While some movie genres have various national origins, there’s no question that the southern gothic is a peculiarly American institution. Typically taking place in the various states of the American south, these types of movies often explore issues such as the family, dark legacies, race, and crumbling plantations. As a result, many of them are quite disturbing, sometimes even more than a standard horror movie. For many of the movies on this list, especially older films, the historical context and period of creation also play an important role, especially when viewed and critiqued from a modern lens.
Perhaps it is because these movies are set in a “real” world that audiences recognize that they are so chilling, or perhaps it’s because they address issues such as race, sexuality, and economic disparity that everyone can identify with, even if they are given a bit of a twist.
10 The Night Of The Hunter (1955)
Though Charles Laughton was best-known as an actor, he does have one directing credit to his name, and that is this movie. It’s a bit of a mix between film noir and southern gothic, and it’s a truly disturbing movie.
Most of this can be attributed to Robert Mitchum, who plays a deranged and murderous preacher who wants to find money buried by his former cellmate. It also stars none other than Lillian Gish, one of the foremost actresses of silent cinema.
9 Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
As her career marched in the 1960s, the screen great Bette Davis began to take different types of roles than she had as a younger actress (though they were no less iconic). In particular, she became associated with a genre of movie that focused on older women holed up in crumbling mansions while their sanity falls to pieces.
That’s exactly what happens in this movie, which focuses on a woman whose cousin and her love conspire to drive her mad so that they can seize control of her estate. It’s both a sad and a scary movie, a testament to Davis’s skills as an actress.
8 Deliverance (1972)
Some movies loom large in the American imagination, and Deliverance is one of those. Focusing on a group of men who go on a rafting expedition, it still has the power to terrify and disturb audiences. It’s one of those movies that takes a rather dim view of the rural inhabitants of the south, and the people that torment the rafters are some of the most chilling creations ever conjured by Hollywood.
The true horror of the movie, however, is just how normal all of the terrible things seem.
7 Cape Fear (1962)
Robert Mitchum was one of those actors who had an almost unnatural ability to play male villains, men who were clearly evil yet nevertheless managed to captivate audiences with their charisma.
That’s certainly the case in this version of Cape Fear, in which Mitchum plays a man who torments a lawyer and his family. The movie has, of course, become a favorite for popular culture spoofs (most notably The Simpsons), but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying and suspenseful.
6 Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
This movie is something of an embarrassment of riches since it stars three of the great actors of classical Hollywood: Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor (one of the finest actresses of her generation, with many great movies to her name), and Montgomery Clift.
In this case, Taylor plays a young woman who is being treated by Clift’s psychologist. It turns out that her husband, Hepburn’s son, was a notorious pedophile who was eventually torn apart and devoured by his victims while on vacation. The movie is southern gothic at its finest, and it definitely stays with the viewer long after the ending. This is not least thanks to its origin on stage by the hand of the great Tennessee Williams, the master of Southern Gothic who explored many of his own issues in his works; his examination of his own sexuality through the lens of the time he lived in lent nearly all of his oeuvre a decidedly dark tone.
5 The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)
Sometimes, a movie doesn’t have to have a lot of special effects to be unsettling, and sometimes it doesn’t even have to be particularly well-made. The Legend of Boggy Creek claims to be a bit of a documentary about a bigfoot-like creature haunting the swamps of Arkansas.
It has a rather brooding atmosphere, highlighted by some gorgeous shots of the Arkansas countryside. Somehow, despite the small budget, it manages to cause a chill to race down one’s spine, and it’s one of the best Bigfoot movies out there.
4 The Skeleton Key (2005)
Sometimes, southern gothic verges into the realm of the horrific, and that’s certainly the case with The Skeleton Key. Given that it takes place in Louisiana, it’s not at all surprising that supernatural forces play a large part in the movie’s plot and, given that this is southern gothic, there all sorts of family secrets and a crumbling mansion.
Most importantly, though, the movie also shines a rather harsh light on the issue of racism, which is one of the aspects of southern culture that always lurks just outside of the frame in most southern gothic stories. It’s truly a shame that it didn’t get a sequel.
3 Frailty (2001)
It’s quite common knowledge that religion, particularly Christianity, plays a pretty prominent role in southern life (there’s a reason it’s called the Bible belt). That’s the central point of Frailty, a movie that focuses on a man who is convinced that he’s been ordered by God to carry out the destruction of demons.
What’s truly great about this movie, however, is how it manages to be incredibly disturbing, sometimes even terrifying, without leaning too heavily into the tropes of straight-up horror.
2 Interview with the Vampire (1994)
If there’s one novelist whose name is almost synonymous with the genre of the southern gothic, it would have to be Anne Rice, and her first book, Interview with the Vampire, is considered a classic of the genre. The movie adaptation, starring none other than Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, is largely faithful to the spirit of the novel (though it does make some changes).
Though it’s more drama than horror, there are some particularly chilling moments, most especially the child vampire Claudia, who manages to be both adorable and incredibly deadly.
1 Angel Heart (1987)
For some reason, Louisiana, in particular New Orleans, is a particularly favorite site for southern gothic movies. Perhaps it’s the fact that the city has such a complex history, having been under the dominion of the Spanish, the French, and finally the Americans.
Whatever the reason, it is the setting for the movie Angel Heart, which focuses on a private investigator who goes to the city and finds things get much darker than he expected. It’s an intriguing and frightening movie, and it reveals new depths with each rewatch.
NEXT: 10 Forgotten 1990s Horror Films That Were Excellent
5 Stephen King Characters Who Would Survive A Terminator Attack (& 5 Who Would Be Terminated)