All that Suburban Gothic has to offer is on display during a simple yet effective opening scene. Center frame is the goofy, strangely captivating mug of actor Matthew Gray Gubler. His character Raymond, clad in a questionable and loud scarf and possessive of wild hair style, is utterly unimpressed with his guidance counselor, and seemingly most of life in general. He makes fun of her after being told he has no job prospects (despite an MBA), says the word ‘literally’ in a figurative way, and resigns himself to moving back home with his parents.
The matter-of-fact back and forth with Raymond joking under his breath is pretty much recreated on end throughout this so-called horror comedy that wants to be about finding a purpose while navigating boredom and familial pressure. It also wants to frighten and laugh, and those results are mixed at best.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much other than some quick barbs and fantastic wardrobe selections to this generic feature film from Richard Bates Jr. (his second, after Excision from 2012) on a script he co-wrote with Mark Bruner. There is barely anything ‘Gothic’ and surely nothing scary, and even the ‘suburban’ environment to which Raymond is forced to retreat doesn’t quite have the necessary palpable ennui.
The banal existence he returns to is made up of local hillbillies who never left town, Mexican laborers who are made fun of by the white home owners, and most importantly, a chipper, naïve mother and a demeaning, creepy father (Ray Wise). Also at home are the ghosts of dead souls who have business yet unfinished.
Raymond is slowly ‘haunted’ by past images that may be disturbing to him but are completely unimpressive to the audience. These apparitions are made up mostly by that of a young girl’s head who simply screams; and in this world, ghosts appear as grainy black and white images not the least bit unnerving. Just as the tone of the opening conversation is reused over and over, the same paranormal well is gone to time and time again.
It goes like this: Raymond is alone at home, sees something scary, screams and runs around, and then ends up embarrassing himself just as people arrive to bear witness. It’s funny the first couple instances, but like everything else, wears thin quickly. Any goodwill the film earns in the first thirty minutes dissipates by the final third, as Suburban Gothic meanders towards some sort of conclusion to a tenuous crisis.
While being chastised by his father and harassed by barflies, Raymond engages with the only pretty girl in town (and one that never left from high school), a bartender Becca played by Kat Dennings. She is a perfect fit for the sarcastic, casual tone of the film, and she serves to help out Raymond on this spooky quest for whatever reason.
On this journey, one that labors throughout and takes its time to develop, Raymond and Becca of course solicit the services of some local paranormal ‘experts,’ while Raymond’s family is having none of this ghost talk. There is an exhumed grave that shouldn’t have been disturbed, a special token that needs to be returned to something or someone, and a murky cloud that looks like some ugly cousin of the smoke monster from Lost.
All of that is to say that Suburban Gothic is no more than a bunch of clichéd horror pieces lazily thrown together to make a product that really doesn’t seem to care too much at all about plot. It mustn’t, as it takes to so to get to figure out what it wants to do, and then rushes to an uneventful, anticlimactic finish.
Gubler remains a bright spot throughout, as his wildly expressive face and comedic timing help to make up for a lackluster story and some exceptionally poor graphic effects. They distract while the proceedings bore, but there is Gubler still being funny. The same goes for Wise, bringing some necessary gravity to what is an otherwise exaggerated role: a casually racist and sexist man who bosses around his wife and expresses disappointment in his son.
That there exists a few promising aspects makes the result all the more disappointing. An eclectic soundtrack helps to animate some scenes, but those are few and far between. There is also crafty camera work, but it is always undermined by head-scratching turns and illogical plot devices.
In the end, nothing can really save Suburban Gothic, resulting in a bit of a boring and at times, tedious watch.
Suburban Gothic is ultimately a hodgepodge of horror comedy, as too many components working against one another turn the film into something forgettable.