09th Aug2021

Fantasia 2021: ‘King Knight’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Matthew Gray Gubler, Andy Milonakis, Johnny Pemberton, Angela Sarafyan, Barbara Crampton, Ray Wise, Kate Comer, Emily Chang, Josh Fadem, Swati Kapila, Shane Brady | Written and Directed by Richard Bates Jr.

The latest genre opus from Richard Bates Jr., whose previous work includes Excision, Trash Fire and Tone Deaf, King Knight reunites Bates with his Suburban Gothic star Matthew Gray Gubler in yet another twisted slice of American life tale that Bates is known for – quirky, strange and otherworldly… in this case focussing on witches?!

What makes a good witch nowadays? A deep sense of spirituality and communion with nature? Devotion to a tight-knit group of like-minded free spirits? A successful Etsy shop and a sick set of Tarot cards? Living the dream alongside his beautiful life partner Willow (Angela Sarafyan), the revered high priest of a modern Californian coven, Thorn (Matthew Gray Gubler) has it all… as well as a secret past that may or may not be as dark as his wardrobe. And much like the tides pursuing the moon, our past tends to follow us around. So, when his beloved uncovers said secret on the night of their Beltane celebrations, Thorn sets out on a soul-searching journey back to his hometown.

Our protagonist is a witch who carves bird baths for a living and shies away from more “witchly” duties – Thorn relishing more in the fact his coven admires and respects him rather than actually doing anything you’d expect a witch to do. If they didn’t say they were witches you’d think they were new-age wellness gurus (or hippie types as boomers would call them). Speaking of Thorn’s coven, they are a gaggle of lost souls who can’t get their sh*t together, who look to their leader for guidance on literally EVERYTHING. It’s like being a witch is a fashion choice rather than a lifestyle one. It’s very much a case of strange people, strange behaviour – you know, the usual Richard Bates schtick.

The film kicks into high gear (well as high gear as Bates goes with his “weird-America” tales) when Thorn’s wife/life-partner throws a hissy fit after discovering he used to be a prom king, straight-A, straight-laced, all-American jock – a lacrosse player no less! His reaction to the discovery relates back to the ‘fake’ nature of the coven as Thorn bangs his chest during stressful situations, a la Matthew McConahey’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street. Thorn then claims he lived a life of a lie prior to becoming a witch, craving Bahaus records rather than school accolades.

It’s all very “wannabe”… as if Bates is having a sly dig at the overwrought nature of people like Gwyneth Paltrow and the myriad of influencers online, who try to re-write their own histories and reinvent themselves in an attempt at being “cool” rather than actually making a true impact. There’s a great line about how Thorn, like the general public, think anyone that would be a Wiccan must be losers in life. That the shame he feels about being popular in the past reflects on how he sees the coven… as losers. It’s a damnation of the superficial nature of life wrote big on the screen.

It’s that attitude, that Thorn equates witches with losers, that gets Thorn banished from his own coven and sent on a walkabout. A walkabout the changes Thorn’s perspective of life… opening his third eye. Possibly literally. It also involves a brilliant hallucinatory sequence in which Barbara Crampton screams out all the kinds of things we hear online these days: you’re too liberal, you’re not liberal enough… you’re this, you’re that. You’re not this, you’re not that. It’s an on-the-nose moment that lays bear everything that is going on in today’s woke/anti-woke culture. There’s also some ridiculously apt advice for life strewn throughout King Knight too. Though how much you can take from a film that features a talking rock and a talking pine cone is debatable.

Philosophical enough to be interesting, quirky enough to be intriguing, King Knight is – in the end – a fantastic and fantastical story about finding what makes you happy and being happy with who you are. In other words, Richard Bates Jr. knocked it out the park. Again.

Oh, and Matthew Gray Gubler is, in this writers opinion, one of America’s boldest, yet most underrated, actors working today.

****½ 4.5/5

King Knight screened as part of this years Fantasia Film Festival.

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