Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here.
Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler) is a recent college grad with an MBA and a strong desire to work. Unfortunately he’s holding out for something in upper management, and that something is not on his career horizon. Defeated he returns to his hometown to move back in with his mom and dad (Barbara Niven and Ray Wise), but while he expects living at home again to be a nightmare he’s unprepared for just how horrific it becomes.
A little dead girl is discovered buried in their backyard, and the find is soon followed by all manner of supernatural shenanigans and terrifying apparitions. Raymond is no stranger to ghostly visitors as he used to regularly see and commune with the dead as a child. He lost the ability as he grew up, but reminded of his true calling and with the assistance of a dryly sarcastic bartender (Kat Dennings) he sets out to appease the vengeful spirit and return the household to normal.
Director/co-writer Richard Bates Jr.‘s second film, Suburban Gothic, is a bit rough around the edges at times — due clearly to budgetary limitations as opposed to creative ones — but none of that gets in the way of the high energy and generous laughs packed into a tight and very funny 90 minutes.
Raymond and his father have never really gotten along, but their feud extends to more than just a dad’s simple disappointment in his son. These two resort to name-calling on a regular basis, but lest you think there’s some Great Santini-type dramatic conflict going on here rest assured the face-offs they engage in are more hilarious than serious. Wise delivers with pure comic perfection every second he’s onscreen and makes a strong case for being cast as the dad in every movie going forward. His timing and delivery are the stuff of legend. Or at least they would be if there were legends about comedic timing and delivery.
Gubler is also damn funny, almost to the point of viewers not noticing how flat his performance is. Again, very humorous, but his reactions to mundane conversations are leveled and delivered identically to his responses to dramatically heightened situations. Gubler’s shown more range in other roles so it’s possibly a performance choice derived from Raymond’s lack of life focus, but it leaves the character feeling a bit one dimensional. The punchlines take precedence over emotion, and while it doesn’t hurt the comedy it works to drain any sense of danger out of the proceedings. Dennings, playing Kat Dennings playing a character named Becca, is in a similar boat in that it feels like she’s being a comedian first and an actor second. Thankfully both of them make for very funny comedians.
There are some supporting turns of note that each bring laughs of varying degrees including brief appearances from John Waters, Jack Plotnick and Jeffrey Combs. Less comedic but still great to see are Sally Kirkland and Mackenzie Phillips in small roles as well.
The actual nuts and bolts of the ghost story are fairly straightforward and to some degree underwhelming. What seems the obvious course of action after the little girl is discovered is in fact correct, but as with all of the film’s weaknesses the story takes backseat to a script that is on fire with witty banter, sharp retorts and wry observations. Her story is told through black and white “old timey” flashbacks, and they add a nice touch to a film that doesn’t have much to boast about in the visual effects department. The non-supernatural part of the story — Raymond’s daddy issues, his blossoming relationship with Becca, the revelation that both of them used to be fat as kids — are used for laughs but given short narrative shrift otherwise.
Suburban Gothic finds immense humor in the relationships between the living and the dead, and while the budget prevents the film’s world from becoming all that immersive the dialogue and performances keep things kicking right up until the end credits. Humor is subjective, so if you don’t find these folks funny there will be little else of interest to hold you attention here. But if you actually have comedic taste then, like me, you’ll finish the film and immediately start hoping for a sequel with a bigger budget and a denser plot. The same amount of laughs will do though.
The Upside: Very funny; sharply written and performed; Matthew Gray Gubler and Kat Dennings have a great patter together; Ray Wise
The Downside: Budget leaves the film a bit rough around the edges at times in its look and effects; core ghost story is a cliché; Matthew Gray Gubler (while very funny) offers no nuance with his performance
On the Side: Matthew Gray Gubler had a second film, also a horror/comedy, playing at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival with Life After Beth.