Southern Gothic: Love, Death and Religion in the American South runs at BFI Southbank throughout May 2015.
There’s a world of gothic that has little to do with vampires, mad scientists or blasted heaths. Instead, it’s a world of dark family secrets, religious hysteria and warped sexuality amid the sweltering heat of Bible Belt America.
Southern Gothic began as a uniquely American outgrowth of gothic literature, with authors such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor adapting the dark heart of the gothic tradition. They stripped it of most of its supernatural trappings but retained its sense of the macabre and perverse to examine a postbellum south defined by poverty, confusion in the face of modernity and the physical and social after-effects of slavery. The grandeur of the south was now in decay, and – in place of the lonely mansions, creepy woodlands and timid heroines of Victorian gothic – Southern Gothic gave us dilapidated plantations, overgrown Spanish moss and fading southern belles who’ve witnessed the old world slip from their grasp.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK
Over time, there have been awkward attempts to purloin Charles Laughton’s singular thriller The Night of the Hunter (1955) for the canon of film noir. But anyone who sees the great actor’s only film as director knows it’s something more than that – a battle between good and evil (the latter incarnated by Robert Mitchum’s fearsome Harry Powell) writ large across Depression-era West Virginia. A self-styled preacher, with the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed across his knuckles, Powell is an archetypal figure in Southern Gothic cinema: a man who has twisted religion to his own perverted ends.
Here are 10 other milestones in cinema’s obsession with the dark side of the American south.
Swamp Water (1941)
Director Jean Renoir
“The swamp! Sinister, mysterious – it shaped the lives and loves and hates of the people who lived round its edges!” The poster for 1941’s Swamp Water, adorned with a skull-topped, weed-strangled wooden cross, knew how to whet the appetite for a wallow in wetlands wickedness.
The first American film by Jean Renoir (he fled Europe following the outbreak of the Second World War), it was filmed largely on location at Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp and makes full use of the fetid atmosphere, tangled overgrowth and its reptile population of gators and cottonmouth snakes. It’s the story of an idealistic young un’ (Dana Andrews) who wanders into the swamp in search of his lost dog and encounters a fugitive murderer, Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), with whom he begins a racket selling animal furs. By no means in the front rank of Renoir’s films, Swamp Water is nonetheless a vivid slice of semi-authentic localism, and – with forebears like Sparrows (1926) and the Faulkner-derived The Story of Temple Drake (1933) – an early dip of Hollywood’s toe into the quaggy hysteria of the Southern Gothic tradition.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Director Elia Kazan
One of the key writers associated with Southern Gothic literature, Tennessee Williams has been unusually well-served by the cinema, perhaps because he had a hand in the screenplays for several of the original adaptations. The 1950s saw a wave of Williams films – torrid tales of wild emotions in the American south that include Baby Doll (1956), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1960).
Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire is as close to a definitive cinematic version of a play as might be hoped for, with Marlon Brando recreating his sensational Broadway portrayal of Williams’ brutish anti-hero Stanley Kowalski and Vivien Leigh replacing Jessica Tandy as the fragile, fading southern belle Blanche Dubois. Though mainly filmed on Hollywood soundstages, the humid, devil’s-armpit feeling of New Orleans’ French Quarter in high summer is as palpable as the deviant sexual tension between Stanley and his lah-di-dah sister-in-law, who’s come to the city after the “epic fornications” of her ancestors have led to her family plantation going to ruin.
Ostensibly too theatrical, this 1951 Oscar-winner is Method acting, sex, sweat and jazz arriving on screen in screaming, unforgettable fashion.
The Young One (1960)
Director Luis Buñuel
“What if Luis Buñuel made a picture with an American producer, American screenwriter, and American actors during the height of the civil rights movement and set it in the rural south?” asks critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. “What if the main character were a jazz musician from the north fleeing from a southern lynching, falsely accused of raping a woman? And, to make a still headier brew, what if Buñuel decided to work in the theme of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a recent best-seller – the deflowering of a young girl by a middle-aged man?”
