Director Richard Bates Jr. has successfully straddled the squiggly line between horror and comedy since his 2012 feature debut, Excision. With his farthest horror-leaning film (2016’s Trash Fire) he created his most compelling yet. On the flip side, his more bluntly comedic offering Suburban Gothic came across as something of a noble misfire. Now, with the overtly comedic King Knight, he has managed to elucidate a lot of the manners by which his sense of humor functions, and in the process he has created something focused and tonally sure-footed – all without sacrificing any of the off-kilter sensibilities that have set his work apart from the subpar indie fare.
The premise is zany enough to nicely clash with the mundane presentation thereof: A coven of new age witches in Los Angeles work through their various personal and emotional struggles. The discovery of central high priest Thorn’s shadowy past eventually leads the film down the surprising road to a dance sequence more evocative of the climax of Napoleon Dynamite than anything else. A cast of drolly whacky personalities (including Andy Milonakis and a hilarious glorified cameo by Ray Wise) lend the proceedings an appealing spark – a flavor lacking in the efficient but bare bones production. Taking place mainly in backyards and living rooms, King Knight was clearly either wholly or in part designed to accommodate the limitations imposed not only by a slim budget, but also by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Bates works well within the confines, and King Knight does not feel like a stunted outlier in his body of work. If anything, it signals his ability to efficiently control a tight budget, and realize his appealing artistic voice within even narrowing limitations. Filmmaking is an ironic medium, limitless in possibilities (in theory), but so restricting (in practice). Bates demonstrates how narrow opportunities and resources do not have to translate to increasingly commercial and vapid material.
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King Knight excels in teasing the border between sentimentality and ironic detachment. The cynical world-weary jabs that come from gags like protagonist Thorn’s indie artisanal birdbath enterprise, or the stone-faced spats of scatological humor, would merely elicit tired smirks if they weren’t the belabored efforts of a motley coven of colorful eccentrics–each clearly loved by Bates as well as the actors who bring them to life. Their whimsical quirks and idiosyncrasies are treated as givens–the source of humor but not the butt of any joke. There is a sense of pride in identity and minor victories that feels resigned and relatable–not a clarion call but a smiling sigh. Bates and his cast manage to ennoble the ridiculous without becoming treacle (no small feat).
While it is perhaps too quirky to easily market or pitch to a general audience, King Knight is nonetheless a more than perfectly fun way to allocate eighty minutes of one’s time – which sounds like fainter praise than it actually is. For those who jive with off-comedies that center lovable oddballs, King Knight will be a delightful gem to stumble upon.
King Knight is available in select theaters, and digital and on demand as of February 17th
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): Richard Bates Jr.
Writer(s): Richard Bates Jr.
Stars: Matthew Gray Gubler, Angela Sarafyan, Andy Milonakis, with Barbara Crampton and Ray Wise
Release date: February 17, 2022
Run Time: 81 minutes