I snapped up this DVD from the bargain bin for just over two dollars, and in this case this really was a bargain as this film by Mark Young is better than I first suspected.
The plot stems from a scenario we all know from various vampire TV shows:
What happens if a vampire screws up and turns someone by mistake instead of killing them?
That is the basic idea behind Southern Gothic. Add to that a portion of social commentary about redneck culture, and you have your film.
And that is the first point of criticism I would like to make. I feel the title “Southern Gothic” promises us something relating to the “true” South; you know, grand mansions and swamps, like in True Blood, or Interview with the Vampire. The setting we get in this film is much more a generic “redneck” stereotype that could take place in almost any backwater corner of America. So, while it retains the element of social commentary which is characteristic of the southern gothic genre, Southern Gothic is not all that southern, confusingly….
Our main protagonists in this film are Starla, a single mom who has to work two jobs (including a gig at a strip club) to make ends meet, her daughter Hope, and the club’s bouncer Fortune, who is haunted by his past and eternally drunk. When a vampire couple is travelling through their town (which is called Redemption, by the way), their lives are changed forever.
The film’s story is pretty simple, but I do not want to get into it any further lest I spoil anything.
The film suffers from minor plot holes, such as some things just being too convenient, or too much of a coincidence, and we also have some decisions that seem to not really fit the characters. And at times, there is some weak dialogue creeping into the script. There is also something odd about the editing/pacing in the second act which makes you sort of lose track of time as far as the narrative is concerned. Just something about too many short scenes being strung together one after another.
Another minus point for many people, I assume, is that the fight scenes are pretty basic, not involving many people, and rarely physical. This is redneck fighting: shotguns instead of swords and martial arts – so no intricate choreography there. Consequently, the final showdown is also more of a succession of one-on-one confrontations, rather than a big battle. Personally, I don’t care, as fight scenes are not that important to me. And I must say that when it comes to low budget productions, I prefer fight scenes that are kept basic (or are not happening at all) to fight scenes that are trying to achieve something that is way beyond the means and talents of the people involved.
Which brings me to the plus sides of this film. As I said, I respect filmmakers staying within the realm of the possibilities of their budget. In this film, this goes for the fight scenes as well as the special effects. So there are a number of practical effects that are quite decent, and they are mostly kept pretty basic. So in this film you have some struggles/bites happening off camera or just out of frame (which saves money and, as I said, prevents the creation of second-rate action/effect shots). Another example for an effect that is cheap as well as highly effective is the clever way in which the on-again-off-again darkness is used that is caused by a faulty lighter.
Further plus points are the occasional use of humour in this film (even though the delivery is not always top notch); as well as the very nice camera work, courtesy of Gregg Easterbrook who was in charge of the cinematography in many of Young’s projects.
Another plus point is the cast. Though probably none of the acting performances are deserving of an award, the casting choices are fortunate and the actors’ achievements are pretty rock solid throughout. This helps a lot in film a like this which might otherwise start to flounder.
The most outstanding performance is given by William Forsythe. His fundamentalist preacher is a vile caricature, and at first you are taken aback by his hammy mannerisms and overacting, but it starts to make sense and fit the film perfectly as the plot progresses. Maybe Forsythe also fine-tunes his deliberate overacting a bit after that first scene, who knows. What I would like to say is that his character’s theatrics when talking to others seems to be fitting, as that is the way these preachers talk, but Forsythe also uses the same mode when the preacher is soliloquising, and that seems ill-fitting to me, as I would assume that these preachers’ theatrics are performances for the public only, while they are “normal” people in private. That said, others might see these preachers differently, so it may not occur to others as a problem. It would also be a possible interpretation to say that the fact that he uses his theatrics when talking to himself means that he is starting to buy into his own quack and that he is slowly losing his mind.
There are many decent supporting performances in minor roles, for example by Dani Englander, F. X. Vitolo, Bob Hungerford, Johanna Jowett, and in particular Dean Whitworth. Possibly the best performance in the entire film, better even than Forsythe’s, is given by the guy playing deputy Lucas. It is a minor role, only two scenes, but one of them gives him ample opportunity to shine with breathtakingly funny dead-pan acting. He is not credited, but somewhere on the internet I found his name given as Michael Corrigan (maybe that is right, maybe it isn’t – I was unable to find a picture of him for comparison).
Apart from Whitworth and Corrigan, my favourite micro-appearance is that of David Hagar as the sheriff, with sadly only a few lines in one scene. I also enjoyed the many redneck characters, and the convincing performance given by Jonathan Sachar in the main supporting role.
As for the main cast, Yul Vazquez does a great job as our hero, but his role is at times underwritten and he is having to fight his way through some sub-par dialogue. Nicole DuPort is great as the hard-working, loving single mom. She inhabits the role completely, and not only gives a very talented performance but also somehow radiates her character’s motherly warmth.
Her daughter is played by Emily Catherine Young (probably related to the director, we can assume), who gives a very decent performance, especially considering how difficult it can be to find children that are up to the job.
It seems that Mark Young is a bit of a control freak (what he would probably call “being an artist”). He describes himself as a “filmmaker” rather than a “director”, as he only directs things he has written himself. In the case of Southern Gothic, he is not only the writer and director, but also the editor. And as with most of his feature films, there are no other people credited for writing or editing. The achievements on both fronts are solid, but seeing as I had a few problems with the editing, with some minor plot holes, and with some of the scripted dialogue, the question has to be asked whether Young would not be better off asking someone to polish elements of his script; and employing some trained editor with years of experience. That said, this film came out 9 years ago, so maybe Young is an even better writer and editor now than he was back then.
As I said, I kind of like this film. If you look at this project from the outside, with its fiercely independent writer/director and a budget of roughly 850.000 dollars, it is just that type of B-movie attempt that usually ends up with an (entirely justified) imdb rating of something between 2.3 and 2.7 out of 10. Southern Gothic, however, has a rating of 4.5 on imdb, and there is a reason for that. This is a B-movie in the best sense. Although it is probably neither good nor weird enough to become a cult classic, it is a B-movie as it should be: a film where most things have gone right and where everyone has put in their best effort. So this ranks higher in my esteem than many other cheap vampire films. 4.5 out of 10 seems pretty accurate to me; some of the performances would even tempt me to give this film a 5.0. And I wonder if some additional work in the writing and editing department might not have been able to push this film across the (for me) critical line into 6-ish territory.
I can definitely recommend Southern Gothic to any viewers who have a fondness for solid B-movies and who think they might enjoy some stereotypical redneck characters and especially the performance of William Forsythe.