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This Thriller Is the Closest Clint Eastwood's Come to Making a Horror Movie

Jun 25, 2023

True crime lovers and casual horror fans? This one's for you!

"To understand the living, you gotta commune with the dead," says Minerva (Irma P. Hall), a voodoo priestess and friend of the accused, Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). The voodoo ceremony for which the piece gets its name happens in a cemetery garden. It begins at 11:30 pm and for half an hour, they do good. They speak well of those that have gone and ask for forgiveness. Then, after midnight, they do evil. They cast spells and say incantations. Minerva, Jim, and John Kelso (John Cusack) do this all for the sake of Jim Williams to be acquitted. The problem is, Jim doesn't do all that he is commanded of him. He stubbornly refuses to ask for Billy's (Jude Law) forgiveness. Based on the nonfiction novel of the same name, Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is an account of a crime and subsequent trials that shook Savannah, Georgia.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is not a frank horror movie by any standard, however, there are elements of gothic horror and an air of spookiness. This is not a typical Clint Eastwood movie by any means. It doesn't have the gravitas of Million Dollar Baby or Grand Torino. It isn't about a grizzled veteran. He isn't even in it. The notion that Eastwood was likely a fan of the book and wanted to have a little fun or try something different, is believable. Yet with his keen eye, Eastwood brings a level of depth to what may be considered a lighter piece.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil's story may have the charm of a comedy set in the Old South but is also evocative of a Southern Gothic horror. These elements may not be the same as the ones employed in the Scream franchise, but are akin to ones in Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights and are still effective at achieving a level of terror. The beginning isn't too dissimilar from any other gothic horror: An eccentric millionaire, Jim Williams, living in a historic mansion is throwing a lavish Christmas party for the who's who of Savannah's elite. To irritate the neighbors that complain about his party, the eccentric millionaire starts to play "Jeepers Creepers" by the home's namesake, Johnny Mercer, on the pipe organ. This bit of whimsy seems to inadvertently suggest that this film will contain moments of creepy punctuated by humor and that the living are closer to the dead than they think.

Jim later confesses that he killed his "hired hand," Billy Hanson (Jude Law), in "self-defense." But Jim is burdened. Jim is nouveau riche instead of old money like the rest of his social circle. And Billy is more than just his hired hand. They are involved romantically. But Jim could not bear everyone knowing this secret, especially his dear old mother. Meanwhile, John Kelso, the journalist doing a small piece about the Christmas party for Town and Country, hears Billy threaten the millionaire and decides to stick around for the trial and write a book about what he sees and hears. Plus, he finds Savannah's drama even more entertaining than New York's background noise. After all, there is a motley crew of colorful characters around every darkened doorstep. There is a bug-obsessed juror threatening to poison the county's water supply, a man who walks an invisible dog on a leash, a sassy drag queen, The Lady Chablis (herself), and The Married Women's Card Club, just to name a few.

To add to the atmosphere of mystery and suspense, the District Attorney doesn't believe the self-defense story. Dead men DO tell tales. And not just in the form of faces framed on walls, but through gunpowder residue, the company they kept, and practices such as voodoo. Adding a layer of spookiness, voodoo plays a prominent role in the movie, as well as in Savannah itself. Jim is going on trial whether he is a millionaire or not. Jim defaces a picture of him just the way Minerva instructs. The tide seems to be turning in Jim's favor. The magic seems to be working.

The middle of the movie is largely led by The Lady Chablis’ comedic antics, but then it comes back to its true crime roots and Jim's ultimate acquittal. Minerva is also used as a harbinger of suspense. She is used sparingly, but well. When we see Minerva, we know action is going to happen or tides are going to shift. Minerva is absent for a large chunk of the film, but she comes back in time to sweep John away to do damage control again in the cemetery. She knows that just because the trial is over, doesn't mean the feud is over. Billy is still "working" Jim. Minerva sits on Billy's grave, offers him his favorite Wild Turkey, and tries to reason with him, but grows agitated and offended over Billy's attitude from beyond the grave. She huffs off with John in hot pursuit.

There is a continuity to Clint Eastwood's storytelling in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In the opening scenes, we see Minerva feeding a squirrel on a park bench. We see her doing this again at the end in a full circle moment that seems to anchor a sense of creepiness. It mimics the continuity of how life goes on. People are born, they have their ties to their community through family, friends, or beliefs and practices, and then they die. In this case, voodoo and its film counterpart, Minerva, is the connection to the past, present, and future, and how the living and the dead coexist.

Clint Eastwood also uses eerie camera work and angles to give a possible explanation for another untimely death we see in the film. Revenge. We as the audience are brought back to the Mercer Mansion while Jim is preparing for another one of his Christmas parties. Jim clutches his chest, and we see through his eyes how the room is spinning. Then, we see Jim fall to the floor, eyes open, in the same position Billy had been in when he was found by detectives and John. With the last of his strength, he lifts his head and sees Billy in the spot where he last had been, just across from where Jim is now. Billy lifts his head, blood seeping from his half-smile as they lock eyes. Billy's smile widens as life leaves Jim's body. An aerial shot shows each of them in their respective positions on the floor, mirror images of each other, as Billy's fades away.

The very last shot is of Billy Hanson's grave in Bonaventure Cemetery. Still bearing its bottle of Wild Turkey, it stands across from Jim Williams’ more lavish headstone. Directly in front of him is the famous Bird Girl statue that is splashed upon many images of the film. Seeing Bird Girl leaves audiences to ponder the symbolism of this moment. The continuity of the life and death cycle, or how perhaps life goes on even after death, and that maybe real life, or the concepts being portrayed herein, can be just as scary as a horror film. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil may not be the first in your horror queue and might not come across as the kind of movie you'd expect from Clint Eastwood, but it is worth a watch for lovers of true crime and casual horror fans.

Megan McCaffrey is a Features Writer for Collider. She has a degree in Journalism and Literature and is also a freelance copywriter and neurotically working on a novel. Accountability and classic TV are her love languages.

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