After the MBA his father demanded he obtain fails to land him a job, Raymond (Matthew Gray-Gubler) is forced to move back in with his parents (Ray Wise and Barbara Niven) and the town he thought he left behind. Raymond’s past as a picked-on fat kid whose secrets start with the ability to communicate with the dead and get stranger from there, is the central theme of Suburban Gothic and its unraveling is what drives the film. The horror is all in Raymond and his maybe love interest - we’re told this but there isn’t an ounce of chemistry between them - and their intent to cleanse their small town of a vengeful spectre.
Unfortunately none of the horror elements in this supposed horror-comedy are effective at all. There’s nothing that approaches scary here, and certainly nothing that’s as jarring or affecting as the stuff Bates put onscreen in Excision. Without this element, the comedy would have to compensate, and whether it does or not will probably divide people. Ray Wise is always good for a laugh whenever he’s in a scene (though his blatant racism gets a little out of hand for my tastes) and Gray-Gubler does a pretty good job of holding his own in his frequent sparring with Wise and the many other cameo characters he encounters (including a hilarious Jack Plotnick who I wish there was more of). Kat Dennings is, well, playing the single character she’s played in every film or show I’ve ever seen of hers. If you’re a Kat Dennings fan, that’s probably a positive. It’s not for me.
There is just so much thrown at the wall in Suburban Gothic, and there’s almost no way anyone could entirely love or hate it. For me, it’s almost exactly 50/50. I love the completely offbeat humour most of the time, and there’s a genuine quality to Gray-Gubler that’s endearing to me. That said, the horror aspect of the film is basically non-existent and forgettable, and large parts of the film, including many jokes, come across like someone wrote them on Ambien. People in Suburban Gothic seemingly just say the first things that pop into their heads, and that only sometimes reads as funny rather than simply quirky for its own sake. By the end of the film, the ‘whoa, random!’ element definitely wears thin.
If you told me that this was Bates first film and Excision was his second, it'd make a lot more sense to me. Excision is a polished, well-balanced, genuinely scary, important addition to horror. Suburban Gothic is the exact opposite, but it shows glimmers of the genius that Bates debut had on full display. For that alone, I say it's worth 90 minutes of your time.
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This piece was written by Sachin Hingoo, a freelance writer when he is not working at an office job that is purpose-built for paying the bills while he works as a freelance writer. His writing has appeared on Mcsweeneys.net, the CBC Street Level Blog, Ohmpage.ca, and The Midnight Madness Blog for the Toronto International Film Festival. He has also been featured at Toronto lecture series Trampoline Hall (which is rumored to be excellent). His mutant power is 'feigning interest'. You can read all of his posts here.