Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
It’s October, so you know what that means: it’s time for some horror movies! If you’re like me, you actually probably watch a good number of horror movies throughout the year, especially in a year where two gems like The Innkeepers and Cabin in the Woods both came out in the spring. But I’ve always enjoyed horror movies, even if I don’t really find myself with the opportunity to write about them very often.
That changes in October. Criterion Cuts, already one of my more fluid projects, puts on a witch hat and douses itself in fake blood to take up all five October Mondays with an array of spooky, scary, or thrilling selections from the Criterion Collection. As you might expect, that’s going to be an eclectic set of movies, but that’s the joy of horror: the array of what is scary or unsettling is so vast that to delve into it will take you through all genres and the entire history of film, as even our earliest films endeavored to elicit that most primal emotion—fear.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
I’ve always been a fan of horror movies from nearly every era, but rarely do I find myself drawn to the movies of the 1950s. Sure, there’s Hitchcock still plugging away with his thrillers, but outside of that it’s a lot of questionable science fiction fables and low budget B-movie drive in fare, along with a slew of bad Vincent Price movies that don’t manage to convey any of the camp energy or technical inventiveness that will carry even bad horror movies. Stuck between the warring golden eras of the Universal Monsters and Hammer Horror, the 50s just weren’t a great time to thrill a person with modern sensibilities.
Which is why when I picked The Night of the Hunter I went in expecting something too stoic and played soft to enjoy. Those lowered expectations were quickly leapfrogged by the film itself, because I was simply not at all prepared for what The Night of the Hunter actually is. How could I? It is, in many ways, a wholly unique horror film in all of the movies I have ever seen. Which might explain the singular nature of its production, as it’s the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, adapting the novel by Davis Grubb. Unsurprisingly, the movie upon release was mostly ignored, because the world was both not ready and had already moved on.
Because that’s the thing with The Night of the Hunter, its strength comes from embracing the past. The story, set in the 1930s, is entrenched in a sort of staged elegiac Americana for a version of Small Town, USA that probably barely existed even in the 30s or 50s. The story concerns a young boy, John (Billy Chapin), who is left fatherless when his father commits a violent robbery. Before he’s arrested, he entrusts his young son with the location of the money, making him promise not only will he not reveal the location of the money but will also protect his younger sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). His father dragged away to execution, John and Pearl drift through life with their flighty mother, convincing the townspeople that the money was lost in the Ohio River.
It’s into this situation that Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) strolls, a self-proclaimed preacher with infamous LOVE and HATE knuckle tattoos and a penchant for killing people without compunction. He had shared a prison cell with John’s father, spending his entire time trying to convince him to spill the location of the money, but when he took the secret to his grave Powell decided to head to the old homestead and see if perhaps the kids or widow might know.
Powell is really the star of this movie, a shockingly modern figure in a non-modern world. His soft-spoken gentlemanly ways belie a certain psychosis that’s cold and hard and unyielding when people cross him. Most everyone in charmed, bending around the will of a preacher with manners. Powell, aware of his effect on people, uses this social facade to insert himself into situations where he can bilk people out of money and find new victims to terrorize and murder. With his long duster and flat preacher’s hat, he cuts an imposing silhouette across the entirety of the film, a corruption of that most foundational image of pastoral rural life—the preacher.
John, to his credit, is seemingly instantly aware of the threat: there’s a certain perceptiveness that the children have that the adults seem to have forgotten, understanding that Powell represents something fully evil even before he properly reveals himself as a threat to them. And he certainly does become a threat, entering their home as the potential beau to their grieving mother, only to turn around in private moments and demand that they tell him where the money is. And try as they might, they can’t shake him, living with this strange parochial father figure that looms large as some sort of childhood bogeyman that only is a threat when the children are alone, and the adults are all oblivious as to what danger actually lurks there.
This nightmare extends to the movie’s style at large, as the pastoral 1930s American setting gives way to increasingly abstract settings as the film begins to embrace a more traditional style: German Expressionism, that most defining early aesthetic of horror films, casts a long and misshapen shadow over most of the movie. And that collision is more naturalistic than you might think, as it embraces the foreign and manages to create a sort of fairy tale version of American Gothic. By the time the children flee and Powell gives chase in the wilderness, the movie has a black-on-black, deeply unreal shadow quality of fairy tale illustration, as the darkness encroaches and the children are cast out lost in the wilds.
And it’s that primal level on which the film really hits its stride, this nightmare sense of childhood versus adulthood, where only children are equipped with the innocence and purity of focus to confront a great evil, and the great evil is of a type that wants to prey on children. That violent way of interpreting childhood savagery, as the world grows increasingly uncaring and vicious, is what drives the terror. What makes The Night of the Hunter effective is that it’s a movie that embraces the ease with which evil inserts itself into the most normal and ‘safe’ situations in a heartless, unflinching way. The true monsters aren’t of magic, but of everyday life allowing evil to take hold.