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Top 10 Southern Gothics: It’s True What They Say About Dixie

For ghosts, ghouls, vampires, and other things that go bump in the night, the rich and strange landscape of the American Southeast provides an abundance of creepy hiding places. Which brings us to the literary/cinematic genre known as “Southern Gothic,” a vein of storytelling that, like good art, is hard to define, but you do know it when you see it. Encompassing horror, gothic drama and tawdry crime capers with equal ease, the genre does have certain typical tropes: eccentric characters, often with psychic powers; ancient trees swathed in ghostly Spanish moss; decaying mansions with big white columns; dark, fetid swamps; atavistic superstition and—usually—dysfunctional households hiding grotesque family secrets.

The state of Louisiana is far and away the most popular locale for a good Southern Gothic, with its twisted history of piracy, slave markets, voodoo/hoodoo conjurers, and the presence of the great Mississippi River, whose deep, wide, mucky waters probably conceal  centuries of dark doings. It’s not surprising then, that most of the best Southern Gothics take place in The Pelican State. Second-runner up seems to be Georgia, land of many Civil War battlefields and Sherman’s March to the Sea. While there are many great horror films and gothic dramas that fit into the Southern Gothic mold, my Top 10 include:

The Skeleton Key (2005)

Directed by Iain Softley (Inkheart, 2008), starring Kate Hudson, John Hurt, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard, and Joy Bryant. You can practically smell the fried crawdads and chicken gumbo when you watch this old-fashioned tale of hoodoo and body-switching set in rural Louisiana. Hudson (Almost Famous, 2000) plays Caroline, a young nursing student recently arrived in New Orleans from New Jersey, who takes a temporary job in a rural county as a caregiver to a dying stroke victim, Ben Devereux (Hurt, The Elephant Man). Ben’s wife, Violet (Rowlands, Gloria, 1980), takes an immediate dislike to Caroline, but she gets the job anyway; Violet is clearly desperate. Once settled into the house, Caroline begins to notice a few unsettling things: Violet hates mirrors, and Ben, unable to speak beyond shrieks and moans, acts deathly afraid of his seemingly devoted wife.

There’s also a mysterious locked room in the attic—the only room in the house that can’t be opened with the  “skeleton key” that Violet has given Caroline. Curious Caroline isn’t deterred, however; she picks the lock on the secret attic room and discovers that it’s full of hoodoo paraphernalia and occult artifacts. Caroline then becomes convinced that Violet wants to kill Ben, and enlists the aid of the elderly couple’s glib young lawyer, Luke Marshall (Sarsgaard, Orphan), to help save him. Things, however, are not what they seem, and it all builds to a climax where The Skeleton Key crosses over from brooding ghost story to an active action sequence which is a bit over-the-top. Aside from that, the rest of the film is quite good, especially the performance of 75-year-old Rowlands as flinty, sinister Violet. On disc and streaming.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1996),
directed by Clint Eastwood, based on the book by John Barendt; starring John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Jude Law, and Alison Eastwood. This film received lukewarm critical reception, mostly because the script departs significantly from the beloved best-selling book.

It’s an undeserved reaction, though, as this tale of murder, supernatural revenge, and hoodoo in Savannah, Georgia stands alone as a fine piece of work, apart from the book. Spacey expertly plays Jim Williams, a wealthy, discreetly gay antiques dealer who is accused of murdering a male escort named Billy (Law). Cusack plays a journalist who chronicles the trial of Williams, as well as the eccentric locals he meets during the investigation, which include Minerva, the local hoodoo practioner; the drag queen The Lady Chablis, and a man who walks around town with numerous dead flies attached to his clothes. The cinematography by frequent Eastwood collaborator Jack N. Green is gorgeous. Filming locations include the house once owned by songwriter Johnny Mercer, as well as other prominent places in Savannah. On disc and streaming.

