Southern Gothic cinema owes a lot to the great Tennessee Williams, whose stunning stage plays became evocative films. Works like A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof introduced moviegoers to the steamy South, revealing its sinister side. Trading the grand for the grotesque, Southern Gothic cinema was born from the literary genre made famous by authors like Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee. These films brought the genre’s penchant for sex, secrets, and betrayal to the big screen. Williams is currently the subject of a Film Forum retrospective. Inspired by his Southern Gothic style, here are ten films that capture the dark heart of the South.
The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton’s eerie, expressionist fable introduced us to Robert Mitchum as the terrifying Reverend Harry Powell—a murderous preacher who preys upon a West Virginia family. A dreamlike river odyssey and a haunting song performed by the malevolent minister ensnare us in the film’s dark lyricism. The film’s Depression-era setting lends further vulnerability and desperation to its characters.
America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford braves an alligator-infested swamp to rescue a group of orphans in the expressionist-style silent Southern thriller, 1926’s Sparrows. TCM discusses one of the film’s possible urban legends:
Filming the scene in which Mary carries the children to safety through the alligator-infested swamp was a story which Pickford told, with many embellishments, throughout her life. She claimed that they rehearsed the scene repeatedly, with real alligators, and that she carried a bag of flour instead of a baby. But she knew she would have to carry a real baby, and she told her husband Douglas Fairbanks that she worried about putting the child in danger. Whereupon Fairbanks marched down to the set and bawled out director William Beaudine, demanding that the stunt be performed using a double-exposure optical effect. But plucky Mary went ahead and did the scene with live gators and a real baby anyway. At least that’s the most substantiated version of the story. But a close viewing of the film shows that the baby is a dummy. As for alligators, it’s possible, but not probable, that Pickford rehearsed with the real reptiles. Cinematographer Hal Mohr discounted that as well: “There wasn’t an alligator within ten miles of Miss Pickford,” he scoffed. He then explained in detail how painstakingly the effect was accomplished. Fake or real, the scene is frighteningly effective.
Elia Kazan’s steamy 1956 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ one-act play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, almost never saw the light of day. Controversy swirled around the story of a twisted love triangle between Southern rivals (Karl Malden and Eli Wallach) and a 19-year-old virgin bride (Carroll Baker) who sleeps in a crib, sucking her thumb. Motion picture moral crusaders the National Legion of Decency forced the film from most U.S. theaters and embarked on a nationwide boycott to ban it (succeeding in several countries). Apart from the sexual overtones, Kazan’s depiction of a ramshackle Southern homestead and the burning, grotesque figures that populate it contributed to Baby Doll’s scandalous reputation.
This is William Friedkin at his nasty best, blending the sleazy exploits of a trailer park family with the type of cynical crime noir that Friedkin does best. Matthew McConaughey stars as the slick Southern gentleman “Killer” Joe Cooper, who happens to be a crooked cop and hit man. He keeps an emotionally disturbed nymphette, Dottie (Juno Temple, who exudes a little of Carroll Baker’s Baby Doll in her performance), as sexual collateral until her drug-dealing brother can pay back Joe’s fee. Friedkin hadn’t made a film in 5 years—and 2006’s Bug fiercely divided audiences and critics—but Killer Joe makes it clear that the 79-year-old director can still deliver a slice of searing brutality like no one else.
A spellbinding, sardonic portrait of hypocrisy and evangelism from American cinema visionary John Huston, adapted from Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel of the same name. The remarkable Brad Dourif stars as an obsessed veteran who opens the first Church Without Christ in the fictional town of Taulkinham.
The supernatural South meets hard-boiled noir in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. Although the film opens in Fifties New York City, private dick Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is drawn to New Orleans by a mysterious client—an elegant menace known as Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro in a hypnotic performance). Gritty photography from Michael Seresin and atmospheric sets by Brian Morris imbue Angel Heart with a palpable sordidness, slick with sweat and blood.
Read Ben Sachs’s fascinating interview with Northwest Chicago Film Society programmer Kyle Westphal about Dirty Harry director Don Siegel’s 1971 Southern Gothic scorcher The Beguiled—set at a Confederate girls boarding school.
The movie really gets into the idea of Eastwood as a sex object. And it takes it quite seriously, albeit within an exploitation framework. Every scene in the film is just heaving with desire—Eastwood’s [character’s] desire for these women and also the women’s desire for Eastwood—but none of the characters quite understand exactly what they want. These women are at different ages, they expect different things from men, and they’re all attracted to this figure. And the movie lays that desire bare. There’s no tiptoeing around it.
Believe it or not, Universal wanted to shoot it on the southern mansion set at the Disney studio where all these antebellum movies had been made! And they wanted to market by capitalizing on Clint Eastwood’s success in the Sergio Leone westerns. But when it was done, the studio had no idea how to sell it. In the original advertising campaign, Universal tried to make it look psychedelic, with Eastwood in this lothario pose in front of a tie-dyed background—which is not what the movie is.
The Man in the Moon
Who knew a boy from the Bronx would grow up to direct several Southern Gothic films—one of which has been lauded as the greatest movie ever made. Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird won three Academy Awards and stands as one of the finer entries in the genre. But his 1950s-set Louisiana drama, which stars Reese Witherspoon in her feature film debut, is an underrated runner-up that offers a quieter coming-of-age perspective. A moonlit porch where sisters sleep, a swimming hole where the boys are, and dusty roads under a golden sky are the settings for an honest, heartbreaking story about first love. The film captures the beauty and bittersweet moments in young lives on the brink of discovery.
“In the original film, Sam Bowden was a good man trying to defend his family from a madman. In the Scorsese version, Bowden is flawed and guilty, and indeed everyone in this film is weak in one way or another, and there are no heroes. That’s the Scorsese touch,” wrote Roger Ebert about the differences between 1962 and 1991’s Cape Fear. Robert De Niro plays the part of sleazebag Max Cady, a convicted rapist who stalks the troubled family of the public defender who had him locked up after an unfair trial. The film’s moral ambiguity serves Scorsese well—and it’s nice to see him step away from the mean streets of New York for a while.
An angel of God visits a father of two young boys. He turns their small-town lives upside down when he forces them to help carry out the Lord’s dirty work. The angel delivers a never-ending list of names—“demons” that walk amongst them in human form. The boys are left to figure out if dad is a psychopath or has been gifted with divine prophecy. The severely underrated Frailty marked Bill Paxton’s directorial debut (he also plays the disturbed father to eerie effect). Paxton leads us into the shadows of his Southern Gothic terror trap as it shifts between dark domestic drama and pulpy police procedural.