It’s rare to be absolutely floored or blown away by a debut feature but Richard Bates Jr.’s 2012 effort Excision did just that. I had never seen a film quite like it and was fascinated by Bates’s unique approach to the art of filmmaking. Naturally, when I heard his second feature Suburban Gothic had gone into pre-production it immediately rocketed to the top of my most anticipated films list. Luckily, what Bates put together managed to meet most of my high expectations, even though it failed to leave as strong an impression on me as his debut did. It’s hurt, in part, by a shorter pre-production length (the short film Excision was based on came out four years prior to the feature) and a noticeably smaller budget but overall, I found Suburban Gothic to be a damn good time.
The film follows Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler), an effeminate unemployed business school graduate who is forced to move back into his family home with his overbearing mother and jock-ish father who doesn’t understand him. Plagued by visions of the paranormal as a child, his relocation reignites visions of the undead. After befriending a bartender (Kat Dennings), the two go on a quest to solve the mystery behind the haunting of Raymond’s family home and appease the paranormal entities that inhabit it.
Tonally, the film is bizarre – Bates doesn’t try to scare you, he attempts to make you laugh and gross you out (although he avoids over-the-top gore and cheap body horror). Most of all he wants them to have fun, even if it’s fairly depraved, off-colour fun – it’s the type of fun you had when you were a 12 year old kid watching a late night comedy that was way too old for you. In this sense he is entirely successful; the film is hilarious and well-paced, the leads are likeable, the dialogue is humorous, and Bates’s signature wit is slathered all over the final product (and yes, there’s even another cameo from John Waters). Weirdly enough, the whole thing plays out like a sort of Adults Only pastiche of Scooby Doo and the Hardy Boys that avoids straying into the territory of parody, acting much more like a homage. Visually, Bates has done wonders with the tools available to him. There’s a very specific saturated aesthetic to the feature in-spite of it’s lack of gloss, and slightly grey grading (I’m sure the result of a low production budget). His obsession with framing faces dead centre of the screen prevails – a simple yet fairly unique motif that set Excision apart from many of its indie contemporaries. There are also a few scenes here that I can safely say have never been attempted on-screen before; one could assert that this is because these scenes are too stupid exist in any other film, I would counter that these scenes are just too crazy to be successfully pulled off by most filmmakers. I’m sure this is the sort of film that a lot of directors want to make but don’t have the ambition or skill to pull off without it falling into mockbuster-esque/Asylum-ey territory.
I hope that Richard Bates Jr. continues to make films like Excision and Suburban Gothic, there’s definitely a market for John Waters-esque, depraved high-trash like this in the 21st century. I’m not going to lie and say this is one of the best films of the year because it’s not; budgetary restrictions mean most of the special effects are truly dreadful (barring a few notable exceptions), the dialogue and pacing isn’t as tight as it was in Excision, and occasionally the goofiness fails to hit perfectly. I also won’t claim that everyone will enjoy this film – a lot of people won’t get what Bates is going for and it will be easy for some to discard this as just another silly lo-fi comedy. What I can say unequivocally is that I found the experience of Suburban Gothic much more enjoyable than those I acquired from many of the so-called “great” films that came out this year which we’re all supposed to rally around and praise. Give this or Excision a go, you might surprise yourself and find that you’re into this kind of crazy, unique filth, or you might hate them; either way you’ll be watching something fresh.
Suburban Gothic screens at the Sydney Underground Film Festival on Friday the 5th of September at 6:30pm and Sunday the 7th of September at 3pm