Southern Comfort (1981),
directed by Walter Hill, starring Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, Peter Coyote, and Alan Autry. This under-rated film is somewhat derivative of John Boorman’s classic Deliverance (1971), but it stands as a fine piece of cinema in its own right. Critics have described Southern Comfort aptly as “the best war film that isn’t about a war.” Set in the waning days of the Vietnam War, it concerns nine members of a squad of Louisiana National Guardsmen who go out into the bayous for training maneuvers. They try a shortcut across a watery stretch using some empty canoes that presumably have been left out by a group of trappers/hunters, with the idea of returning them when finished.

Unfortunately, the canoe owners—a group of backwoods Cajuns—show up, and they aren’t amused. They shoot the squad’s leader (Coyote) in the head, which causes the other Guardsmen to panic and lose their compass and map, so they can’t find their way out of the bayous. Meanwhile, the Cajuns, who know the backwaters intimately, have decided to start a war on the Guardsmen, who then descend into paranoia and desperation. Tension builds and never lets up, helped along by some of the Cajuns’ super-creepy, Old World fighting tactics. Performances are excellent, with Boothe, Fred Ward, and Alan Autry (In the Heat of the Night, television version) registering as the particular stand-outs. The camerawork by Andrew Laszlo (First Blood, 1982) effectively gives us eerie, silvery-gray-green bayous with endless vistas of moss-draped swamp cypress. On disc only, in a combo-pack with both standard DVD and Blu-Ray versions.

The Gift (2000),
directed by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, 1981) from an original script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson; starring Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear, Hillary Swank, Katie Holmes, and Giovanni Ribisi. Beautifully photographed with a killer cast, this film has atmosphere to burn: moss-draped trees, fetid swamps, wailing fiddle music, creaky front-porch stairs. It stars Blanchett as Annie, a struggling widow with three children, who makes her living as a psychic card reader in a small town in Georgia. Annie gets embroiled in the unsolved murder of the town’s resident rich girl (Holmes, at peak Dawson’s Creek fame) when her gift of “the sight” helps the local sheriff locate the body.

Then bad boy, Donny Barksdale (Reeves), is quickly captured, tried and convicted, but Annie’s visions don’t stop, and she becomes convinced that Barksdale is innocent. She then turns to the victim’s bereaved fiancé, Wayne Collins (Kinnear, Auto-Focus, 2002) for help. Meanwhile, Annie’s friend Buddy (Ribisi, Avatar, 2009), a mentally ill auto mechanic, becomes entangled in the murder as well, with heart-tugging results. Blanchett is excellent (absolutely nailing the accent) and even Reeves turns in a credible performance as the repellant Barksdale. The impressive list of A-listers is ably supported by the cream of Hollywood’s character actors: Michael Jeter, Chelcie Ross, Gary Cole, and the ubiquitous J. K. Simmons. The moody, wailing score by Chris Young (Sinister; Deliver Us From Evil) is stunning, while Danny Elfman has a brief cameo as a fiddle player. Don’t watch it expecting the Sam Raimi of The Evil Dead or Drag Me to Hell, however; this is a very different kind of film. On disc and streaming.

Angel Heart (1987)
Directed by Alan Parker (Evita, 1996), from his own script, based on the novel Falling Angel by William Hjortesberg ; starring Mickey Rourke, Robert DeNiro, Charlotte Rampling, and Lisa Bonet. If you like your mint juleps and fried catfish spiked with oceans of blood, this one’s for you. Angel Heart is a unique mishmash of several different film genres: it could be credibly described in a Hollywood pitch meeting as “Southern Gothic meets Film Noir meets Satanic Thriller meets Slasher Flick.” Rourke plays Harry Angel, a hard-up private detective barely surviving in mid-Fifties New York, who travels to New Orleans to investigate a missing persons case. Strangely, everyone he interviews about the case seems to end up dead – usually in bizarre and gruesome ways (boiled like Cajun crawfish, for example). Eventually, Angel forms a romantic relationship with one of the locals (Bonet, from the 80s Cosby Show television series), but things don’t exactly turn out well for the couple when Angel discovers both his own true identity and that of his enigmatic client. The world depicted here is not so much the romantic Louisiana of bayous and swamp cypresses, but of a grungy Mafia town filled with menacing shadows, creaky elevators, seedy jazz clubs, and lazy ceiling fans, with a little voodoo/hoodoo thrown in for good measure. On disc and streaming.

