Fantasia Festival Review: King Knight

Year: 2021
Runtime:  81 minutes
Director: Richard Bates Jr.
Writer: Richard Bates Jr.
Cast: Matthew Gray Gluber, Angela Sarafyan, AnnaLynne McCord, Nelson Franklin, Emily Chang, Johnny Pemberton, Josh Fadem, Kate Comer, Andy Milonakis, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Shane Brady, Barbara Crampton and Ray Wise

By Harris Dang

“King Knight” (2021) tells the story of a Wiccan couple, Thorn (Matthew Gray Gluber) and Willow (Angela Sarafyan), a priest (who works for a living by selling bird baths online) and a priestess of a coven of witches in California. For the most part, the community resides in peace and harmony as they openly discuss their problems with relationships, amuse themselves with rituals and celebrating the holidays like Beltane, a Pagan holiday celebrating fire, fertility and the onset of summer which involves tree dressing, vow renewals, morning cleanses, sorting May baskets and of course, dancing round bonfires while smoking weed. But a buried secret from Thorn’s past comes back to haunt him and shocks his inner circle to the point of mutiny, which leads everyone into a journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

“King Knight” (2021) is the latest film from maverick filmmaker Richard Bates Jr., who is famous for films that blur horror and comedy in ways that are emotionally charged and are reflective of the unhinged mindsets of the tumultuous world we live today. Films like “Excision” (2012), “Trash Fire” (2016), and “Tone-Deaf” (2019) in particular feel like barbed commentary toward the human condition.

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And yet in the case of King Knight” (2021) it is essentially the anti-thesis of all of Bates Jr’s prior work, a film that is almost free of the pervasive anger and cynicism and is all the better for it. It may disappoint those who are expecting more of the same from Bates Jr.  including the shock value. But those who have an open mind will find themselves with a rewarding comedy that amuses, probes and even sneakily affects emotionally with a message of acceptance.

The film places its audience as the fish out of the water as they play an observer to all the Pagan rites and rituals and Bates Jr. manages to achieve a comedic balance that amusingly pokes at the absurdity of the culture whilst showing reverence and respect toward it that makes the film (and its characters) endearingly good-natured. In fact, the good nature of the story is so well-done, that you care for the characters in a way that sneaks up on you. It is particularly notable in the climax that blends humor (with interpretive dancing) and emotion that is deeply satisfying.

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Sure, there are some raunchy moments told through dialogue (including a character retelling how she got pregnant), many moments of surrealism (including talking inanimate objects) and some barbed social commentary towards political correctness (one character literally names his dog Women’s Rights) that all hit their mark. However, it is the character interactions and performances that solidify the comedy effectively.

The film has great supporting performances (Nelson Franklin, Andy Milonakis and Emily Chang being the stand-outs), cameo appearances from Aubrey Plaza (acerbic as ever) and Barbara Crampton (sharp as a whip as Thorn’s conservative mother) and of course, what would a Bates Jr. film be without his usual lucky charms like AnnaLynne McCord (who has a voice cameo) and Ray Wise (who of course plays a wizard called Merlin).

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But the film rests on its leading couple and they knock it out of the park. Sarafyan is fantastic as Willow as she shows a balance of being nurturing and tenacious, making her a perfect foil and compliment to Thorn. Her emotional outburst in finding out Thorn’s secret has the perfect amount of pathos that it makes the absurdity funny and the drama feel weighty. Gluber is amazingly deadpan in the role of Thorn as his serene mood to the world around him provides welcome mirth, charisma and eventually welcome introspection that makes the climax effective.

If one adjusts their expectations, they will be rewarded with a welcome and entertaining experience with “King Knight” (2021); a great change of pace for Bates Jr. that does away with the world-weary cynicism and provides an optimistic outlook about love and acceptance. Recommended.

3.5 stars

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“King Knight” (2021) will be showing at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Click the picture below to explore the festival program.

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