Hazel Fortune (Yul Vazquez) is the bouncer at a strip club in a small town in Southern US. A burnt-out alcoholic haunted by memories of the past, he ekes out a lonely existence in the shadows. One day new stripper Starla (Nicole DuPort) starts at the club, & sensing that she’s not like the other girls, he starts to take an interest in her. However, Starla’s charms also draw the attention of sleazy local preacher Enoch Pitt (William Forsythe), who after attending the club is visited by a pair of travelling vampires. The encounter leaves Pitt transformed into the Undead, & seeing his rebirth as a sign from God, he sets about converting his congregation.
Writer-Director Mark Young has said that a key inspiration for his film was deranged preacher classic ‘Night of the Hunter’, which is a pretty lofty comparison to make. Whilst it’s perhaps inevitably not that good (but then precious few films are), it’s a measure of this films success that the invocation enhances rather than embarrasses the film. Genre fans meanwhile, will also find its all-enveloping brooding dusky atmosphere reminiscent of the likes of ‘Near Dark’ & ‘Dust Devil’. The film is every bit as revisionist in its treatment of vampirism as ‘Near Dark’, something that may alienate part of the audience, but will delight others. It’s essentially a case of Young taking the parts of vampiric lore that he likes, & ditching the rest – the crucifix aversion, for example, is not one that afflicts the undead in this film. This is actually a good thing, as films can easily get too bogged down trying to stick with every bit of the mythos that they have no room left to breathe, & the “rules” by which vampires operate in ‘Southern Gothic’ are always self-consistent. Indeed, the film gets good mileage from playing with the religious overtones of vampirism (the resurrection, the blood drinking, & so on) that adds some fascinating layers to the film & really enhances its Southern vibe. It’s a heady modern Gothic tale, which feels classically timeless.
The film is gorgeously shot on Hi-Def by DoP Gregg Easterbrook, making for a gloomily oppressive atmospheric film, filled with burnished reds, oranges & yellows that is an eyeball-soothing treat to watch. It’s a film to lose yourself in, where the overriding mood & sense of menace is all-important. The performances throughout are excellent, with William Forsythe (who allegedly was cast after his agent misread the films budget!) in show-stealing form as the deranged vampiric preacher, & Nicole DuPort making a likeable yet plausible heroine. Meanwhile veritable bit-part player Yul Vazquez steps up to leading man duties with aplomb, & if Fortune’s redemptive character arc has a certain element of deja-vu, his performance sells it. His scenes with Starla’s daughter Hope (well played by young Emily Catherine Young) could have been somewhat creepy, but the performances & direction makes these scenes the surprisingly touching heart of the film.
Whilst the film is something of a slow-burning sombre mood piece, there are some neat touches of humour to prevent things from getting too bogged down – witness for example the deadpan discovery of a body in the freezer, or Fortune’s shotgun runs. In addition, there are a couple of choice moments for bloodily violence to savour, including an ever-welcome head explosion. Having said that, this is not a film aimed at the multiplex teen-horror crowd, nor is it chasing after the gore hounds. And frankly, that’s a good thing. Serious-minded, grown-up & intelligent horror films like this don’t come along too often, making ‘Southern Gothic’ one to savour. It mines a rich vein of Southern Gothicism (both literature & cinematic), & deserves to find considerable attention amongst discerning adult horror fans.