Richard Bates Jr.'s sophomore feature is a droll horror-comedy driven by a talented cast's riffing.
A likably wiseass horror-comedy, “Suburban Gothic” is light on the horror and the usual broader comedy strokes as well, instead sporting the kind of droll humor that springs not from gags and setpieces but from what seems like improvisational riffing from a cast of assured comic hands. Quite a shift from helmer/co-scenarist Richard Bates Jr.’s first feature, “Excision” (a queasy character study about a creepy teen obsessed with amateur surgery), this sly goof has stirred some buzz along the genre-fest circuit. FilmBuff’s simultaneous theatrical and VOD release on Jan. 30 should harvest modest rewards, helped by the presence of some support names likely to catch the eye of in-joke-savvy fan types.
Man-child Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler, “Criminal Minds”) has just completed his MBA. But his MTV-circa-1985 New Wave look and general bratty attitude suggest he’s not about to find gainful corporate (or any) employment soon. Thus, he reluctantly moves back in with the folks, to the delight of his ever-chipper mom (Barbara Niven) and the undisguised contempt of his boorish high-school-coach dad (Ray Wise).
Meanwhile, landscaper Hector (Mel Rodriguez) and his crew accidentally dig up a child’s skeleton in the family’s backyard, unleashing a vengeful spirit that first makes its presence known via visions and nightmares suffered by Raymond, who as a child used to experience “paranormal stuff.” He enlists a similarly caustic local misfit, goth-styled bartender Becca (Kat Dennings, of “2 Broke Girls” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”), to help him guide the ghost toward eternal peace before it wreaks total havoc.
The underdeveloped supernatural premise builds little momentum, let alone suspense, despite a few modest f/x sequences. (If there’s any real point here, it’s more about bullying, as fellow picked-on fat kids Raymond and Becca repeatedly turn the tables on past and current tormentors — most notably during a schoolroom monologue where Raymond, a substitute teacher, verbally decapitates a classic “mean girl.)” Ultimately the horror hook feels like little more than an excuse to let a talented cast demonstrate their comic chops with lots of seemingly offhand yet amusingly off-kilter business. Gubler makes his irritating twerp one to root for, and is well paired with Dennings’ blase ‘tude. Wise and Jack Plotnick (as a gay cousin) offer particularly useful support, while familiar faces like John Waters, Sally Kirkland and Jeffrey Combs have fun in one or two scenes each.
While the results may be perilously slight, “Suburban Gothic’s” particular brand of low-key sarcasm and absurdity will tickle those looking for laughs more dry than slapstick (or splatstick) in nature. A considerable plus is the pic’s savvy packaging, from the satirical notes of “Blue Velvet”-like suburban perfection struck by d.p. Lucas Lee Graham’s color-rich imagery to the more clamorous ones provided by an excellent soundtrack of punky original and various-artist rock.