The Beguiled (1971), directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, 1971), based on the novel of the same title by Thomas Cullinan, starring Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, and Elizabeth Hartman. Stephen King is a big fan of the novel, which he endorsed in his Danse Macabre collection of essays about horror and culture. This film isn’t exactly “horror” (like several other films on this list) but it is a gothic dark drama that edges over the horror fence more than once, and it has influenced other, more genre-specific books and films, such as King’s novel Misery and his Dark Tower novella, The Sisters of Eulalia. Eastwood plays a wounded Union army soldier named John McBurney, who is held in secret captivity inside a remote plantation house by a somewhat unhinged Southern schoolmistress (Page, as Miss Farnsworth) and her girlish charges, in the waning days of the American Civil War.

As he recovers health, McBurney reels in the all-female household with lies, flattery and charm—in other words, he “beguiles” them. Soon, most of the women and girls are competing for McBurney’s sexual attention in ugly and ruthless ways, with bleak consequences for the Yankee soldier. By the time the memorably macabre denouement shows up, the viewer has come to realize that Miss Farnsworth and her girls weren’t the ones who were “beguiled.” Gorgeously shot at the Ashland-Belle Helene antebellum plantation in Louisiana, The Beguiled features a lot of classic Southern Gothic elements—a white pillared-mansion, moss-draped oak trees, grotesque family secrets, and a wise black servant who sees things the whites don’t. The acting is generally excellent, with Eastwood in one of his best roles, and Page doing Oscar-worthy work as brittle, sexed-starved Miss Farnsworth, the kissin’ cousin of Kathy Bates in Misery (1990). On disc in several editions, and streaming.

Eve’s Bayou (1997), directed and written by actress-director Kasi Lemmons (as an actress, best known for The Silence of the Lambs, 1991), starring Samuel L. Jackson, Debi Morgan, Lynne Whitfield, Meagan Good, Diahann Carroll, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell. Unusual for the genre, this film focuses on a family who isn’t white; the Batistes descend from the gens de couleur libre—the free, mixed-race people of Louisiana, who, in antebellum times, were sometimes wealthy planters and business owners in their own right. Aside from the role switch, however, the affluent Batiste family of the rural backwater town, Eve’s Bayou, aren’t much different from their white counterparts. There’s a huge, white-pillared mansion, swampy bayous, Spanish moss, dark family secrets, and an oddball aunt who has “the sight.” Set in the early Sixties, this stunning film isn’t “scary,” but it is deeply unsettling. A startling voiceover begins the story: “I killed my father the summer I was ten.” The ten-year-old is Eve Batiste (Smollett-Bell), the middle child of the Batiste family. The father, Louis (Jackson), is the town’s popular doctor; his beautiful wife Roz (Whitfield), is a perfect, pearl-wearing Southern lady; the family also includes 14-year-old Cisely (Good), and an eccentric aunt named Mozelle (Debi Morgan of the daytime soap opera All My Children) who works as a “psychic counselor.”

They seem to have an enviable life, until Eve witnesses her father’s infidelity with a neighbor—only one of his many indiscretions. She later makes a deadly and horrific bargain concerning Louis with the local witchcraft practitioner, Elzora (Carroll, of the 80s night-time soap, Dynasty). The camerawork makes the town of Eve’s Bayou look like Eden, the script is very strong and the performances are generally excellent, especially Morgan as Mozelle, Smollett as Eve, and Jackson as Louis. Diahann Carroll’s creepy turn as Elzora is also very memorable. Look for the cameo by jazz great Branford Marsalis as one of Mozelle’s doomed husbands. Although critics named it one of the best films of the late 90s, sadly, Eve’s Bayou seems to have sunk into relative obscurity, and Lemmons hasn’t made many films since releasing it. On disc and streaming.

