Drooling Over Gravy (but Please Mind the Gags)

Gravy (2015)
Dir.: James Roday
TC4P Rating: 6/9


When Jen and I were finally ready* to move past the December loss of the second of our beloved pair of rat terriers last year, one rescue cat already had an in with us. A friend of Jen's mom was fostering a cat in Denver named Muffin, who was born to a feral mother who had figured out pretty early that her kitten was an indoor cat. We had known about her months earlier before we were ready, but when the time came in April to finally take the next step, Muffin was still up for the taking. She still needed her "forever home," as they say in rescue pet vernacular, though I prefer to be more realistic and call it an "8-14 year home".

After setting up a transport system through the Underground Railroad Rescued Kitty Network, which included our meeting a transfer agent at the airport in Las Vegas, we finally got our Muffin. Except we really couldn't call her Muffin. Cats don't know their name most of the time anyway, but Muffin? Ew... The problem wasn't that it was too cutesy; it just wasn't our cutesy. And we preferred to use a name that we decided upon, even if it was still cute. Her name briefly changed to Blueberry Muffin, and then in no time at all, to just The Blueberry.

If you are a fan of the show Psych, then you know the name. The Blueberry was the tiny Toyota Whatever that co-lead character Burton "Gus" Guster (played by Dulé Hill) drove throughout most of the run of Psych from 2006 through 2014. It belonged to the pharmaceutical company for whom Gus served as a customer rep, and Shawn Spencer (the other lead played by James Roday) and Gus would use the car mostly to investigate crimes for their psychic detective agency, obtain obscene amounts of fast food, or both.

We came to Psych a little late, a couple of years into its run. We were on the USA Network to watch our boy Bruce Campbell on Burn Notice, and there was this weird other show about a fake psychic bouncing around the fringes whenever we watched the spy show. Every once in a while, one or both of us would watch an episode. Or a pair of episodes. Or a mini-marathon of episodes. The show was catching on with us, even if it was subtle at first. I still remember a conversation where one of us said, "It's OK... kinda funny." And then -- overnight it seems -- it became really funny to us both. We were all in from that point. Psych became a permanent part of our schedule and it became rather common to find a day we both had off where we would rather just stay in bed watching Psych for eight hours than step outside for a breath of fresh air. The wacky antics of Shawn and Gus had taken over our lives.

And then it is seven years later and we are renaming a cat after a car in a TV show about a fake psychic detective and his pill-slinging best friend. Our cat doesn't seem to respond to the name The Blueberry any better than if I said "kitty" or "doormat" to her, but she is the right cat at the right time, and our lives are better for her intrusion into them.

But I came here to talk about a new film named Gravy.

It has been well over a year since Psych aired its last new episode. There are talks of possible TV movies reuniting the cast (or at least the two main characters), and everything ever created by the show is readily available on streaming, download or DVD. We have much of it. Reruns show sporadically on a couple of cable channels as well, and we catch them when we run into them. But Psych -- new Psych, that is -- for the foreseeable future is out of our lives. We had to move on to other shows, other pastimes, other distractions.

And so too did the cast and crew of Psych. Most noticeably missing from our routine is the relaxed, brotherly (sometimes a little too close) gab between stars Roday and Hill, and my immediate question was going to be whether they would do another project together. Such attempts can be dangerous, especially when actors have become pretty well-known as a team on a successful project. Such attempts can destroy legacies, and rarely work out for the better. But I, like many people, not only didn't want to see an end to the adventures of Shawn and Gus (though admittedly, the last season was pretty up and down in quality), we want to believe that Roday and Hill are a team. We want to believe they are best pals in real life and do everything together.

Taking that out of the equation, the real question is "What next?" Actors move on to new roles; so too must our star pals. There are few actors, like Campbell, that I do follow through every single iteration of their careers. Was I going to follow the stars of Psych to their next stop? Would it be like David Duchovny, where following him over to Californication was a no-brainer? (There would at least be ample amounts of nudity and swearing on the show.) Or would it be like Kelsey Grammer, where even the slightest whiff of Patricia Heaton on Back to You sent me packing right away?

And here now we come to Gravy, a film that has just come out on disc via Scream Factory after limited theatrical showings early in October. After wondering what Roday and company might do next, the answer it appears is this, a very bloody, quite violent horror-comedy that has no intention of tricking you for even a second, apart from some casting, that it might be a comfy fit within Psych's somewhat limited range of light comic sensibility. In fact, just from its opening sequence, and the setting up of its plot, Gravy is more intent on showing that as a director/co-writer, Roday is capable of journeying far beyond what he showed with already established characters on Psych (he directed eight episodes and had a hand in writing sixteen episodes of the show through its run). And Gravy, despite some clumpy moments, did help establish that impression with me.

