Horror comedy is a fickle beast. The tonal balancing act is incredibly tricky. Tension-busting humor tends to undermine creeps and suspense, while unnerving scenes and graphic gore can suck laughs out of the room. Get the balance right and you have a rollercoaster of pure entertainment. Get it wrong and you have an irritatingly awkward movie that doesn’t satisfy either genre.
‘Suburban Gothic’ falls somewhere in the middle of both extremes. It’s amusing and often funny, but more often than not an uncomfortable hodgepodge of genres that never quite comes together. The film has enough laughs and cameos to make it worth a look for the curious horror devotee, but this sadly isn’t exactly a new genre classic.
Matthew Gray Gubler stars as a recent MBA grad named Raymond who’s forced to move back in with his parents when his job prospects prove to fall somewhere between slim and none. He has to sleep in his childhood bed and deal with his gently alcoholic mother (Barbara Niven) and charmingly racist, gay-bashing football coach father (Ray Wise). Given that he has a ludicrous New Wave hairstyle, the local yokels don’t take kindly to Raymond’s return, but Kat Dennings’ recently-thin bartender/former high school classmate Becca is fully onboard. So he’s got that going for him. Then trouble starts a brewin’ when Raymond’s dad forces some illegal immigrant workers to do landscaping and they uncover a dead body in the backyard. As tends to happen when you uncover such things, a whole bunch of haunting starts going down in the family home. Raymond is obviously creeped out, but this also vindicates the supernatural encounters that he was convinced he had as a child. So he’s got that going for him too. It’s not all bad.
The biggest hurdle the film faces is its obviously limited budget. The movie isn’t amateurish by any means, but it has a very specific video aesthetic that defines most direct-to-VOD horror indies these days. It looks cheap, and that might put some viewers off, especially during a few rough CGI sequences.
Thankfully, the movie has plenty of good qualities to make up for its limitations. First and foremost, the cast is far better than is typical of such a production. Gubler and Dennings make for a pair of charmingly quirky leads who give the word “quirky” a good name. Even better are a string of supporting roles and cameos by the likes of Wise, John Waters and the great Jeffrey Combs. Any time you see a recognizable face enter the screen, you can be sure they’ll be taken full advantage of and deliver a massive laugh.
The reason is simple: Writer/director Richard Bates, Jr.’s script can be damn funny. Sure, it’s mostly comedy of the sex and vulgarity variety, but it’s pretty darn good sex and vulgarity comedy delivered by actors who can wring the filth for all it’s worth. This is a horror comedy with the emphasis on the latter half of the combo, and thankfully that half works well.
Unfortunately, the horror half of the equation isn’t nearly as successful, which is odd considering that the director’s previous effort was the effective little horror lark ‘Excision‘. The trouble is that the humor Bates and his cast shoot for is of the broad and goofy variety. There’s nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that Bates attempts to squeeze in a few genuine creep-outs and scares that clash awkwardly with the comedy surrounding them. A few sequences (like a pretty great dancing toenail nightmare) mix the tones well, but for the most part ‘Suburban Gothic’ succeeds whenever it’s trying to score goofy R-rated laughs and flounders whenever it’s trying to give its audience the willies.
The quirky little horror comedy sadly only delivers half of his promised double-genre romp. It’s still a fun little movie and this Richard Bates, Jr. character is worth keeping an eye on. However, the movie is less a success than something like “a charming mild failure.”