In many ways Southern Gothic makes a refreshing change from the most prevalent types of modern mainstream American horror.
Managing to avoid annoyingly stupid teenagers being slaughtered in their droves (see the latest version of Friday the 13th for the – fingers crossed – zenith of such emptiness), the usage of bad CGI that hopes to recreate Japanese craziness, or the slightly worrying pattern of the too literally monstrous (see the increasing numbers of physically deformed killers in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Marcus Nispel, 2003), Wrong Turn (Rob Schmidt, 2003), The Hills Have Eyes (Alexandre Aja, 2006), Wrong Turn 2:Dead End (Joe Lynch, 2007), Timber Falls (Tony Giglio, 2007), and oh yes, Friday the 13th).
More surprisingly it is almost entirely lacking in southern stereotypes – excepting a couple of rednecks, and the fact there is a preacher in it – this is a long way from the way-down-south exploits of 2000 Maniacs (Hershall Gordon Lewis, 1964) or 2001 Maniacs (Tim Sullivan, 2005).
The plot revolves around Hazel Fortune (Yul Vasquez), the bouncer at the local strip club, whose conscience is heavily weighted by the death of his daughter, despite attempts to lighten it with liquor.
As if that weren’t enough to deal with, the town receives into its midst a couple of passing vampires, Daniel (Jonathan Sachar) and Ava (Dani Englander), who turn the local preacher, Pitt (William Forsythe).
Cue chaos at the strip club and an attempt by the preacher to set up a rather unorthodox church. Will Fortune manage to redeem himself, and save the club’s new dancer Starla (Nicola DuPort) and her young daughter Hope (Emily Catherine Young)?
This is an ambitious film that reaches far beyond its clearly limited budget. Unmistakable care has been taken over the production values, which comes through particularly in the lighting and use of colour.
As a counterpoint to this however, there is an unfortunate over-evidence of a handheld camera in the presentation of the drama.
The narrative places emphasis on character rather than cheap shocks, or a particular pleasure in vampirism. Indeed, the role of the vampire is taken a lot more directly than in many more elaborately gothic treatments.
The influence of modern conceptions, notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer (watch out for a sequence at the beginning that owes a lot to the way in which Buffy played with reversals of gender expectation), is used to underline the parallels between the vampire and their human counterparts. To this end many aspects of vampire lore have been jettisoned, the effect of which can be rather jarring (the appearance of a vampire in a mirror and the possibility of killing them with a gun, are the most prominent examples), and makes you wonder why the filmmakers chose to articulate the connection through this well established trope.
The character-led horror film is not an easy thing to achieve and in places it seems as though the film would have been more effective if the plot was more direct.
As it is, certain moments, particularly earlier on, seem to lose their strength by dwelling on aspects of character that don’t necessarily push the narrative on. Yul Vasquez manages the tortured aspect’s of Fortune’s experience well, and Nicola DuPort’s Starla, though in some respects under-characterised, makes a change from typical female roles of sex object/helpless victim (not bad considering she is a stripper).
A great deal of the viewing pleasure comes from the always good value of, and let’s face it, very appropriately cast, William Forsythe.
Despite a seriousness of tone that perhaps works against it momentarily, most noticeably during those more stylised or tongue-in-cheek sequences, Southern Gothic is definitely a step in the right direction. Now, if only Michael Bay and the other producers of current relatively speaking big-budget horror would take note…
Additional film information: Southern Gothic (2007)