The film takes place (primarily) on Halloween at a small Mexican eatery and bar west of nowhere. The restaurant's crew is casually cleaning up after what has been a busy but festive evening, and most of the characters are dressed in the Halloween costumes in which they served their shift. Bartender Kerry (Sutton Foster) is a quarterback princess, itty bitty diva waitress Cricket (Molly Ephraim) is a beauty contestant, and busboy Hector (Gabriel Luna) is a boxer. Big changes are on the way for the staff. Security guard/bouncer Winketta (Gabourey Sidibe) is about to graduate school in a week, and Kerry is just about to leave to start a new career as a paramedic. Boss Chuy (Paul Rodriguez in an effective cameo role) wants the staff to gather to celebrate before they close for the night. It seems to be just another closing on just another night for everyone concerned.

Enter the cannibals. Brothers Anson (Michael Weston) and Stef (Jimmi Simpson), along with Stef's batshit insane girlfriend Mimi (Lily Cole) have been sizing up the place (making special note that the restaurant has no windows), and before anyone can catch their breath, they have the doors welded shut, the mouthy French chef Yannick (a wonderfully caustic Lothaire Bluteau) chained at the neck in the kitchen, and the rest of the staff tied to chairs and forced to play games to keep them from being turned into the next course. Anson and Stef are gourmands with a taste for human flesh, and spend each Halloween capturing a small assortment of people, and then torture and devour them until they are completely stuffed.

It is not the sort of premise you would expect from one of the driving creative forces behind Psych, and especially not his first big project after the show was put to bed. Yes, Psych did have many gruesome murders and occasional serial killer plotlines that went beyond the show's usual light tone and the regular slapstick antics involving Shawn and Gus. And some of their most popular episodes were the Halloween-oriented episodes where they would tackle hoary cliches of the horror genre. (These same episodes, despite the mystery solving, would often have Shawn and Gus running around in the dark screaming like little girls.)

But I had no idea what to expect from Roday in Gravy, and he truly sticks to his guns. The dialogue and situations are definitely funny, but he and co-writer Todd Harthan (himself a writer and producer on Psych) have done themselves proud in keeping the horror the most important element here. Once you have settled in to the cast, which is also made up of many performers who appeared on Roday's show (Foster, Simpson, Weston, Kate Rogal, and Ethan Sandler) and therefore makes you anticipate that you will get more of the same, the violence between the characters as they fight for survival can be more than a little shocking. Thankfully, Roday keeps a steady tone throughout the manic proceedings (and it gets truly crazy in the second half). He also shows a nice touch for counterpoint using follow-up shots and soundtrack cues. (The inclusion out of nowhere of the children's song Farm Animal Friends early on is a special favorite moment for me.)

For the most part, the cast is up to the task as well. Jimmi Simpson, a favorite of Psych fans for his portrayal of the memorably named and tragic Mary Lightly (though he comes back for a swell song in the musical episode), is having a field day as Stef, and imparts both control freak leadership and villainy in equal amounts. Michael Weston, another Psych cult hero, carries the film on a wave of non-stop babble as the brother who is more than a tad jealous of his brother's girl. His pairing up with Sutton Foster, the multi-Tony Award winning actress, throughout the film is nicely underplayed and never goes for the obvious notes. There is a silly wraparound cameo part for Sarah Silverman (wearing a bunny costume) that seems to be bigger given her prominence on the DVD cover, but that is obviously to help sell the film. 

My one gripe (and it is a minor one) is the commitment to the gore implied in the premise. While there are a few body parts displayed in the film, the intention of the villains to have dishes creatively named after each of their victims is given short shrift, and largely gets forgotten. The film is bloody, bloody, bloody, but it is not very gory. Practically every room and character gets soaked in the red stuff, but the film becomes more focused on the multiple fight scenes or bickering between the characters, and less on delivering the promise that a cannibal orgy on Halloween night bodes. If there is a failing in Gravy, it is on this promise. And especially so since the title of the film itself is food-based. Yes, the big night in Big Night turns out to be a twist on that which is anticipated at the start of the film, but the chefs still deliver an amazing meal. Maybe Anson and Stef should have gotten a little more help for Yannick in the kitchen so we could get more than just a couple of dishes out of their endeavors.

It is hard to say how I am going to feel about Gravy in a couple of years. I just watched it for a second time this afternoon, and there are indications that I am going to grow to like it even more over the coming years. However, the small errors were more glaring this go-around too, so who knows? Minor annoyances can turn into big, unavoidable itches after a while. And I haven't even shown the film to Jen yet, my partner in all things Psych (and otherwise). Jen is not a horror movie fan for even a second, though she will watch one if there is something interesting to it or has been so critically acclaimed that she can't avoid it. (She loves The Silence of the Lambs, for instance, but approaches it as more of a mystery film than a horror film. And she adores the Evil Dead films.) I bought the Blu-ray of Gravy, and was going to spring it on her right away, but then decided to give it a shot myself first. It may be a touch too bloody for her tastes, but she can make the decision to watch it on her own.

Oh, and those Psych pals, Roday and Hill? They show up onscreen in Gravy as well for a cameo turn, but it is very brief (and kind of funny). They don't show up in The Blueberry, but they make it to the party all the same. And so their first big project after their long-running hit show is together as a team after all, which is just what a Psych fan would want. Whether my wife ends up wading through the oceans of gravy in Gravy and seeing our old pals in it is up to her.

*[Note: We will never be ready.]

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