Writer and Director:: Richard Bates Jr
Witches have historically had a bad rap in the US. They’ve been equated with Communists. It took over three hundred years to exonerate the last of the Salem witches. Robert Bates’ film King Knight challenges the old assumptions. It portrays the followers of Wicca as ordinary people who take Ubers, worry about body image and – a point that is perhaps overemphasised – have digestive systems.
Eight thirty-something social misfits have found their tribe in a coven of modern witches. They happen to be four couples, which goes to show there’s someone out there for everyone. They recognise Thorn (Matthew Gray Gubler) as their leader, because he is the most charismatic -everything’s relative. When a series of emails from a mysterious woman forces Thorn to admit the truth about his past, the coven, like any organisation which claims to ‘promote inclusivity’, turns out to have clear boundaries. Besides rejection, Thorn has to confront the terror of having to dance at his high school reunion; as his life partner Willow (Angela Sarafyan) points out, he ‘can’t even spiral dance, and that’s just going around in circles’. Having accidentally necked a whole flask of a powerful hallucinogen, he has an epiphany – mercifully just shown in a clever animation by Nabeeh Bilal– in a toilet. Meanwhile his mates decide to stand by him after all and do a Notting Hill- style overcrowded car race to the reunion – where he and Willow defy convention in a way that slightly undermines the notion that witches are just normal people.
Bates’ script will delight some and irritate others. It’s full of word play and there is a laboured joke about the name of a dog. Mostly the humour is scatological. In one scene, doubtless destined to become a cult favourite, the coven argues about whether ‘everyone has poo in their butt’. (Willow’s a nurse, so she also says ‘colon.’) It’s funny because of the way they each react (mostly repeating the phrase), although as a metaphor it doesn’t say anything profound. Bates persuaded the actors that ‘no matter how ridiculous something you’re saying…you’re not in a comedy…you are in Sophie’s Choice’. As a result, when Sarafyan says, ‘Now go home and express that love with your penis’, her voice is ethereal and her face is straight. There are one or two questionable moments. The most likeable people are surprisingly quick to administer resounding slaps; and kissing someone when they’re tied up might be a declaration of love – or it might be sexual assault.
Characters are exaggerated, but their problems are recognisable, and –despite the adolescent humour – treated with respect. One of the witches, Neptune, has his own uncomfortable truth. Affectingly played by Josh Fadem, he repeats it with growing certainty, while the camera focuses on his twisting hands. One character who is barely explored is Thorn’s mother Ruth, played by seasoned horror actress Barbara Crampton. To her son she’s an unforgivable source of distress, but the glimpse we have of her life suggests she too deserves understanding, and her role turns out to be tantalisingly significant. Swati Kapila, who doesn’t appear till the final act, brings a burst of fresh energy, and her sword-wielding scene is a fitting prologue to Thorn’s brave act of self-expression, a sort of balletic dad-dance executed with comic sincerity.
At first, opening with people dressed in white skipping about and flapping ribbons in slow motion, King Knight looks alarmingly like Midsommar, without the wardrobe budget. In fact it’s rather charmingly silly and benignly funny, and it does remind you that everyone’s carrying around waste matter they’d be better off without. Including all those witches.
King Knight will be released on UK digital download from 8th August.