Hush. . .Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), directed by Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962), and starring Bette Davis, Olivia DeHavilland, Joseph Cotton, Victor Buono, Mary Astor, Agnes Moorhead, George Kennedy, and Bruce Dern. Filmed in shadowy black-and-white, Hush. . .Hush Sweet Charlotte is the twisty, creepy grande dame of Southern Gothic cinema. It’s very, very gothic, what with the harpsichord music chiming at midnight, the sinister house servant who knows more than she wants to say, and the old sins that cast very long shadows. And it’s also very, very Southern, with swamps, ghostly Spanish moss, a crumbling, white-pillared mansion, and an aging former Southern belle who drives everyone else crazy. Bette Davis plays the belle, Charlotte Hollis, who lives a lonely life in her antebellum plantation house in rural Louisiana.

Everyone thinks that Charlotte murdered her married lover, John Mayhew ( Dern, Nebraska, 2013) nearly forty years earlier by decapitation. Her family name kept her from the gallows, but she’s so notorious that little boys sing a gruesome ditty while daring each other to trespass on her property: “Chop, chop, Sweet Charlotte, chop, chop until he’s dead/Chop, chop Sweet Charlotte, chop off his hand and head.”  Into this brew of Southern grotesquery waltzes charming and refined Cousin Miriam (de Havilland, Gone With the Wind, 1939), whom Charlotte has invited to stay while she fights a government plan to demolish her house. After Miriam moves in, however, Charlotte’s always-precarious mental health falls apart, and she insists that she’s been seeing apparitions of  her dead lover, John Mayhew. Davis essays a lead performance that edges into camp one too many times, but the stellar, Golden-Age-of-Hollywood cast members (Cotton, de Havilland, Moorhead, Astor), deftly directed by Aldrich, deliver outstanding support. Trivia note: Miriam was originally scheduled to be played by Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? co-star Joan Crawford, but she was fired off the set at the insistence of Davis, her arch-nemesis. On disc and streaming.

The Night of the Hunter (1955),
directed by Charles Laughton,  based on a novel by William Grubbs, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelly Winters, and silent-screen legend Lillian Gish. Robert Mitchum creates one of the greatest screen villains of all time in this black-and-white creep-fest, the only film ever directed by Laughton, the distinguished British actor of the mid-20th Century (Spartacus, 1960). As the “Reverend” Harry Powell, Mitchum plays a psychotic, bible-quoting Bluebeard who travels from town to town in rural West Virginia, romancing lonely widows, killing them, and stealing their money.

When he bumps off his latest victim, Willa (Shelly Winters, The Poseidon Adventure, 1972), he ruthlessly stalks her two orphaned children down the Ohio River, convinced that they know the location of a hidden cache of money. Only Rachel (Gish), the sweet farm wife who offers refuge to the orphans, stands in his way. The film’s moody, surreal camerawork (inspired by the artwork of American painter Thomas Hart Benton and the Expressionist films of Fritz Lang), coupled with the strength of Mitchum’s astonishing performance, frequently lands Hunter on lists of the greatest American films ever made. Often classified as a film noir (erroneously, IMHO), The Night of the Hunter belongs more properly with its kissin’ cousins in the moss-draped, Southern Gothic treehouse. On disc and streaming.

Deliverance (1972), directed by John Boorman, based on the best-selling novel of the same title by James Dickey, and starring Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox. The Night of the Hunter is more artful; Hush. . .Hush Sweet Charlotte is more gothic; Southern Comfort has a much higher body count. But none of those films or the others on this list have had the lasting cultural impact of Boorman’s classic about four Southern businessmen who take a weekend trip down a white-water river from hell (filmed on the Chattooga River in North Carolina).

Forty-six years after release, millions of people around the world can hum the first few notes of Dueling Banjos; millions know what “squeal like a pig” means; millions instantly understand the term “Deliverance Country.” Is it horror? It certainly has its very horrific moments. Is it gothic? The disfigured backwoods people who terrorize the quartet seem like American versions of  the dwarves, hunchbacks and demented hermits who often populate European gothic tales. And then there’s the graveyard scene. . .But whether you consider it to be a horror film or not, Deliverance has had a great influence on numerous other, more genre-specific movies, from Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) to Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) to the just-released British film, The Ritual (2017). For its undeniable cultural importance, Deliverance gets the Number One spot on my list. On disc and streaming.

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