Of course, this killer project actually exists, though – as Rosenbaum observes – The Young One (also known as White Trash) has never had the attention it deserves. It was made during the iconoclastic director’s self-imposed exile in Mexico, with the Mexican coast standing in for the mangrove-covered shoreline of a North Carolina island. It’s a film that lights a fuse under the liberal pieties of many Hollywood films about race, presenting the locking of horns between the man on the run (Bernie Hamilton), the bigoted gamekeeper (Zachary Scott) and the young object of the gamekeeper’s illicit desires (Key Meersman) as a toxic standoff under the southern sun.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Director Robert Mulligan
After winning the Pulitzer Prize, Harper Lee’s 1960 debut novel To Kill a Mockingbird was quickly snapped up as a prestige project by Hollywood. The resulting film won three Oscars, including best actor for Gregory Peck as Alabama small-town lawyer Atticus Finch. Seen through the eyes of young ‘Scout’ Finch (Mary Badham), it’s a coming-of-age story in which the Finch kids first encounter the cruelty and prejudice of the adult world – namely the hatred directed towards one of their father’s cases, a black man accused of raping a local girl.
Fitting snugly into the Hollywood liberal tradition in which the plight of black Americans in the pre-civil rights era is seen via the mediation of their noble white ‘saviours’, it’s rather less lurid than many of the films on this list. Yet, as if memories of The Night of the Hunter were still fresh in director Robert Mulligan’s mind, the children’s spying on local loner ‘Boo’ Radley has a genuinely frightful dimension. With the kids sneaking a peek through Radley’s window, the supposed bogeyman’s looming shadow as he creeps up on them from behind is an act of cinematic goosing that ties To Kill a Mockingbird to the legacy of Nosferatu (1922).
The Beguiled (1971)
Director Don Siegel
The same year that they collaborated on the hugely popular Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel also turned out this thick slice of southern grand guignol set in a girl’s seminary during the American civil war. Eastwood plays an injured Yankee soldier who’s discovered by a 12 year-old and taken to the school for recuperation. In this huge, shuttered mansion, a solitary outpost among the cottonwoods, the lone male presence causes backdrafts of desire and jealousy among the girls, who – with his sly encouragement – begin vying for his attention.
Adapted from a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, this really is one of the strangest, but most intriguing, films of Eastwood’s career, full of interior monologues, flashbacks and off-kilter angles. It’s almost as if Siegel had seen Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem (1968), about one man seducing an entire Italian family, and decided to remake it as a Freudian fever dream of the American south. “One man…seven women…in a strange house!” ran the original poster, and many critics of the time decried the film’s purported misogyny. But if you’re looking for precedents to A Field in England’s mushroomification of history, The Beguiled is a doozy.
Wise Blood (1979)
Director John Huston
Three decades after his classic debut, The Maltese Falcon (1941), John Huston still had plenty surprises up his sleeve. The 1970s had already brought new classics like Fat City (1972) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975), but the end of the decade’s Wise Blood was something else – a one-of-a-kind tale of a dementedly atheist street minister, Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), preaching his ‘Church of God without Christ’ to anyone in a small town in Georgia who’ll listen.
Based on the first novel by Flannery O’Connor, it’s anything but a cautious literary adaptation. Instead, Wise Blood matches Motes’ fervour with its own, catching us off-guard from the moment the director’s own misspelt credit (‘Jhon Huston’) raises the curtain on proceedings. It plunges us into a Bible Belt world of manic evangelism, as oddballs and ne’er-do-wells scrabble for a slice of the spiritual action. Harry Dean Stanton plays the rogue, ‘blind’ preacher, while Dourif has never been better than as our hellbent tour guide.
Southern Comfort (1981)
Director Walter Hill
Nothing gets written about Walter Hill’s 1981 bayou-set thriller without comparisons to Deliverance (1972), that earlier parable about men of action coming undone amid the primeval landscapes of the old, weird America. But Southern Comfort is a brilliant film on its own terms, a spare, lucid drama about a platoon of national guardsmen on weekend manoeuvres through Louisiana swampland. Macho jostling for supremacy gives way to a lethal game of cat and mouse after an unthinking act of violence makes them the prey of some Cajun woodsmen out for revenge.
