Writer-director Richard Bates Jr. made a bit of a splash in the indie horror scene with his debut feature, 2012’s Excision, in which a high school outcast obsessed with medical surgeries navigated the pangs and pitfalls of adolescence while on a quest to lose her virginity. Equal parts gory and funny, it marked the filmmaker as a distinct voice in the movie world, portending an adventurous and promising career that unfortunately never really came to fruition. Follow-up features Suburban Gothic, Trash Fire, and Tone-Deaf were met with a collective shrug by critic and audiences alike, each one feeling like an empty bid at legitimacy and, even more distressingly, maturity. Where was the funky free-spirit who successfully mixed sex and amateur surgery and somehow made it both hilarious and horrifying?
Bates’ latest feature, King Knight, does away with the horror angle entirely, setting its satirical sights on modern day woke culture and the hypocrisies that exist beneath its surface. Bates’ pet themes of societal norms and familial strife are on full display, but cloaked in a thick layer of ironic detachment that makes the proceedings feel especially inconsequential. Bates regular Matthew Gray Gubler plays Thorn, a 21st-century witch who leads a California coven with his longtime girlfriend, Willow (Angela Sarafyan). An affable man who sells second-rate handmade bird baths in his spare time, Thorn sees the coven not as an outlet for sinister thoughts and deeds, but as a group that accepts those individuals who feel like outsiders, a place where they can share their thoughts and get their drink on. They wear black not because they are evil, but because it works best with all skin tones. Yet Thorn is hiding a secret from his past, one that will ultimately test the bonds of friendship within the coven, and force him to confront the man he once was, someone he has been desperate to escape.
That synopsis makes King Knight sound far more tonally serious than it actually is, which is as broad as humanly possible. The film may be set in modern times, but it feels like a relic from another era, specifically the mid to late-’90s, where the mocking of both the goth subculture and New Age mysticism were cinematic mainstays. Thorn resembles your basic mainstream goth pop-punk superfan, with his neck tattoos and all-black wardrobe, while Willow burns sage, discusses feminism, and communes with nature. They lead a normal domestic life and talk of their fears of having a baby, but they do it while drinking milk from a horn. The irony is both cheap and hackneyed. These individuals use witchcraft as window dressing, an excuse to be different, but also to befriend other outcasts such as themselves. Bates has similarly good intentions, but never once thinks about the consequences of using his subject in such a broad manner. There is something more than a little insulting in the central premise: that people who practice witchcraft can be normal, too. Bates clearly has a deep affection for his characters, but it is near impossible to determine if he is laughing with them or at them, a fact that makes most of the laughs stick in the throat. Gubler, freed from the shackles of Criminal Minds and network television, gives a game performance, and I will never turn my nose up at an Andy Milonakis appearance. The directing is unsurprisingly energetic, with an animated interlude that feels wholly appropriate considering its Ayahuasca-induced appearance. Yet a film that features Aubrey Plaza voicing a talking rock should be more fun than what is ultimately presented here. King Knight sets its sights on targets that are as broad as a barn, some depressingly so, yet somehow Bates still misses the bullseye. Here’s hoping his aim is better next time out.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 2.