Suburban Gothic isn’t as much a horror movie as it is a generational link between younger audiences and the horror genre. Richard Bates Jr. has created a hipster Poltergeist that channels the complacent angst of so many house-arrested graduates who have fallen victim to a ruthless job market, and he does so while exploring a paranormal story that remains jovial and sarcastically witty. It’s very Juno-esque in its irreverent charm, substituting bandanas and scarves for cheeseburger phones and Slurpees, but this blasé attitude towards undead spirits re-imagines Ghostbusters for hordes of PBR-swigging, non-prescription-glasses wearing, Masters-degree-entitled youths who’d rather battle malevolent forces and agitated parents than actual responsibility. Except with more masturbation jokes and racist Ray Wise dialogue.
Matthew Gray Gubler plays Raymond, a jobless graduate forced to move home after his independent funds run out. Aside from his prestigious MBA and snarky cynicism, Raymond can also communicate with the undead, but that doesn’t offer many opportunities in today’s job market. Forced to once again deal with his overbearing mother and ex-jock father, Raymond starts seeing ghosts floating around his parent’s house, and he enlists the help of former classmate Becca (Kat Dennings) to make the damn things go away for good. It’s hard to tell what Raymond hates more – deadbeat bullies, a relentlessly offensive father, or floating heads zipping around his room.
Bates has a knack for conjuring suburban scares, which he first showcased in his body-horror debut film titled Excision, and his follow-up feature continues to drench white picket fences in a thick coating of blood. Granted, Suburban Gothic is more about comedy than gore, but once again Bates takes empathetic enjoyment in creating a family dynamic filled with misunderstandings and an R-rated, Leave It To Beaver mentality.
The character of Raymond is a commentary on those lucky souls who escape deadbeat towns that become stifled by their own protective bubble, and his return mocks every inescapable aspect of tiny communities and the stereotypes that come along with them. Bates goes a more outlandish route, from Eve’s (Barbara Nivens) gardener obsession to Donald’s (Ray Wise) obnoxious racial ineptitude, but there’s no shortage of colorful characters populating this haunted little town, with their lack of understanding and distaste of Raymond’s “European” tendencies.
In the same way AnnaLynne McCord enchants us as Pauline in Excision, Matthew Gray Gubler is another endearing lead character in the most unconventional of ways. His couldn’t-care-less attitude about solving paranormal crimes pairs perfectly with Kat Dennings’ signature sarcasm, as these two investigators seamlessly hit on the hip vibes that Jennifer’s Body so sorely attempts to force. Gubler is a perfect embodiment of the culture he’s ultimately mocking, intelligent enough with his speech, but incapable of physically backing up a tongue that works far quicker than his brain. This is a perfect example of an actor understanding succinct comedic timing (his daring escapes from Pope’s clutches), as Raymond always finds a way to inject funny little quips into scenes populated by screaming ghouls and angry entities. It’s a fine line Gubler walks, as dangerous amounts of wry wit can quickly turn into ironically infuriating joke attempts, but he always finds a way to emphasize the funniest moments in any interaction – be it with a dead corpse or living mongoloid.
While Bates exhibits a strong grasp on dark comedy, his execution ends up being more interesting than the story of Suburban Gothic. This is a fine outcome, because you’ll be laughing at each one of Dennings’ snarky interjections, but the ghosts themselves lack a bit of substance given how cut-and-dry their background mythos are. Bates is filming on a limited budget, and while he works his magic by sprucing blander settings up with bright color filters, the story seems a bit vanilla because of the simple nature of Suburban Gothic. Raymond is haunted by your average, run-of-the-mill ghosts, and the “horrors” are all expected from a housebound thriller, but we’re able to forgive such actions because of the gleeful way Bates’ hero runs screaming like a schoolgirl in the face of true terror.
Suburban Gothic is a pleasant treat that leans on a successful showing of haunted house hilarity, which thankfully proves that Richard Bates Jr. isn’t just a one-trick pony. With only two films to his name, Bates has chiseled out a distinct filmmaking style that mixes the quirkiest indie stylings with wholesome, All-American families, but he’s also clever enough to do so while exploiting a horror genre that boasts unlimited creative freedoms. His vocal commentary on familial systems always carries some type of message, as Ray Wise (hilariously) plays a brutish father who’s unfortunately a proper representation of someone’s suburban nightmare, and Bates seems to focus on misunderstood focal characters who he’s able to build up or break down in some way – building Raymond up, in this case. Suburban Gothic is a simple, spooky laugh-riot thanks to the fearful heroics of Matthew Gray Gubler, but without Bates’ cynical guidance, Raymond would have been just another mooching homebody with a generic ghost problem.
Suburban Gothic is a hipster's Poltergeist that boasts more of Richard Bates Jr.'s darkly comedic wit, but more importantly, it's a strong second feature that showcases one of the more vibrant up-and-coming horror filmmakers the genre has to offer.