Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
Unemployed, overqualified and half-formed, Raymond Wadsworth (Matthew Gray) is coming home. Having studied business – at the insistence of his father Donald (Ray Wise) – in the Big Smoke, but stalled in his prospects, Raymond must reluctantly return to the family pad in suburban Edge City, and face up to everything, good and bad, from his childhood – even as a makeshift 19th-century coffin buried in the back garden is disturbed, disinterring a different kind of trauma from local history. With revenants of one kind or another everywhere, Raymond joins straight-talking, pill-popping bargirl Becca (Kat Dennings) and medium Virginia (Sally Kirkland) to see if he can use his own ghost-whispering powers to exorcise the past.
Of course, the biggest spectre haunting Richard Bates Jr’s Suburban Gothic is the director’s own astonishing debut Excision (2012), in whose shadow this sophomoric effort must inevitably stand, generally not to its own advantage. There are some obvious similarities between the two films, as well as some differences. Both feature strange comings of age – except where AnnaLynne McCord’s Pauline was a teenager racing precociously to be an adult, Raymond is an arrested twentysomething trying to recuperate his lost youth. Both lampoon small-minded suburban aspirations – although the satire in Suburban Gothic is played much more broadly, and without the counterweight of Excision‘s more serious material. Both also featured bizarre genre cameos: in the case of Suburban Gothic, ‘pope of trash’ John Waters is back again for another throwaway role (as well as providing his own scuzzy imprimatur), while Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) appears as a disgruntled family doctor, and even the Soska twins (Dead Hooker In A Trunk, American Mary) can be glimpsed briefly in a flashback funeral sequence.
Where Excision focused on the toxic relationship between mother and daughter, Suburban Gothic is all about father and son, with Donald an unloving, bigoted tyrant who has done his best to suppress and medicate his son’s natural talents, and who would happily see him confined to a psychiatric institution. Raymond’s back-home confrontation with Donald is essentially Garden State with ghosts – a self-consciously quirky mapping out of the intergenerational ravages of American patriarchy. The film’s monstrously suffocating fathers (it is hardly a coincidence that Wise played über-bad dad Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks) engender lost boys like Raymond or online pornstars like Noelle (Jessica Lamacho) – while the supposedly terrifying phantom (Muse Watson) turns out to be a far more loving and devoted father than any of the living.
All these daddy issues, not to mention the looser-than-loose plotting and hit-and-miss humour, make Suburban Gothic feel much more like a young director’s flawed debut than Excision ever was – and where the earlier film used bodily secretions to convert feminine rites of passage into Carrie-like body horror, all the puke, shit and cum on display in Suburban Gothic is there just to be there, creating a juvenile brand of gross-out comedy. The spooky social spoofery of Suburban Gothic is pitched somewhere between The ‘Burbs (1989), John Dies At The End (2012) and Odd Thomas (2013) – but never quite approaches any of those films’ charm. Part of the problem is Raymond’s metrosexual hipsterdom and flamboyant dress sense, no doubt intended to mark him out as an alienated misfit within his hostile home environment, but also making him a pretentious, conceited narcissist whom it is difficult to keep liking for the 90-minute duration.
Suburban Gothic is a ramshackle, tone-deaf curiosity, with just about enough funny moments to make the more meandering scenes and pointless digressions pass by – but it is the curse of comparisons that makes it such a disappointment. It is not just that Bates shows potential to improve – he has already done much better.