To the extent that it can be considered a horror film, The Night of the Hunter is my favorite. It’s a good choice for Hallowe’en anyhow.
The only film directed by Charles Laughton, Hunter is one of the most bizarre movies to come out of Hollywood in the 1950s (or ever, for that matter). It sounds on paper like it shouldn’t work: a haphazard mixture of noir, gothic horror, Rockwell-esque Americana, comedy and religious meditation, etc. The tonal shifts throughout are jarring. And everything is given a strange, fairy-tail sheen to it.
But it all fuses together to make one of the most gripping movies I’ve ever seen. Set in depression era West Virginia, the plot gets kickstarted when Ben Harper kills two men and steals 10,000 dollars. Before he is apprehended, he hides the money, with only his children (John and Pearl) aware of location. While on death row he bunks with Harry Powell, a sociopathic preacher with “LOVE” and “HATE” tatooed on his knuckles. Powell finds out about the money. When he gets out, he tracks down the Harpers and insinuates himself into their lives, hoping to get his hands on it. Most of the adults are quickly rendered useless, leaving the children to fend for themselves in their attempt to escape Powell’s wrath.
A good amount of what makes the movie work is Robert Mitchum’s performance as Harry Powell. It’s an incredibly unnerving portrayal of a man whose slimy, manipulative exterior barely contains a downright feral insanity and rage. He’s like some amoral monster wearing human skin. There’s a moment where he lets out a scream of anger and frustration, and it’s one of the craziest vocalizations ever committed to film:
John and Pearl themselves are not particularly cutesy – they look and act like normal kids caught in a horrifying situation. But everything else feels dreamlike and expressionistic. And a lot of the imagery is haunting, to say the least. For instance, there’s an eerily lyrical scene where a corpse is sitting in a car at the bottom of a river, her long hair flowing like seaweed.
The foil to Robert Mitchum is silent film actress Lillian Gish, who plays Rachel Cooper, a shotgun-toting, Church-going old woman who looks after unwanted children. Gish gives her a certain unsentimental toughness and sense of deep faith which prevents her from dissolving into a generic “grandma”. The two of them make my favorite scene in the movie: Powell, camped outside Cooper’s house, begins singing his calling-card hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. Cooper suddenly starts singing along, or rather, countering his voice with hers. Added on the end is a grace note where she catches a glimpse of an owl killing a rabbit. In another movie, and with other actors, all this would just be weird or sentimental, but here it becomes deeply affecting:
And it drives home what I take to be the main theme of the movie: that there is radical evil and suffering in the world, but also the possibility of love in the midst of it all. Religion, and the moral authority that comes with it, can be perverted into something monstrous (watch especially how Powell is able to whip up a good portion of the town into religious hysteria); but true faith and hope is neither about gullibility or power, but rather, again, leads to love. And Mark 10:13-16, anyone?
And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.
I could point out the other little details that I love about it: like how we are given a glimpse into the family life of the man who hangs Ben Harper, an extended river-voyage, the ice cream shop owners: a shrewish woman and her milquetoast husband (who wind up leading a lynch-mob), etc. But it’s difficult to describe the organic way that all of it comes together.
So what I’m saying is – just watch it. If you’re still looking for something to go with the season, this is the one.