Potential is an interesting word. Sure, the denotation of the word is positive, but the applied connotation is often negative – the dreaded “He had so much potential. What happened?” Whether it’s applied positively or negatively, and dependent upon what tense it’s spoken in, potential basically means “not yet” or “not quite.” The protagonist of Suburban Gothic is someone who, in the eyes of many, is not living up to his potential. Unfortunately, the film too, despite some great performances, also fails to meet its potential.
Potential can also apply to writer/director Cary Bates Jr., who showed tons of it with his debut feature, the darkly comic and gruesome Excision. Where Excision was a solid home run, Suburban Gothic is a valiant swing and a miss. The sharp comedy remains, but the brutal, visceral gore of Excision is eschewed in favor of a farcical supernatural element, ala Tim Burton in Beetlejuice (actually much of the film, including the candy-colored mise-en-scène, can be described as Burton-lite.)
The Criminally Minded Matthew Gray Gubler plays Raymond, MBA in hand, who can’t land suitable employment. This is likely due to a combination of his sartorial sense, which is best described as a cross between Ralph Furley via Cosmo Kramer, and his hipper-than-thou demeanor. Tail between his legs, Raymond is forced to move back into his suburban family home, under the auspices of his chipper and likely heavily-sedated mother and his cartoonishly bigoted, domineering father.
Back home, Raymond is again victimized by the two things that he surely was glad to escape while studying in the big city. The first is the naked disdain of his father, and the second is paranormal visions that had plagued him as a youth (Raymond sees dead people.)
He finds a kindred spirit in local bartender/high school classmate Becca (Kat Dennings), one of the few ex-study buddies that does not want to kick his ass, and together they try and solve the mystery of the disappearance of gardener Hector and ensure that the rootless soul of a once-murdered young girl is once again able to find peace.
The paranormal elements of Suburban Gothic lack scares, but then again, they’re really not meant to frighten. Bates Jr. has cited Scooby-Doo as an influence. Perhaps fans of that type of pseudo-scary, supernatural mystery solving might find the heebee-jeebee parts of the film effective, but here they felt half-baked and disjointed.
That is not to say that the humor is entirely unappreciated. Ray Wise is an utter hoot as Donald the dad. His naked bigotry and obnoxious demeanor make for an extremely entertaining character. The fast and furious insults hurled at his son, in addition to his casual racism and homophobia, are cuttingly crude yet stupid, and Wise delivers all with impeccable comedic timing and gusto. Simply put, Wise makes for a fantastic buffoon. Gubler, for his part, is able to hold his own barb-for-barb with Wise, and also has a nice, easygoing chemistry with Dennings, who is much more likable in this than she is in the creatively (and financially) bankrupt Two Broke Girls.
Genre cameos aplenty abound in Suburban Gothic. The Soska Sisters make a very brief appearance. Mackenzie Phillips, Sally Kirkland, Jeffrey Combs and John Waters also pop up in a scene or two. Combs and Waters in particular make the most of their brief screen time – in the case of Combs, hamming it up with glee, and in Waters’ case, just Waters being Waters. One wishes that Bates Jr. had given the duo more to do.
Ultimately, the supernatural elements of Suburban Gothic fall flat but the comedy shines; it might’ve worked better as a straight comedy without the genre trappings. As presented, however, Suburban Gothic falls decidedly into the category of “not quite.”
**1/2 (out of five)