“The evil that men do lives on and on!”—Iron Maiden
From the day we are knowledgeable of our surroundings and start learning as a wee one, the important lesson of good and evil is introduced to our sponge like brains. The Bible, superheroes, and constant reinforcement from adults are the primary mediums in learning this lesson. Apparently, most of society has not received these lessons or have forgotten along the way to adulthood. Murder, corruption, rape, war and atrocities bombard everyday us on the TV, internet, and newspapers. Effective ways to scare the children (it’s a hard world for little things) in years past was to teach lessons through Grimm’s fairy tales. These tales always addressed good versus evil and be leery of all you come into contact with as you grow up. Today’s thrilling film is just that, so turn off your lights and lock your door, here comes The Night of the Hunter (1955).
In 1930’s West Virginia during the depression, religious self-anointed preacher Reverend Powell, Robert Mitchum of Cape Fear (1962), believes he is a messenger from God and carries out the Lord’s work by hiding behind the Bible as he kills unsuspecting brides. One of his targets is the weak minded widow Willa, Shelley Winters of Lolita (1962). Willa marries the Reverend who focuses his attention on her children, John, Billy Chapin of Tobor the Great (1954), and Pearl, Sally Jane Bruce (only feature length credit), in hopes of locating $10,000 their father had stolen and stashed from a robbery before his incarceration and execution.
The Reverend preaches the lessons of self-righteousness and following the Lord, and he displays the words “L-O-V-E” tattooed on his right hand and “H-A-T-E” on his left. Reverend brandishes his switchblade any chance he gets as he preys on his victims and is a sociopathic misogynist who is sexually attracted to women and disgusted by them in the same breath.
The Night of the Hunter was directed by actor/director Charles Laughton of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and the screenplay penned by Pulitzer Prize winning author, James Agee of The African Queen (1951) based on the novel by Davis Grubb.
Hunter is a superbly filmed movie, which utilizes visual elements of the German expressionistic style made popular thirty years prior in Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Hunter is packed with strong symbolism and themes such as murder, sex, religion, and the innocence of children. Innovative cinematography was helmed by Stanley Cortes of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and displayed by his intricate use of camera and shadows seen in early film noirs.
The use of fantastic surrealistic sets will keep your eyes glued on every scene of the 92 minute runtime. The night sequences are beautifully shot and at times simply breathtaking due to the amount of detail employed and are very reminiscent off a million dollar stage production one might see on Broadway.
The music is also a very powerful character within Hunter as Reverend has his own song, “Leaning on Everlasting Arms,” as he creepily sings this like a terrifying nursery rhyme introducing his menacing presence when entering select scenes.
Unfortunately, The Night of the Hunter was not a success upon its release but has gained recognition as one of the most important films over the years. Hunter has placed on many American Film Institute (AFI) movie lists, gained recognition in the past 25 years as being historically significant by the Library of Congress, and influenced acclaimed directors such as Francois Truffaut of The 400 Blows (1959), David Lynch of Eraserhead (1977), Jim Jarmusch of Dead Man (1995), and Martin Scorsese of Taxi Driver (1976), just to name a few.
Television and films have paid homage or spoofed Hunter and references to the film can be seen as recent as 2014 in cinema. The film was remade into a 1991 lackluster TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain of The Thorn Birds (1983), and Burgess Meredith of Rocky (1976). Film academia and buff’s laud the film for its visual experimentation in modern storytelling and Mitchum’s performance has been praised by critics for being one of the most frightening villains of all time on the silver screen.
Overall, Night of the Hunter is one of the greatest and frightening movies ever made and still holds up 60 years later. Mitchum’s persona seeps through into this memorable role as he is 100% authentic and believable as the psychopath Reverend. Hunter is a compelling yarn that is presented like a Southern Gothic fairy tale especially where the Reverend takes the boy and his sister into the unforgettable creepy basement scene that has been copied in many other contemporary horror movies. Also, film fans will be treated to seeing a young Peter Graves of Airplane (1980) grace the scene.
So after you watch The Night of the Hunter, take the time to comprehend the lessons you were taught. Never talk to strangers, be careful of wolves wearing sheep’s clothing and you may want to double check the people you friend on “Fiendbook,” a potential stalker may always be in your midst. Remember if it’s dark and from the shadows you hear a deep Baritone voice say, “Chiiilll…dren!”…run for your life.