Tag Archives: Southern Gothic

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE BEGUILED (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Don Siegel

FEATURING: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris, Mae Mercer, Pamelyn Ferdin

PLOT: A wounded Northern soldier finds himself in an isolated girls’ school in the South during the Civil War; he attempts to take advantage of the women’s sexual attraction to him as they nurse him back to health. 

Still from the beguiled (1971)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Beguiled is stealthily weird, with a fundamental story about men who dominate and women who hold their own concealed beneath layers of other Hollywood genres, including the war film, the captive romance, and most notably, the star vehicle. The Beguiled never lets you get settled, indulging expectations and then subverting them so that you’re never really sure what kind of story you’ve signed onto.

COMMENTS: 1971 was an extraordinary year in the careers of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood. With two successes under their belts, they would celebrate Christmas with their collaboration on the hyperviolent, hypermasculine Dirty Harry. Only a couple months prior, Eastwood would make his directorial debut with Play Misty For Me, a tale of a disc jockey who has to fend off the advances of a obsessive fan. (Siegel shows up there in a cameo as a bartender.) But before any of that, another Siegel-Eastwood partnership hit the screen with the Gothic sexual suspense tale The Beguiled. It’s tempting to look for commonalities; all three feature malevolent forces trying to kill Eastwood. He triumphs over his foes in two out of three instances. See if you can guess which one bombed at the box office.

The director and star would forever blame poor marketing for the film’s failure (Eastwood would not work with Universal Studios again for decades), but The Beguiled traffics in a quiet Gothic horror that would be a tough sell even with the best campaign. Although the setting is a Louisiana plantation serving as a girls’ finishing school, it might as well be on an island in the void. We never see beyond the thick woods that surround the property, and the only signs of life beyond the mansion are the downtrodden soldiers who stagger past as they contemplate sating their carnal impulses before returning to the war and their likely demise. Dreadful augurs abound, from the raven tied up on the balcony to the deadly mushrooms that grow beneath the trees. You’re not being paranoid when there’s danger all around you.

It’s fair to wonder if either of the two men most responsible for The Beguiled ever actually understood what it was about. Siegel claimed the film was about “the basic desire of women to castrate men,” while Eastwood defensively observed that his audiences rejected the film because they instinctively side with characters who are winners. Neither man seems to have recognized that while Cpl. John “McB” McBurney’s instincts run toward self-preservation, he takes a villainous tack in order to secure his safety. We learn very quickly that McB is by no means a good guy. He forces a kiss on young Amy, declaring that 12 is “old enough.” He lies to Martha about his high Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE BEGUILED (1971)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

FEATURING: Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Katharine Hepburn

PLOT: A brain surgeon examines the case of Catherine, a young woman who has been in a terrible state ever since the death of her poet cousin, inquiring into a mysterious incident in Europe.

Still from suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

COMMENTS: By the time Suddenly, Last Summer hit Broadway as part of a double-bill of one-act plays, was well-established as the pre-eminent voice – alongside Arthur Miller – of the American theater. With two Pulitzers, a pair of Oscar nominations, and at least three certifiable classics in his oeuvre, he was nearing the end of that imperial phase where almost anything he wrote could be staged and then adapted to the screen. The mere presence of his name on the bill was a commercial guarantee… even if his subject was a manipulative gay man whose indiscretions cause a group of feral youths to assault and eat him.

This is where “weird” comes into the discussion. You could easily place this alongside Williams’ most familiar works – the smothering maternal figure of The Glass Menagerie, the mental instability of A Streetcar Named Desire, the web of familial lies of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – without a moment’s hesitation. The acting is juicily overwrought, the battle between the tight lips of Southern propriety and the sweaty brows of unexpressed emotions is pitched high. It’s just another Southern Gothic drama, until you get to Elizabeth Taylor’s climactic monologue and she finally tells everyone just what happened to her cousin Sebastian. That irrevocably alters everything that has come before.

In some respects, Suddenly, Last Summer could only have happened at the precise moment it did. Homosexuality was still an unmentionable curse (the filmmakers only got it through the Production Code by emphasizing that Sebastian pays for his sins with his life), and neither it nor any other transgressions – the Venable women procuring young boys to feed Sebastian’s sexual appetites, the cannibalism – are called out explicitly. But Williams and screenwriter Gore Vidal clearly felt empowered to pull the curtain back on these immoralities. The whole saying-without-saying approach would be nigh unthinkable a decade later. This was the precise moment where such subjects could be talked about, but only if they were talked around.