The men’s trespassing on a terrain and civilisation that they barely comprehend carries echoes of Vietnam, but Hill is less interested in grandiose allegory than in the dynamics of a male group under pressure and the readiness of their resort to violence. The endless thicket of wetland trees becomes a nightmarish purgatory, as dense with threat as the dark woods of Victorian gothic literature. A sustained climax, in which the men’s ordeal converges with a lively feast and zydeco barn dance in a Cajun village, is as fascinating for its ethnographic detail as it is chilling in its uncertain menace.
Angel Heart (1987)
Director Alan Parker
The hardboiled 1940s private-eye movie tradition goes south in Alan Parker’s outlandish 1987 thriller, slipping its metropolitan moorings amid a world of sin, superstition and voodoo. Mickey Rourke is New York private dick Harry Angel, whose commission from the mysterious Louis Cyphre (a long-fingernailed Robert De Niro) takes him down to New Orleans in search of a singer who’s gone missing in suspicious, occult-tinged circumstances.
As one gruesome murder follows another, Parker piles on the atmospherics, relishing the heady heat haze and shabby exoticism of the American subtropics as the backdrop for the story’s Faustian powerplay. Ceiling fans whirr weezily; an elevator descends with endless, portentous menace; locals writhe with berserk abandon during a black mass; a bedroom pours with blood in the course of a (highly controversial) sex scene – Angel Heart amps up the iconography of film noir and Southern Gothic to new levels of tawdry delirium.
Cape Fear (1991)
Director Martin Scorsese
The original 1961 version of Cape Fear took its lead from The Night of the Hunter in casting Robert Mitchum as a brute force of sadism and violence intruding across the homely threshold of a decent, southern family. Martin Scorsese returned to John D. MacDonald’s novel for a 1991 reboot starring Robert De Niro as the tattooed, ex-con reprobate Max Cady who goes after Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), the lawyer who helped put him behind bars.
At first, Cady operates within the bounds of the law, threatening the Bowden family with his presence alone – his overbearing physicality, loud Hawaiian shirts and those suggestive draws on his cigar are warning enough of the coming threat. But such restraint was never going to last, and the Cady-Bowden showdown becomes a destructive battle of wills, as the white-collar father struggles to fend off Cady’s relentless campaign of terror. Six previous Scorsese-De Niro collaborations were New York movies through and through; here, actor and director wallow in the sweaty, hot-house atmospherics of the south, taking to the swampy backwaters for a perilous climax aboard the Bowdens’ houseboat.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
Director Debra Granik
From Killer Joe (2011) to Django Unchained (2012), the seamy side of southern life continues to be mined for its gaudy, salacious potential. A more restrained recent entry to the Southern Gothic stable came with Debra Granik’s indie feature Winter’s Bone, set in the Ozark mountains of southern Missouri. A harrowing story about a family’s hand-to-mouth existence in the back of beyond, it stars Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, a 17 year-old burdened with her younger siblings’ upbringing – their mother is mentally ill; their father a bail-dodging crystal meth producer.
It’s a glimpse into a modern America forgotten by most films and television – a world of extreme poverty, lived in rundown shacks in the woodlands, as far from the rush and noise of modernity as can be imagined. But while unflinching from its contemporary concerns, Granik’s film also hitches its wagon to the grand gothic tradition in its woodsy horror, its gallery of grotesques, and in a truly nightmarish finale at a moonlit lake.
We asked you on our Facebook page what we’d missed from our list of Southern Gothic greats. This time, no clear favourite rose to the top – though Tennessee Williams adaptations certainly ruled the roost. Here are some of your suggestions…
Baby Doll (1956)
Written on the Wind (1956)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
The Fugitive Kind (1960)
Cape Fear (1961)
Sweet Bird of Youth (1961)
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Toys in the Attic (1963)
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)
The Reflecting Skin (1990)
Shotgun Stories (2007)