On paper, it looked like Suburban Gothic would be something I’d love. A not-so-serious horror comedy starring a disenchanted lead character who is surrounded by racists, homophobes, and bullies? That sounds awesome. And for a while, Suburban Gothic is awesome. Its first half is clever, hilarious, full of energy, and inspired. And then we have to have something of a plot — a mystery to solve — and it loses steam faster than you can say “smorgasbord.”
Our protagonist is Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler), a business school graduate who has been forced to move back home with his parents, Eve (Barbara Niven) and Donald (Ray Wise), due to a lack of jobs. His mother’s a nice woman, and his father is the aforementioned racist/homophobe. So, Raymond and his father fight a bunch, although it’s subdued fighting filled with pointed jabs that in most families wouldn’t be taken in the stride that they are here.
Raymond isn’t particularly happy with having to go back to his small town, especially as he sees old classmates and is reminded that he used to be significantly heavier than he is now. The only one he’s glad to run into is a bartender, Becca (Kat Dennings). But, soon enough — or too soon, as the random “meandering around” segments were more fun — the plot kicks in. There’s a body dug up, a ghost begins to haunt Raymond and his family, and it’s up to our lead and his romantic interest to save the day. He can kind of talk to and see ghosts, and she’s … there. Because we need a silly romance angle.
The actual plot feels like it’s right out of a mediocre television show. The main problem is that it sucks the energy and humor right out of the film. We have to focus on a MacGuffin, some moderate scares, and the resolution to some mediocre drama. The cleverness disappears, the fun that we were having stops, and we begin to wonder if the premise simply wasn’t made for sustained success, of it a different supernatural plot should have been used that would have capitalized more greatly on the fun that we had earlier on.
Suburban Gothic won’t be accused of being simple, traditional, or “not weird.” In fact, it’s very weird. Even when it begins to run out of steam, it at least continues to be bizarre enough that it’ll never lose your interest. You’ll want to see what ideas director and co-writer Richard Bates Jr. will throw our way. Some scenes feel completely strange, even within the context of the movie. They help keep things fresh, even when the plot is relatively conventional, once it really gets going.
What Suburban Gothic really is is a film that had a lot more potential than was capitalized on. Will anyone care about the ghosts and their 19th century drama that needs solving in the present day? No. Is Kat Dennings’ character so one-note that you wish she could have more dimensions or characteristics other than being the “bad girl”? Of course! Is it all wrapped up too conveniently at the end? Absolutely. But there are a lot of good ideas here, and in all honesty I wouldn’t even mind if a sequel was made. You can see where this film could have been better.
If there’s one absolute success, it comes in the form of Matthew Gray Gubler, who nails the perfect tone for his character and really gets us engaged with him, even though he’s not always the most likable person. He’s fantastic and hopefully will get more roles like this in the future. Kat Dennings can’t make her character do much more than look tough and spew sarcasm. Ray Wise will make you hate him, which is the goal, so good on him, I guess.
Suburban Gothic is a film that doesn’t run short on ideas, but does run out of steam after it tries to introduce a more linear plot to the equation. Its weirdness and bounty of ideas will keep you watching for its entirety, as will Matthew Gray Gubler’s wonderful leading performance, but the comedy dries up part way through, and the focused mystery is far less interesting than watching Gubler meander around town and interact with the locals. Suburban Gothic is a mixed bag and not necessarily something you need to see.