Synopsis: Thorn and Willow appear to have it all as the revered high priest and priestess of a coven of new-age witches. But a secret from Thorn’s past throws their lives into turmoil and sends them on a trippy, hilarious journey.
Stars: Matthew Gray Gubler, Angela Sarafyan, Andy Milonakis, Kate Comer, Johnny Pemberton, Josh Fadem, Nelson Franklin, Emily Chang, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Swati Kapila, Shane Brady, AnnaLynne McCord, Alice Glass, Barbara Crampton, Ray Wise
Director: Richard Bates Jr.
Running Length: 81 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: While the megaton blockbusters and budget-specific genre films have felt the pangs of the pandemic crunch these past two years, there has been one corner of the film industry that has continued to thrive: the indie feature. Already skilled in guerrilla filmmaking tasked with tiny budgets and small crews used to operating in isolation, independent producers kept right on working throughout much of the lockdown, or at least got right back to it quickly as restrictions lifted. Desperate for movies when the well dried up for major motion pictures, streaming services and mid-size studios now actively sought out modestly made but otherwise stellar flicks that likely would have been overlooked in favor of more commercially minded entertainment.
King Knight is an example of a film that might not have gotten the kind of warm festival reception it did at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival were it not for the shortage of options available mixing elements of comedy and the darker horror, which the Canadian festival is so excellent at cultivating. While he’s focused less on horror in favor of homing in on the black comedy of his screenplay, director Richard Bates Jr. creates a mostly entertaining expansion of a cocktail napkin elevator pitch. Trouble sets in, however, with a script that preaches relaxed freedom of self then counteracts it with problematic thinking around one’s ability to choose identity at random.
As former president of his high school class, Thorn (Matthew Gray Gubler, Endings, Beginnings) is expected at his upcoming reunion to give a ceremonial speech and perform a dance in front of his classmates. (What kind of Stepford high school is this?) Worse, in returning to his hometown, he’d presumably have to see his estranged mother (B-movie horror legend Barbara Crampton, You’re Next). He’s been ignoring multiple requests from the planning committee, though, because he can’t bring himself to admit the embarrassing truth of his straight-arrow past to his twisted present.
You see, after high school, Thorn met Willow (Angela Sarafyan, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), and together they became the head of a coven of witches, a motley gang of misfits with various eccentricities which make them ideally suited for one another. As the High Priest of his coven, Thorn has a commanding influence over his followers, treating them all with kindness. When his secret is discovered, the coven has to decide if being true to their leader is more critical than overlooking his pure past, and Willow grapples with feelings of not knowing the man she married. For his part, Thorn goes on a wild journey back to his roots, and all experience great enlightenment.
For an 81-minute movie, there are many ideas crammed into short compact bursts of ingenuity within King Knight and then longer stretches where it feels like overworked sketch comedy. A tragically awful conversation about Juliette Binoche (I can’t bring myself to say what about) feels like an eternity. At the same time, Thorn’s dialogue with a pinecone and a rock manages to evoke the laughs the Binoche banter can’t. Then there’s the disappointing development of characters that are “gay,” defending their identity with graphic descriptions of why they are, only to admit they are “straight” later because they’ve ‘decided’ to be. Oof. This is 2022, right? Woke, Schmoke. I want intelligent writing that feels as if it’s met people who have a true sense of identity and know that it isn’t like a light switch.
Focus instead on the performances of Gubler and Sarafyan, interesting enough actors to make us want to know more, with Sarafyan especially making us semi-hope there’s a Queen Knight sequel that could happen if Bates can refine his writing. I also liked Andy Milonakis as a mostly asexual coven member who feels destined to play either movie producer Alan Carr or Roseanne Barr…or maybe Roseanne playing Alan Carr. Either way, Milonakis is someone you keep watching even when they aren’t the center of attention. King Knight starts to lose significant steam right when it should be peaking, and it never gets the kind of energy back it had at the start, but there are enough good ideas here to crown it as worth your time.