fully embracing Donald’s anti-PC persona and milking big laughs from his blinkered, egotistical attitude. As in EXCISION, Bates has seasoned SUBURBAN GOTHIC with a flavorful collection of genre-name cameos, including Jeffrey Combs as Raymond’s family doctor, Muse Watson as a g-g-g-ghost, John Waters as a local historian, Sally Kirkland as a medium and, further down the line, bits by Jen and Sylvia Soska and Jennifer Lynch.

The latter would seem to be Bates’ tip of the hat to filmmakers who have explored this territory before, even as he strikes out to blaze his own off-the-beaten path. Too lighthearted to be described as black humor (the movie eschews gore, though it has its share of bodily-fluid gags), SUBURBAN GOTHIC is very much its own film—strange, silly and populated by oddballs who keep you laughing and engaged until the very end.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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