There is an old adage in the film world about the sophomore slump. The second film, traditional thinking says, is prone to being a disappointment when compared to the previous work, especially when the first film is well-received. Such is the case with Suburban Gothic, the second feature from Richard Bates, Jr. His first movie, the stunning Excision, was seated in the top ten lists of most anyone who saw it upon release, and, if you haven’t seen it, stop reading this right now and watch it. It’s a darkly funny and savage work of art. In fact, it’s tough to recall a more audacious freshman entry into the world of horror in recent years, except maybe Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Yes, it’s really that good.
Enter Suburban Gothic, a more straightforward horror-comedy starring Matthew Gray Gubler as Raymond, an over-educated and under-employed business school graduate who is forced to return home after failing to secure a job in “upper management.” His childhood home is the site of multiple paranormal experiences he suffered as a child, but Raymond has been deaf to the spirit world for some time. His parents, Donald (the always-good Ray Wise) and Eve (Barbara Niven), express their concerns for their son’s well-being in very different ways. The casually racist Donald wants his son to start dressing less “European” and find a job, no matter how menial. Eve sees her son as unusual, but loves him for all his faults. Rounding out the family is the black sheep Cousin Freddy (Jack Plotnick), forbidden from entering the family home by Donald for his homosexuality, but still given supplies secreted in the trunk of his car by Eve.
Raymond runs afoul of some local toughs who recognize him from high school, a fight broken up by rough-and-tumble bartender Becca (Kat Dennings). Becca and Raymond share a similar hatred of their home town, and find themselves unlikely allies when the supernatural once again rears its head in Raymond’s life. His father’s work crew has uncovered the makeshift coffin of a young girl in the back yard, and following the disturbance of her body, Raymond begins seeing visions of apparitions, which, quite naturally, freaks him the hell out. Becca and Raymond’s investigation leads to a slaughter from the 19th century, and they must uncover the secret of what the ghosts haunting Raymond and his family want before they become victims of the disturbed spooks.
Let’s start with what’s wrong with Suburban Gothic first. There are some threads that go nowhere, like a medallion to ward off evil spirits, and those that are tied up a little too conveniently, like the fates of the characters as seen through a montage at the end of the movie. There’s a also a glut of poor digital effects which really bring you out of the movie, a problem I’m sure is budgetary in nature, but nevertheless spoils some creative scenes. Also, the overarching theme of the film – the oddball returning home to the town that never understood him – is one well worth exploring. As someone who got the hell out of my hometown for similar reasons, not only do I relate, but I like a movie that discusses this phenomenon. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to come to a satisfying conclusion, aside from Becca’s comment about staying to change the town from within. Perhaps that’s the ultimate point, but it feels lost in the context of the film’s other reveals in the final moments.
Despite these flaws, I recommend Suburban Gothic for a few reasons. The attitude and opinions of this movie are distinct, and there’s a genuine sense that Bates has something to say here, even if I find the expression of those thoughts to be a bit muddled. There’s an irreverence to the proceedings and a tone of rebellion I dearly love, and Becca and Raymond make a fine team in illustration of that. It’s also genuinely funny at times. There’s a moment where Raymond’s toenails, possessed by the house’s spirits, do a little jig in time with a piano recital occurring in the downstairs parlor. The effects are strained here, but, I repeat, his toenails do a little dance. That’s the kind of weirdness I can really get behind. Becca’s ever-present crowbar generates some laughs, too, as does almost everything that comes out of Ray Wise’s mouth, and Cousin Freddy has a terrific scene where he reveals his own supernatural experiences to Raymond. Perhaps the film leans to heavily towards snark, but I’ll take it if I can get a moment like Raymond as a substitute teacher for his father’s class. Bates’s direction, too, is inventive, and there’s no question that he’s a director with a point of view and talent in equal measure.
Perhaps that’s what makes Suburban Gothic so disappointing and why, in the same breath, I encourage you to see it. And, yes, that means paying for it. Bates has a unique voice in horror cinema, and he deserves the opportunity to make more. Maybe Suburban Gothic is a bit too rife with what-might-have-beens in regard to some loose storytelling and effects, but it’s still trying to say something, and often enough nails it. No, this isn’t as good as Excision, but how could it be? It’s still a perfectly entertaining 90-minute romp with some solid laughs and characters I enjoyed spending time with. I also found myself relating to it in a personal way, and how often does that happen with a movie? Not enough.
So, see this. Support it, and not just for high-minded reasons like giving Bates the chance to do something else, something that might come closer to Excision‘s quality. See it because it’s a slice of something different, with a definite perspective on its characters and material. See it because Jeffrey Combs is fun as Raymond’s childhood doctor, and for John Waters as the grumpy overseer of the local historical society. See it because, more often than not, it says something about all of us that felt like we were on the outside looking in for much of our childhoods, and now strive to make some sort of sense of a world that views as an ‘other.’ Most of all, see it because it’s far better than most of the movies you’ll see this year, if only for the Dead Milkmen song that rolls over the credits. That’s an attitude I can respect.