King Knight, 2021.
Written and directed by Richard Bates Jr.
Starring Matthew Gray Gubler, Angela Sarafyan, Aubrey Plaza, Barbara Crampton, and Ray Wise.
The High Priest of a modern-day coven finds his life thrown into turmoil and ventures out on a journey of self-discovery.
One of the stranger entries on this year’s Frightfest docket is the spirited love-child of The Addams Family and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, courtesy of indie auteur Richard Bates, Jr. (Excision).
Thorn (Matthew Gray Gubler) is the inclusive, contemplative High Priest of a coven of Wiccan witches living in Los Angeles, a position he enjoys alongside his wife Willow (Angela Sarafyan). But when Thorn receives an invitation to attend his 20-year high-school reunion, and Willow discovers that he was a far more popular character in his younger days, Thorn’s relationships with his wife and coven are thrown into turmoil. Can Thorn reconcile his past and present without losing it all?
Despite the presumption of supernatural hooey that its premise might suggest, King Knight is a basically entirely grounded comedy which just so happens to revolve around flesh-and-blood witches. You won’t see a paranormal incantation in sight throughout Bates’ film, which seems far more concerned with changing the audience’s perception of real-life witches as weirdo outcasts to be mocked.
Indeed, those waiting for out-and-out horror to arrive are sure to be left disappointed by this approach, but Bates’ script is so weirdly, gut-bustingly hilarious, and offers such an unexpectedly genuine insight into what witch life is like, that you’ll probably find yourself thoroughly entertained regardless.
From an opening scene in which a disembodied voiceover tells us, “The most beautiful flowers grow in the biggest piles of shit,” it’s clear that King Knight doesn’t have much desire to be taken too seriously, yet as a character dramedy centered around the personal growth of its High Priest, it’s a genuinely stirring piece of work.
Bates’ razor-sharp script is jam-packed with riotously funny and occasionally revolting one-liners you won’t soon forget, ranging from a philosophical diatribe about lasagne to a debate over whether or not Juliette Binoche’s digestive tract is indeed full of feces.
Even when a gag doesn’t entirely land, Bates and his cast have the good sense to keep bounding forward fast, his energetic filmmaking style cutting from one gag to another with a breathlessness that’s ruthlessly efficient but never tiresome.
Matching the oddball humour at every turn is some deceptively deep character work, passing comment on life as a constant process of evolution, the nebulous definition of “success,” and the fact that we should probably all just accept that, yes, we have poo in our butts just like Juliette Binoche does.
Despite being produced for an evidently lower-end price-tag, the creativity of Bates’ filmmaking feels boundless most of the time. There’s a keen sense of style to the transitions, cutaways, and even basic camera setups, aided by Brit DeLillo’s tack-sharp editing. In both a hypnotic dance sequence and a kaleidoscopic animated set-piece, Bates proves the value of aesthetic ingenuity over glossy polish, and a pulsing electronic score from Steve Damstra sure doesn’t hurt either.
But all this fine work wouldn’t quite sing without the exceptional efforts of the ensemble cast. Front and center, Matthew Gray Gubler relishes ripping through the script’s doofy voiceover and is no less appealing a presence on-screen, especially when performing opposite Angela Sarafyan, who as his feisty screen wife is a sexy-funny delight. The pair preside over a motley crew of oddball followers, each bringing a distinct personality to their characters no matter how scant their screen time.
Genre fans will also be tickled by some of the more fleeting cameo appearances; scream queen extraordinaire Barbara Crampton is a hoot as Thorn’s bitchy mother, while Ray Wise shows up briefly as a vision of Merlin who also doubles as a life coach, and Aubrey Plaza lends her voice to, get this, an hallucinated talking pine cone.
Despite all this, Bates’ film isn’t just weird for weird’s sake; the poignance at its core is genuine and represents a clear effort by the filmmaker to change how society views those operating harmlessly on the fringes. That he manages to juggle these competing tones alongside a sizable cast inside of a tight 78 minutes is quite the testament to his formidable directorial instincts.
Disarmingly, hilariously bizarre, King Knight is another inventive winner from Richard Bates Jr., lent heart by the strong work of its terrific ensemble cast.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.