The Night of the Hunter is one of those films that leave one with a feeling of awe and despair at the same time. The awe comes the fact it is a beautifully shot black and white film that use the shadows of German Expressionism and Silent Era Hollywood to create grand spectacle and spiritual enlightenment. The despair comes from the fact the plot is a bleak fable about false prophets featuring one of the most despicable Reverends of storytelling history. These clashes in tone reveal the film’s theme dogma, knowledge, and peace and how they oppose each other, which makes this film a horrifying yet beautiful oddity. The Night of the Hunter famously flopped due to its blunt and incendiary outlook on its themes but that is the very reason that makes it so relevant today.
The story mainly revolves around two children and their trials but the main attraction is the vile Rev. Harry Powell. Played intensely by Robert Mitchum, Rev. Powell is the definitive wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is a charismatic and handsome man who uses his status to marry and then kill his wives as well as spread his perverse teachings. The character’s actions alone make him a memorable villain but the fact that he uses religion to justify his mad behavior is shocking because it rings true today. Everyday brings a new violent story about a cult of personality like Westboro Baptist Church who pervert their scripture for personal gain; The Night of Hunter nails the psychopathic nature of the “hidden false prophets” through Rev. Powell, nearly fifty years before the trend seemed relevant.
This very real horror is greatly emphasized by the fact that the main characters were just little kids. It is one thing if adults had to face someone like Rev. Powell but little kids? That is pure hell. These are kids that are in need of a true guardian but the adults either side with or get cornered by Rev. Powell. Their story is one of pragmatism, learning that they should think for themselves and find the difference between the dogmatic and the honest.
If there is one slightly alienating issue with The Night of the Hunter is the film looks dated, even for the 1950s. The film borrows lots of elements from German and American silent cinema with very minimalist sets, location shots, exaggerated lighting and very hammy acting; especially Robert Mitchum, who sometimes looks like Bela Lugosi. Yet this is also part of the appeal because gives the film the elegance of a nightmarish fairytale. The film is shot in stark black-and-white and is filled thick shadow that gives the film its horrific tone but also an ethereal look that even smart filmmakers fail to achieve, let alone Hollywood.
The Night of the Hunter is a special kind of horror that bravely tackles the topic of religious dogma and does so with a sense of honesty, even when it seems so surreal. The inescapable Rev. Harry Powell proves to be one of the most frightening villains ever by presenting himself as someone almost too real for comfort. The story of the children who face this false prophet is as harsh a Grimm fairytale but is as profound and beautiful as gospel. The Night of the Hunter is not just a great horror film but also a great spiritual one. It is a film not afraid to reveal the flaws of religion whilst promoting its philosophical and meditative practices. The film knows that religion is not perfect, which is why it feels so honest and even enlightening.
(The Night of The Hunter is available on DVD/Blu-ray via Criterion Collection)