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10 Southern Gothic films you need to watch

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

10 Southern Gothic films you need to watch

If Sophia Coppola's take on The Beguiled leaves you hungry for some more Southern Gothic, we've got ten more great films for you to sink your teeth into...

We may only be midway through 2017 but it’s not premature to hail Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled as one of the films of the year; a chamber piece set during the American Civil War, in which a wounded soldier (Colin Farrell) finds that the girls school in which he finds shelter might not be the sanctuary he first takes it to be.


It’s a fine example of a style as "Southern Gothic", a term used to describe those films (...and books, and plays...) set below the Mason-Dixon line that don’t buy into the region’s romantic view of itself. The old Confederacy isn’t here a place of courtly old-world charm but a land warped by heat, hysteria and history.

Here we present a brief introduction to this fevered form. So pour yourself a mint julep and we shall begin...


A Streetcar Named Desire 

Tennessee Williams didn’t invent "southern gothic" (either as a style or a description) but he remains its best-known exponent, for reasons that become abundantly clear when you watch this adaptation of his most famous play.

A baroque family drama about instability, decay and repression, in which Vivienne Leigh suffers beautifully as unfortunate Grande-Dame Blanche DuBois (Scarlett O’Hara gone to Seed) while Marlon Brando, then still a newcomer, erupts as her brutish brother-in-law Stanley. Even if it doesn’t seem as purely shocking now as it once did, it remains a potent landmark.



The Night of the Hunter 


Less "gothic" and more "fable", The Night of the Hunter is one of the most beautiful spells that’s ever been cast on film. Robert Mitchum plays the Big Bad Wolf: he’s Reverend Harry Powell, a devilish man of God who terrorises a pair of children. Luckily, find they have a fairy Godmother—played by silent star Lillian Gish—to watch over them.

It's a film of incredible imagery, turning Depression-era America into a something from a storybook, and there’s an elemental sense of light and darkness. A masterpiece, for sure, but a strange one: it feels more like a folk tale than a movie.



Written on the Wind 

Texas prides itself on doing things differently to the rest of America and, sure enough, it has a gothic tradition all its own, of which Written on the Wind is a fine example.

Part grand opera, part soap opera, Written on the Wind is another tale of unhappy families, in this case, the Hadleys of Hadley Tx, financially wealthy but emotionally impoverished. Both gaudy and deeply sad, it's unmistakably the work of Douglas Sirk, a German director whose films bridge the gap between classical tragedy and Hollywood melodrama: imagine Cecil B DeMille tackling Strindberg and you’re on the right lines. Or Ingmar Bergman handling Dallas.




The south is not always a cultivated and refined sort of place (big hair, rhinestones, deep fried squirrel...). As such, it made perfect sense for Russ Meyer to set a film there.

For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, Meyer was a filmmaker of the more lurid stripe: "king of the nudies" they called him back in the day. Mudhoney is one of his better films, a Depression-era potboiler filled with simmering passions and hatreds that boil over in the most overwrought way. Oh, and since you ask, Seattle "grunge" band Mudhoney did name themselves after this flick, proving they had good taste in bad taste.



Hurry Sundown

Michael Caine has, over the course of a long and distinguished career, achieved a great many things but a mastery of accent and dialect is not amongst them. Director Otto Preminger was, then, being ambitious when he cast Caine as the scion of a powerful Southern family; the results are everything a connoisseur of ripe movie accents might hope for and more.

Still, there's more to performance than accent and, aside from his preposterous elocution, Caine acquits himself well. The rest of the film isn’t at all bad either, a sweaty yarn of power and betrayal that isn’t afraid to address the racist sickness of the South, a subject too many films flinch from. It's a film that deserves to be better known, and not exclusively for Sir Michael’s accent.



The Beguiled 


No, not the one that’s in cinemas right now but an earlier adaptation of Thomas P Cullinan’s novel. Here it is Clint Eastwood who stumbles into the house of women and who finds himself at the mercy of the fairer sex. (Clint was at the very apogee of his virility when he made this, so it was brave of him to play a part that essentially calls for him to be slowly emasculated.)

Sophia Coppola places a different emphasis on the material and, as mentioned above, hers is a fine film indeed. But this version has its merits too: Don Siegel, who handled things here, was more usually an action director but The Beguiled shows he was capable of so much more. It’s one of his very best films—and one of Clint’s too.




Here we go: a film that’s done more to harm the reputation of those who live in the less populated parts of the southern states of America than any other. Oh, the filmmakers might protest, we were making a movie about the thin veneer of civilisation, pitting city dwellers against the cruel majesty of the natural world! We weren’t trying to disparage rural Americans!

But, thanks to Ned Beatty’s impersonation of a "hog", that’s not how it turned out. Everyone—even those who haven’t seen it—know it as “the movie in which Ned Beatty squeals like a pig”.

Warning: contains squealing like a pig...

It’s probably far too late to change people’s minds now, too late to talk about the film’s terrifying meditation on the permeability of society or the stunning uses of the American wilderness. No—this is, and ever will be, the “squeal like a pig” movie. Which is a bit of a shame really.




Wise Blood 

Hazel Motes, like many in the bible belt, is a preacher but he has a message that sets him aside from most others in his line of work. He's the founder of the Church of Truth Without Christ and his sales pitch is that religion is all a load of phooey: you will not be surprised to learn his ministry proves just a little bit contentious.

This was the set-up for Flannery O’Conner’s blistering novel of 1952, a book few reckoned would ever make its way onto the screen. John Huston didn’t agree: he was never the sort of fellow to let a spot of controversy get in his way and we must be glad he persisted, for his Wise Blood—with Brad Dourif as the man of no-God—is one of his best films, a rendering of O’Conner’s book and a damned sharp satire to boot.



Winter's Bone 


Most Southern Gothic focuses on the well-to-do—the upper and middle classes who can afford to hide themselves away in big decaying houses. For those reasons, it’s possible to contend that Winter’s Bone doesn’t properly qualify, set as it is very firmly at the other end of the social spectrum: its heroine Ree has been left in charge of her younger siblings and she must find her feckless father before they lose their home due to his malfeasance.

The South here is riven by unemployment and drug addiction. The women don’t have the luxury of being swooning Southern Belles: they have to get up and provide for families abandoned by the men folk. It’s a very different world to that of Tennessee Williams and it earns its "Gothic" diploma in different ways—but earn it most assuredly does, most especially in the scene that provides its title.

Ree, incidentally, was the first role of a talented newcomer called Jennifer Lawrence. Whatever happened to her?




As we saw above with Winter’s Bone, the traditional Southern Gothic can’t really flourish in the modern world. We can probably blame air conditioning for that: it’s so much harder to succumb to a fit of the vapours if there’s a nice artificial breeze to take the edge off the humidity. Think of how much calmer Blanche DuBois would have been if only she’d been able to flick on the a/c.

Anyway, Stoker is something of a throwback to the good old days, a film that pays tribute to Hitchcock, spooky old houses, fragile women, duplicitous men and much else besides. It was the English-language debut of Korean maestro Park Chan-Wook and while it’s not as unhinged as his very best work, it comfortably outstrips most of his American contemporaries. If the classic Southern Gothic is in decline then Stoker shows us what we’re losing.


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