Night of the Hunter (1955)

Posted by on Dec 16, 2011 in Scary | 0 comments


Disclaimer: A Bible-clutching villain more sinister than – oh, I don’t know – something really evil and terrifying.

Sometimes all it takes to make an incredibly frightening situation is a pair of youngsters hiding in a dark basement as the shadow of film noir icon Robert Mitchum coos down to them, “Chilllllldren?” This is essentially the tortoise-paced scare tactic first-time director Charles Laughton utilized for his now-classic villain in The Night of the Hunter. While it may not sound like much, I guarantee he’ll scare the be-Jesus out of you (pun very much intended).

The fairy-tale-simple story, as seen from the viewpoints of a brother (Billy Chapin) and sister (Sally Jane Bruce) is as such: condemned bandit Ben Harper (Peter Graves) entrusts a stash of $10,000 to his children. A prisoner known as “Reverend” Harry Powell hears about the loot and, upon his release, takes aim on Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters), and – more urgently – the money.

With his horned puritan hat and Hunter1famously tattooed hands, which read LOVE and HATE, Mitchum concocts one of the most famous and sinister screen villains of all time. The film positions its viewers to suture with the children of the story and it’s not hard to empathize with them after their mother replaces Harper with you-know-who (HINT: It’s not Voldemort).

“Would you like me to tell you little story of right-hand, left-hand?” Powell asks his unsuspecting stepson as he arm-wrestles himself at one point. As you soon find out, Powell is genuinely psychotic and rivals Charles Manson as the worst father figure in history. Despite his zombie-esque pace, Powell’s demeaning figure and hymn-belting voice are ever-present and ever-haunting, leaving very little filmic time to say “whew” or “sigh.” His faith-inspired calm is reminiscent of Kevin Spacey’s villain of Se7en.

Laughton, who based the film on Davis Grubb’s novel, uses Powell wonderfully as an archetypal figure matched only by the religion-hating, shotgun-toting Rachel Cooper (silent film star Lillian Gish, fresh out of retirement), who eventually protects the children despite her heathenism.

Masterfully shot in black and white, Hunter3Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter has a large collection of classic scenes and images, many of which later became oft-used cinematic clichés. Though the image of the freshly murdered Willa floating peacefully at the wheel of a drowned car is iconic, I’m especially partial to Laughton’s expressionist sequence along the river as the children drift toward safety and Powell leisurely approaches. (If you’re a fan of slasher movies, look forward to the basement scene where Powell trips as he attempts to kill the children on their way up the stairs.)

Because of the film’s initial response, Laughton unfortunately vowed to never direct another film, while Mitchum is quoted as saying Laughton was his favorite director and that he liked The Night of the Hunter more than any other film in which he appeared.

As a side note, the film has since inspired hundreds (if not thousands) of church-going parents to live in constant fear for their children. Meanwhile, it probably should inspire hundreds (if not thousands) of children to live in constant fear of church-going parents.

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