From the desolate plains of West Texas to the sultry, swampy bayous of the Delta, up to the stark, cold region of Appalachia, this list will give every viewer a taste of the dark, macabre world of Southern Gothic.
By Ariel Slick
Film is one of the best mediums to capture the essence of Southern Gothic stories. From swaying Spanish moss to wide shots of derelict plantation houses, the visual artistry of filmographers and directors brings new ways of exploring a genre that is overlooked by most. The history of Southern Gothic films can be traced to the very inception of movies themselves, beginning with the silent horror films of German Expressionism, such as “Nosferatu.” While those films brought “gothic” to the forefront of moviegoers’ minds, the origins of Southern Gothic lie within movies like “Gone with the Wind,” which depicted the crumbling way of Southern life into ruin.
What is unique about Southern Gothic films is that they are not quite horror (although they can be, à la “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and not quite drama. They can contain essences of the supernatural, but what is often more horrific is the effects of the intergenerational cycles of poverty and racism.
The following are some of the best contemporary Southern Gothic films. I intentionally left out many classic (pre-1975) movies because they would not only dominate the list, but also because I wanted to give viewers a chance to familiarize themselves with the genre before reaching back to its roots. While “A Streetcar Named Desire” is one of the most well-known and best-acclaimed films of the genre, modern (and casual) viewers may not understand or appreciate its pedigree and shrug off Southern Gothic altogether.
So, while a “Best Southern Gothic Films of All Time” article is forthcoming, I humbly present the following. They were chosen by an aggregate score from Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and my own personal taste. Finally, I tried to carefully select films that truly fit the bill of a “Southern Gothic” movie, instead of a general “Southern” film. While “Steel Magnolias” is a wonderful film that every Southerner should see, it lacks the gothic elements necessary for categorization.
Two boys living in Arkansas discover a man living on an island on the Mississippi River. When he tells them that he is a fugitive and is searching for his love, they agree to help him reunite with his former lover.
The mighty Mississippi River is an image that dominates the Southern landscape, and it is no different in this movie. This charming coming-of-age film grapples with questions of loyalty, truth and morality, and Matthew McConaughey gives a solid performance as the eponymous Mud.
Set against the backdrop of an impending flood, a young girl named Hushpuppy accidentally releases extinct, prehistoric creatures named “aurochs.” As the water level rises in her poverty-stricken community, she must also tend to her ailing father. A storm threatens to demolish the entire community, but the greatest threat is from those in power who do not care.
Just like “Mud,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” keeps its focus on the Delta region, and the threat of rising waters is a powerful symbol of the threat of poverty for many families. Southern mysticism and magical realism collide in this tear-jerker-of-a-fantasy.
When Ree’s father goes missing, she must locate him before his date in court; otherwise, she will lose their house because it was put up as part of his bond. When he does not appear, she has a week to prove that he is dead.
We take a break from the Delta region to visit Appalachia. Poverty is also front-and-center in this film, and it unflinchingly examines how it leaves many without recourse. Ree struggles with taking care of her family, shouldering the responsibility that so many have faced when a family member leaves forever. While “The Hunger Games” was Jennifer Lawrence’s mainstream breakout, this is her first film and put her in the running for an Academy Award.
Even the premise skirts the line between eyebrow-raising and pearl-clutching: a man keeps a woman chained in his house to free her from her sex addiction. However, “Black Snake Moan” manages to develop its characters well enough that any viewer will happily come along for the ride.
While we have focused on many critically acclaimed dramas, I have to include at least one that shines as a ridiculous, yet solid, film. It makes this list because of its references to the blues and its exploration of physical abuse. Ultimately, that the characters can help each other heal speaks to the potential for Southern Gothic films to have, if not a happy ending, a satisfying one.
When racist thugs rape his daughter, Carl Lee Hailey (played by Samuel L. Jackson) takes the law into his own hands and kills them in plain sight. Jake Brigance, played by Matthew McConaughey, takes his case and enters a plea of “not guilty” in this John Grisham book-turned-film.
One of the hallmarks of Southern Gothic film or literature is its exploration of crumbling, decaying ways of life, standards or morality. As a cop who also moonlights as a hitman, “Killer” Joe Cooper accepts a contract to kill the mother of drug dealer Chris Smith on the condition that he gets to sleep with his sister.
If you think that I’m extremely biased toward Matthew McConaughey as an actor just because he is from Texas, then you would be right. However, he holds his own in this black comedy/crime thriller. Warning: while the acting performances are strong, violence is also part and parcel of a film about contract killers.
A young girl, Eve, who has the spiritual gift of sight, grapples with her father’s infidelity in the sweltering heat of a Louisiana summer in the 1960s. Voodoo, curses and sexual deviances intersect in this film. Part coming-of-age, part meditation on the illusory nature of memory, “Eve’s Bayou” is a must-watch for anyone with an appreciative eye toward exceptional cinematography.
The story brings all the elements of Southern Gothic that we love—deeply flawed characters, dalliances with magic and retribution for violence committed against loved ones. The film was selected by Time to be among the top 25 films on race.
An injured Union soldier in Virginia is found by a young woman attending a boarding school for girls. She leads him back to the huge plantation home, where only a handful of girls and an assistant teacher remain. At first, they think to turn him over to the Confederacy but decide to keep him to let his leg heal.
As soon as the opening sequence showed the Spanish moss, I shivered. The sexual tension permeates through the characters in such subtle and varying degrees that I almost thought I was imagining it all— until the shocking, three-quarter twist. What this remake of 1971’s “The Beguiled” gets so right is the sense of puritanical values that stifle any sense of being human. Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst give their typical powerhouse performances, but Elle Fanning steals the show as a woman caught between girlhood and desire for the forbidden.
When a young boy’s friends go missing, he suspects the town’s local recluse of being a vampire. When they investigate her, they set in motion a chain of events that will leave many dead.
“The Reflecting Skin” is one of those films that technically does not take place in the South (rather, Idaho), but its isolated, prairie town, morbid characters, and quirky and downright abnormal situations make this film a standard in Southern Gothic film study.
This film is not for the faint of heart. (The exploding frog sequence is rather notorious.) It has a mythical, hallucinogenic quality to it, and its gothic elements—from the plot to its surrealist, hyperreal shots of wheat fields—make this an artsy, weird and wonderful film.
What happens when a returning, irreligious war veteran creates his own religion … and people start believing in it? Hazel Motes decides to cash in on the fame and power of being a preacher, until his spurned lover derails his plans for living the easy life.
Many classic Southern Gothic films are adapted from Southern Gothic novels, and Wise Blood is no different. What makes it stand out, though, apart from its biting black comedy and keen criticism of established religion, is that Flannery O’Connor—one of the O.G.s of our beloved genre—helped write this screenplay.
Did I leave anything out? Do you have a favorite Southern Gothic movie? Share in the comments below!
Ariel Slick is a Dallas-based freelance writer. She graduated from Rice University and enjoys writing about Texas, cannabis and lucid dreaming. Read her previous work, including a list of the Top 10 Southern Gothic Novels, in Deep South here.