Talking is all there is left, and Suddenly, Last Summer indulges in it. Vidal does little to open up Williams’ play for the screen, with most of its running time spent in either Catherine’s hospital room or Violet’s decadent New Orleans mansion and elaborate garden. Whenever the movie feels stagebound, the actors chomp on the scenery; Taylor knows she’s got a scrumptious part, with monologues that are by turns defiant and distraught. Hepburn, meanwhile, delights in deploying a mannered cruelty, from her wonderfully theatrical entrance descending in an elevator right up until the moment Taylor shatters her illusions of her beloved son. (Clift, in their presence, is unavoidably vacant. He is reduced to establishing exposition). Yet it’s in the moments when the story leaves the soundstages and pulls away from acting showcases that it starts to go to some truly strange places. Catherine’s forays into the depths of the mental asylum need no words as she comes face-to-face with souls far more damaged than hers. Her account of her trip to the island of Cabeza de Lobo (Wolf’s Head) is presented as a mute play, with phantasmagoric images of the swarthy locals, the blazing sun, and her own revealing swimsuit. Throughout, Sebastian is never given a face, reinforcing his complete unknowability. The twist of his horrific end only gains power from what we almost see.

Variety’s original review dubbed Suddenly, Last Summer “the most bizarre motion picture ever made by a major American company.” Time has dulled the impact of the film’s content, but there’s still something off-kilter about the way it delivers its surprises. It’s almost like a horror film pretending to be a Tennessee Williams play, rather than Williams dabbling in the grotesque. Like its title, it reflects a moment that ends everything we thought we knew, and leaves us reflecting upon it long after.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Mankiewicz] has turned out a polished film, and one that deals boldly with the ugly theme, but he has certainly not wasted any subtlety on the job…. this bizarre homosexual nightmare becomes the one artistically persuasive section in an otherwise coldly fabricated melodrama.” – Robert Hatch, The Nation (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by blibo. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Suddenly, Last Summer
  • The disk has English audio.

366 UNDERGROUND: KING JUDITH (2022)

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King Judith can be rented or purchased on-demand.

DIRECTED BY: Richard Bailey

FEATURING: , Joanna Schellenberg, Jenny Ledel, Emily Ernst, Rhonda Boutte

PLOT: A police detective investigates a car crash which ends the lives of three women and triggers the disappearance of a fourth.

Still from King Judith (2022)

COMMENTS: Viewer discretion is advised: this film is best viewed as a treatise on American feminist folklore. The plot’s threads remain unwoven until a quiet reveal at the finish, and even then the pervasive mystery is not put to rest. This method of storytelling is in keeping with the Southern Gothic style, relying heavily on ambience and spirituality—both religious and otherwise. The ethereal-but-anchored tone also echoes the subject matter: ghosts, memories, and revenants. And despite the sun-infused imagery and wispy, often (overly) poetical dialogue, there is a sense of unspecifiable loss wrapped around the ambiguous happenings.

The facts at hand are scant. Known: three women died in a car crash while en route to a “macabre literary festival.” Known: the sudden appearance on the road of a fourth woman, recently evicted from her tent-home of twenty years, triggered the crash; this woman’s whereabouts are unknown. Known: this tragedy is followed by a series of deaths-of-despair on the parts of several ostensible witnesses. Through the detective’s interviews with the victims’ friends and associates, and obliquely pertinent poems sent to her by an unknown observer, the meandering turns of events are uncovered. But what it all adds up to remains opaque, both for the film’s protagonist and for the audience.

While enduring the first third of the movie, I felt a growing apprehension—the bad kind. I feared I would have to spend an entire review dumping on an unlucky indie filmmaker. The opening mystery-tedium and the lead actress’ unconvincing performance (imagine a keen twelve-year-old girl attempting to come across as a thirty-something “seen-it-all” kind of cop) nearly sunk it. To my relief, King Judith manages to transcend both the sum of its parts and its myriad flaws. (As with anything “Southern” or “Gothic”, patience pays off, in this case handsomely.) The second act opens with a bar scene in which writer/director Bailey at last finds his storytelling voice. What follows is an encounter where an awkward fellow beautifully regales a childhood ghost experience, and the young woman he’s speaking with (one of the three car-crash victims) in turn share the amusing story of the “Mounted Aristotle” caper from Alexandrian times.

King Judith never fully shakes off its pretensions; there are too many random shots of poetical movement in front of poetical backdrops, plenty of “quirky” artist characters, and dialogue of the “…reckless urges to climb celestial trellises, and slide down them” variety by the bucketful. The grandiloquence is heading somewhere, however, and its meandering way covers interesting intersections of folklore and psyche, feminist and otherwise. And Richard Bailey’s detective-story frame is apt. In the world of memory, tales, history, the supernatural, and the hereafter, there are “no answers to our questions, only rewards—fascinating details, luminous things; on and on it goes: the work of gathering clues.”

Kind Judith is currently streaming for free on Tubi.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird little film that mixes folklore, and Southern Gothic, with a dose of women’s studies, and comes up with something that feels almost like a stage play that was adapted for the screen.”–Jim Morazzini, Voices from the Balcony (contemporaneous)