The Beguiled: Nick Staff’s Southern Gothic Faves
Jun 30, 2017 by Pauline on The Nickelodeon Blog
In conjunction with the release of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, members of the Nick team have selected some of their favorite Southern Gothic films. From passionate melodramas to thoughtful social dramas, these Nick picks explore the burning desires, historical traumas, and small-town secrets that lie beneath society’s idyllic veneer.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Dir. Robert Mulligan
Pauline Arroyo, Marketing Coordinator
The film adaption of Harper Lee’s enduring classic might not have the bite of other more macabre southern gothic tales, nor even quite that of it’s original text. Oh, it’s still got violence, unusual characters, southern landscapes, and so much immorality. But it tells its story with comparative restraint and quiet. The film chooses its few stylized moments well to paint the picture of a small, depression-era southern town unmoored from honesty and morality. In one courtroom scene the camera slowly zooms in on Mayella Ewell’s (Collin Wilcox) face as she pleads hysterically, and the encroaching camera makes her lies all the more unnerving. When villainous bigot Bob Ewell (James Anderson) confronts Jem (Philip Alford) shadows plays across his face, making him appear gaunt and harsh and foreshadowing his cruelty. And, like any good southern gothic tale, To Kill a Mockingbird has its ghosts. Initially the film’s young narrator Scout (Mary Badham), along with the citizens of Maycomb, believe the town’s primary spectre is Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), an eccentric shut-in thought to be cruel and insane. However, as the film progresses and Atticus (Gregory Peck) and his family endure insults and threats and Scout witnesses the wrongful conviction of Tom Robinson it becomes increasingly clear that what is actually haunting the town, the story, the south, and possibly all southern gothic works, is racism.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Dir. Charles Laughton
Steffi Brink, Assistant Theater Manager
Film buffs frequently lament that famed stage actor Charles Laughton only directed one film — the exceptional Night of the Hunter. Like The Beguiled, Hunter is an exploration of female sexuality, and while Laughton’s film doesn’t go as deep as it could, it’s worth noting how the sociopathic Reverend Powell (Robert Mitchum) and his foil Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish) each respond to it: one with homicidal disgust, the other with an understanding, if exasperated, kindness. The contrasts and similarities between these two reaches a poetic peak in my favorite scene, which also showcases Stanley Cortez’s stunning, high-contrast cinematography. During a tense standoff, Powell, half lit in the distance, bellows out his favorite, now familiar hymn, “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms.” Unexpectedly, a silhouetted Mrs. Cooper chimes in to create an eerie and deceptively peaceful duet between the two; while both are expressing themselves as deeply religious, one is ruled by a gospel of hate and avarice, the other by love and generosity. With such extreme emotions and moody imagery, this is southern gothic cinema at its most classic and enduring.
Big Bad Love (2001)
Dir. Arils Howard
Luke Hodges, Indie Grits
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit–it’s not a great movie. Without Debra Winger’s spitting, ferocious Marilyn, relishing her petty torments as the ex-wife of frustrated would-be scribe Leon Barlow (director, co-writer and lead, Arliss Howard, who also happens to be Winger’s real-life partner), this ship would never have left the harbor. Still, it has all the requisite traits of a great early twenty-first century Mississippi gothic, a landscape which–without much gussying up or Hollywood exaggeration–always tends effortlessly toward the surreal. There are stringy-haired alcoholic writers prone in coffin-like deep freezers to escape the heat, paint-chipped wooden doors that open onto avalanches of green kudzu, American flags that jettison through the air like spears. It’s an incoherent, bleary-eyed movie about the sight of the South, about the mythic images from its landscape that populate our field of vision, and the hazy rage that suffocates the air around impotent, incompetent men. Like I said, it’s a total mess, more hallucination than reality–but authentic, in that regard, to the spirit of the place we live.
The Long Hot Summer (1958), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Dir. Martin Ritt / Dir. Richard Brooks
Alison Kozberg, Nickelodeon Theatre Director
In 1958, the year that he married Joanne Woodward (a union that would become the stuff of Hollywood legend), Paul Newman starred in two Mississippi melodramas. Films in which exaggerated action collides with sexual repression to produce smoldering a boil of gestures and longing. The Long, Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof take place during the sweaty summer months and feature characters overcome by desires that social propriety (and the Hays Production Code) leave them unable to articulate. Inspired by a patchwork of William Faulkner stories, Summer casts Newman as Ben Quick, a confident drifter with a sly smile and a bare chest, who sets about seducing Woodward’s Clara Varner. Though proudly touted by Clara’s father Will (an aging, blustering Orson Welles) as the most virile man around, Quick, as captured in the film’s most lingering gazes, is more object than agent of desire, a role he would play again with even greater intensity in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Unsuccessfully sexually pursued by his wife Maggie, Newman’s Brick is a broken, guarded former football star, bristling with an anger that barely conceals the searing heartache of lost love. Rightly criticized for burying much of the intensity and queer longing of its original source material — Cat joins Summer as a film in which passion and intensity of emotion bleed through even the most restrained lines of dialogue.
In Cold Blood (1967)
Dir. Richard Brooks
Savannah Taylor, Interactive Specialist
In Cold Blood is a gothic crime drama based off of the 1965 famous bestseller by Truman Capote, who hailed it as the very first “nonfiction novel”. The story follows miscreants Perry Smith and Dick Hickock (played by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson), who murder a family of four in Holcomb, Kansas after a robbery gone awry. “The violence and terror of the killings, the lack of an apparent motive, and the fact that the victims were well liked and utterly ordinary made the case a gruesome psychic landmark for the many who thought or feared that American society was breaking down” (Chris Fujiwara, In Cold Blood: Structuring the Real). We watch in beautiful black and white cinematography by the great Conrad Hall, the tragic demise of the idyllic American Dream– as Capote states early in his novel: “four shot gun blasts that, all told, ended six lives”.