The apparition in “Suburban Gothic” looks like something that David Lynch might have cooked up on the budget of a sock puppet show. Following 2012’s delightfully acidic coming-of-age-cum-horror tale “Excision” with this more deliberately cheeky flick that is several shades lighter than its pitch-black predecessor, director Richard Bates, Jr.’s vision is one part Coscarellian fever dream and one part John Hughes movie, if the latter had made the unlikely decision to pick Kevin Smith’s brain for dialogue. The script, by Bates, Jr. and co-writer Mark Bruner, serves up characters that are well-suited for a sitcom like “Suburgatory”, only the scenario involves a haunted house and the sanest person of the lot is the only one that can see the ghosts.
“Excision” co-star and “Criminal Minds” fixture Matthew Gray Gubler plays floundering post-grad Raymond, a nice guy who moves back home to figure things out until he can land a job worthy of his degree. In his surroundings, Raymond initially seems like an oddity, until we meet the denizens of Edge City, who all appear to be either in a state of arrested development or tweaked out on crystal meth. This includes an old high school bully (Ronnie Gene Blevins of “Joe”) who aggressively ridicules Raymond for once being extremely fat, and now for being suspiciously slender (“The strangest thing happened!”, spews the pent-up Raymond at the meat-headed gaggle of plaid-clad clones. “I moved away from this town, and everyone that lives in it, and all of a sudden I stopped using eating as a coping mechanism for depression!”).
Sporting a coif that falls somewhere between “Edward Scissorhands” and “Eraserhead”, Gubler’s comically tortured protagonist is plagued by recurring visions that he can’t explain, and that we, the audience, can’t make a whole lot of sense out of, either. With a loving but oblivious mother (Barbara Niven) on one end and terribly bigoted father (Ray Wise) on the other, it’s a wonder Raymond doesn’t turn around and high-tail it back to the city, where we’re supposed to imagine that things are relatively “normal”. But when things get paranormal after dad’s landscapers (Mel Rodriguez and Ray Santiago, referred to simply as “the Mexicans” by dad) disrupt the skeleton of a centuries-old dead girl, Raymond feels obligated to make things right, even if that means enduring his parents for a while.
That is to say that despite his knack for all things incorporeal, Raymond is far more in-tune with the real world than the majority of his hometown. “Suburban Gothic” is a cleverly articulated assault on ignorance, most notable for its hilarious verbal exchanges, while the horror element almost becomes an afterthought to Raymond’s plight in the world of the living. He finds some solace in Kat Dennings, who plays the bartender version of her “Two Broke Girls” waitress; she’s Raymond’s only real consolation in what might be best described as his surreal suburban nightmare. The dynamic between Gubler and Dennings is almost too quirky for its own good, but you’ll be hard pressed to find much of a gap between quick-witted one liners (some of which I dare admit border on insightful).
I fear I might be overselling this a bit, as the film is wildly unfocused, and as a genre mishmash it becomes diluted by chintzy visual effects as Raymond gets closer to solving the mystery. But where “Suburban Gothic” falters as a ghost story, it makes up for with biting satire and two appealing leads with an amusing, off-kilter chemistry. The supporting cast is good, too: Wise as a caricaturesque product of some wacky bygone era, and Niven as the starry-eyed Stepford Wife who hosts a creepy Jazzercise class in the living room. Jack Plotnick plays Raymond’s mentally shaky cousin Freddy. With “Re-Animator” star Jeffrey Combs and “Pink Flamingos” director John Waters in the mix, it’s like someone opened up a meth lab in “Pleasantville”.
“Suburban Gothic” is playing tonight at the Spooky Movie Horror Film Festival.