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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Southern Gothic Movies, Part 1 (originally published 11/97)

When Horace Walpole inaugurated the era of Gothic fiction with "The Castle of Otranto" back in 1764, he set his tale of horror and bloodshed in the dark, benighted Middle Ages. That became the pattern for Gothic novels for some time to come, and with good reason. What could be more suited to the Gothic taste for dangerous eccentricity and the supernatural than a medieval setting with its dark castles full of dungeons and torture chambers? Eventually the Gothic novel moved away from this inherently creepy setting, moving its ghosts, gore, and madmen into later time periods. In doing so, however, the writers had to work extra hard to imbue their chosen time period with the dark and brooding atmosphere that had come so naturally to the medieval settings.

How, then, could a writer possibly maintain this oppressive sense of encroaching madness in stories set in the Nineteenth Century, or even the Twentieth Century? Well, it wasn't much trouble for the writers of exploitative genre fiction. They were free simply to let plausibility go hang and just create mindless fantasy. Also, it must be said, there were a few writers of high quality fantasy who overcame the problem through sheer excellence of craft without sacrificing the literary merit of their work. But among the mainstream authors, those who inherited the Gothic tradition and evolved it to its next level were the Southern writers.

There was something about a Southern setting that seemed to lend itself to Gothic storytelling. This is not to compare the South, even by veiled inference, with the Middle Ages. I was born and raised in the South and wouldn't have it any other way. I can't imagine a more nurturing and sustaining environment in which to grow up. Even so, there's no denying that things can get a little weird down here, y'all. That's what John Berendt found out when he visited Savannah and stayed to witness the events played out in his book, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which has now found its way to the screen. If you have been captivated by the wild eccentricities of this taste of Southern Gothic, look for these earlier examples on video.

"Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964). This one goes beyond Gothic all the way to Grand Guignol. Bette Davis plays Charlotte, an aging Southern belle, crazy as a dozen rodeos, who lost a sweetheart years ago when someone chopped the poor fellow up one hot summer night. It's possible that Charlotte did the deed herself, but nobody is really sure - not even Charlotte.

"Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1967). One of the most celebrated practitioners of Southern Gothic was Carson McCullers. Director John Huston took on the daunting task of adapting this short novel by McCullers. It features two emotionally broken characters: a military man fighting a losing battle against acknowledging his own homosexuality, played by Marlon Brando, and a sad, psychotic woman played by Julie Harris. Perhaps inevitably, the spouses of these two unfortunates are having an affair.

"Wise Blood" (1979). Although an exceptionally fine actor, Brad Dourif remains largely unknown. Mostly, that's because he has contented himself with minor roles in minor films and guest shots on television programs. In this adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's bizarre story, Dourif broke his usual pattern by taking on a starring role in a first rate film. He appears as Hazel Motes, a fanatical young evangelist who invents his own religion. In a withering burlesque of Southern rural evangelism, Hazel tirelessly promotes his "Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ." Like much of O'Connor's work, this is not for the faint of heart.

"The Ballad of the Sad Café" (1991). This odd and unsettling film was adapted from a Carson McCullers novel by way of an Edward Albee stage adaptation. The story revolves around a truly bizarre threesome: Miss Amelia (Vanessa Redgrave), proprietor of the title establishment, her hunchbacked cousin Lymon (Cork Hubbert), and her estranged ex-convict husband (Keith Carradine). Their stormy relationship comes to a head as husband and wife duke it out in a bare-knuckle boxing match in front of the whole town.

If it seems that I'm overlooking an obvious body of work in the Southern Gothic tradition, it's only because I felt that its author deserved a column all to himself. Next time we'll see how Hollywood has adapted the work of this most eccentric of Southern dramatists.

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