Today's Pick: The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Halloween season is the perfect time for a fresh audience to glance back into the yesteryears of cinema and discover some classic chillers. While the Universal monster cycle of the 30's, 40's and even into the 50's should be mandatory viewing, there is a subsection of older horror films (usually given the shame-distancing sub-genre title of "psychological thriller") dealing with human monsters that shouldn't be ignored. Some great examples would be 1962's Cape Fear (remade in better-than-average fashion by Martin Scorsese in 1991), 1959's variation on the famous Leopold-Loeb murder case, Compulsion, or Alfred Hitchcock's golden standard, Psycho. One of the best of this breed has to be The Night of the Hunter, the solo directing effort of Charles Laughton, who played one of fiction's greatest monsters, Quasimodo, in the stellar 1939 production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The plot of the film involves a preacher, Harry Powell (Cape Fear's own Robert Mitchum) who is a prolific serial killer of women, murdering them for their money and their lack of moral fiber. After getting arrested for a minor crime, he finds out that his soon-to-be executed cellmate (Peter Graves) has hidden a huge stash of money that he stole during a robbery. When Powell is released, he immediately seeks out his cellmate's widow and woos her instantly, in hopes of finding the money. However, it's location is known only to the young son and daughter, and over the course of the movie, Powell works his devilish charm and menace on the children, eventually forcing them to run away and seek refuge down river with aging matriarch Rachel Cooper (played by the silent film era star Lillian Gish).
The Night of the Hunter is lyrically haunting in its imagery. There is a scene of a corpse anchored underwater that has to be one of the most beautifully morbid shots in all of American film. There are also multiple shots of Powell where he is framed from far away, giving him an otherworldly aura. But, it's not just visually where this film excels. Robert Mitchum's performance is awe-inspiring, managing to balance a veneer of likability (an important trait for any successful serial killer) with a dark heart of utter malice. Powell has the words "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed on his knuckles (a bit that Spike Lee lifted wholesale for the character Radio Rakeem in Do the Right Thing) and it's that dichotomy that infuses Mitchum's acting decisions. He is one of cinema's best villains, taking the skin of a warm and inviting concept (the down-to-earth Southern preacher) and twisting it into something purely evil.
Another thing working in the film's favor (in terms of horror appeal) are the children. This isn't like most films where children feel safely tucked away from all danger. There are moments where you really think Powell will kill them, going so far as to pin one of them down and stick a knife next to their face. You just don't see that kind of terror inflicted on extremely young children in films much anymore, and it makes the tension even more believable. There is a dreamlike quality to the movie, and that dream often slips into many moments of nightmare.
Like most masterpieces, The Night of the Hunter was generally ignored when it was released. Over time, it has gained enormous respect from the public (the Criterion Collection disc is a worthwhile purchase) and a cadre of famous filmmakers (many who have dabbled in horror themselves) such as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, the Coen brothers and Rob Zombie. With it's setting and themes, The Night of the Hunter would make a perfect darkly mirrored double feature with To Kill A Mockingbird. It's a grim fairy tale about some of the things America loves most: fear, religion, sex and money.
If you can put yourself in the right frame of mind (I know too many people who can't even conceive of watching a black and white film), this is one of the era's finest. And for all you gorehounds, don't presume I'm going to fill this list with a bunch of classy flicks. Tomorrow, we'll get modern and take a look at a freshly-made slasher flick that has buckets of blood for you to lap up. See you tomorrow!