Spooky Movie Festival 2014: “Suburban Gothic” reviewed

Posted by Michael Parsons on October 11, 2014 in , / No Comments


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.

001“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.

Suburban-Gothic-e1405176027596That 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.

Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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