Fantasia 2021: King Knight Review–Witches Make For One of Fantasia’s Most Endearing Premieres

Starring Matthew Gray Gubler and Barbara Crampton

Written by Richard Bates Jr.

Directed by Richard Bates Jr.

Synopsis: When his darkest secret is brought to light, the high priest of a modern coven sets out on a hilarious soul-searching journey back to his hometown.

Richard Bates Jr., in just a matter of years, has solidified himself as one of the freshest, nonpareil genre filmmakers working today. From his audacious debut Excision to more polarizing– yet nonetheless sensational– outputs like Trash Fire, Bates Jr.’s output is nothing if not unpredictable. King Knight, which had its world premiere at this year’s 25th Fantasia International Film Festival, is both a step forward for him as a filmmaker that nonetheless remains squarely in sync with his distinct sensibilities. Though unlikely to win new converts, for fans of his filmography, King Knight is a trippy, wickedly funny treat.

Matthew Gray Gubler, of both Criminal Minds and Richard Bates Jr. fame (see Suburban Gothic) stars as Thorn, a self-proclaimed witch and quasi-coven leader living with long-term girlfriend, Willow (a delightfully unhinged Angela Sarafyan). Introduced in a series of relational vignettes that firmly establish both the coven’s membership and Thorn’s role therein– he’s something of an expert communicator and relationship guru– the early goings are a mildly-pitched series of longform jokes and familiar faces. Andy Milonakis, Emily Chang, and Nelson Franklin are among the indie grab-bag of recognizable persons who unload their relationship burdens on Thorn and Willow, while the two grapple with uncertainty of their own.

Thorn is a good witch. In his own words, he doesn’t sacrifice children or have group sex (after an unfortunate college faux pas), yet for all his spiritual aspirations, he and Willow are unable to reconcile their dovetailing desires regarding parenthood. Thorn wants a child, Willow doesn’t. The jokes work, yet there’s a queer lack of grounding or drive. The witchy iconography is evocative in broad strokes– deserts and swords and candles– but the pitch-perfect performances and committed cast elevate the first act’s semi-meandering material.

Willow, however, soon learns a secret from Thorn’s past, and after he is cast out from the coven, he embarks on a journey home to both find himself and renew his purpose within the coven he calls home. From here, King Knight, like most of Richard Bates Jr.’s offerings, swaggers on to a hypnotic beat all its own. There are hallucinations, sanctimonious park rangers, Barbara Crampton cameos, and the strangest high school reunion ever seen. Benign secrets are rendered dramatic to compelling comedic effect and supporting turns from A-list pinecones are delightfully absurd.

Pitched as a Pagan comedy, King Knight strangely works best when it distances itself from Beltane festivals and scheming Catholic schoolboys to let its cast do their own, maniacal, fiercely weird thing. Gubler and Sarafyan are terrific anchors, and the supporting players are given just enough to leave an imprint of their own. It’s savagely odd yet terrifically entertaining.

King Knight is liable to be one of the most unusual offerings from this year’s Fantasia Festival. It’s genre-adjacent, with smatterings of occult imagery and indie insight, and ventures into hypnotic, hallucinatory territory without ever going fully off the rails. For all its diverse elements, however, it’s uncommonly endearing. For all the Pagan hijinks and desert trips– in more ways than one– there’s a sweet, inconspicuous heart under the surface. King Knight isn’t quite royalty, but with more work just like this, Richard Bates Jr. himself might be soon.

  • King Knight


King Knight is a hypnotic and uncommonly endearing Pagan comedy. Sweet, funny, and utterly strange, it’s a trip worth taking.

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