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KING KNIGHT (2021)
Directed and written by Richard Bates Jr.
Starring Matthew Gray Gubler, Angela Sarafyan, Andy Milonakis, Kate Comer, Nelson Franklin, Emily Chang, Johnny Pemberton, Josh Fadem, Barbara Crampton, Ray Wise, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Swati Kapila, Shane Brady, with the voices of AnnaLynne McCord, Aubrey Plaza, & Alice Glass
Selling birdbaths online and living a wiccan lifestyle with his life partner Willow (WESTWORLD’s Angela Sarafyan), Thorn (CRIMINAL MINDS’ Mathew Gray Gubler) is content with his life as a Wiccan cult leader. But when he receives a message from his secret past, their peaceful life is tossed into chaos.
Richard Bates Jr. is awarded a lot of leeway in my book. His fist film, EXCISION, was one of the best and mind-searing horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s a film I often recommend to anyone looking for fresh and different horror, even though it was released way back in 2012. Since then, his track record has been hit and miss with SUBURBAN GOTHIC and TONE DEAF not really working for me, but TRASH FIRE delivering the right amount of twisted and weird moments that made EXCISION such a masterpiece. With KING KNIGHT, Bates steps further away from his horror beginnings. KING KNIGHT is not a horror movie. It centers on the Wiccan culture, which is often mistakenly associated with evil, but in fact simply celebrates solstices and the belief around earth spirits. In many way, KING KNIGHT reminded me of a modern take on THE ADDAMS FAMILY or THE MUNSTERS, as it is about a dark family who shivers when facing what society has deemed normal. Even lead Angela Sarafyan bares a striking resemblance to Morticia Addams. The horror in KING KNIGHT is what Thorn and his cult experience when facing “normal.”
At it’s heart, this is a coming of age comedy, where Thorn is given a challenge to face his past. I won’t reveal this past, but I will say that it is a funny scenario. The comedy comes from Gubler and his fellow cultists frolic in the fields and take part in goofy Wiccan rituals with a straight face. Not being a Wiccan, I wasn’t offended at the way Wiccan culture is portrayed here. But maybe if you take the culture seriously, you might get your feelings hurt. But Bates finds the humor by making fun of people taking things too seriously, which is funny no matter the religion or belief system you follow. It’s the acknowledgement that these people are doing these things with a straight and earnest face that makes it all work.
I wouldn’t say KING KNIGHT is a laugh a minute. I chuckled quite a bit. Gubler is a fine comedic actor and leads the film well. It’s obvious that this is a very low budget film, but instead of large, shocking moments, KING KNIGHT relies on strong comedic charm and character moments. A lot was put into the look of Thorn who is adorned with tattoos, wears black and various jewelry, and has a blank, stare of quiet contentment in the face of everything. The script helps with this as Gubler’s fast line delivery makes you register the jokes a beat after he says them. I was surprised by this more than once in the film.
I really loved the aforementioned Morticia Addams-esque performance by Angela Sarafyan. Her reaction to accepted society is quite funny, especially when it hits close to home. Her deep set eyes are so overwhelmingly sad and beautiful that even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ll remember this actress for her role as one of the sexbots in WESTWORLD. Here she shows some great comedic timing that I had never seen before in the actress. The rest of the cast all exhibit their eccentricities well and with some great comedic moments. It is also cool to see the obligatory Ray Wise appearance, and Barbara Crampton makes a cameo, but always shines. Another Bates standby, AnnaLynne McCord pops in for a bit voice part, as does Aubrey Plaza which only add to the weirdness of Thorn’s road to discovery.
My focus in this review has been on the performances. This is mainly because I wasn’t blown away by the film and story, but found these performances to be endearing and amusing despite of them. Bates is a bizarre director who focuses on strange and dark relationships contrasted against the mundane world. It worked in EXCISION and TRASH FIRE best and bloodiest. While KING KNIGHT is a step further away from horror, it still has whiffs of that genre while telling what boils down to a sitcom plot device. This is a mild recommendation. Those expecting the extremity of EXCISION will be disappointed, but there is a quirky sweetness to the relationship between Thorn, Willow, and their cult that is undeniably watchable.