Thoughts on The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Fantastic Film Festival.

I had the great pleasure of seeing on the big screen The Night of the Hunter (1955), a classic of American cinema. Like the best horror, it eschews jump scares in favor of creeping dread and unsettling elements. Peter Kimpton gives a great review that covers all the bases, and David Gritten goes in depth on the film’s production history. I just want to point out two more things.

The source of the film’s horror lies in the dramatic irony that John’s (a superb Billy Chapin) suspicions regarding “Reverend” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum doing career-best work), unfounded at first, are known by the viewer to be in fact true. This turns what John initially sees as a hall of mirrors into, essentially, the allegory of love versus hate told by Powell (and in a later film by Radio Raheem). And the fact that kids are half-expected to distrust their step-parents at first—that simply ratchets up the horror by several notches. When Powell is proven evil, of course, nobody feels regret, just anger and betrayal; they’re too busy fighting the next fight to count the bodies.

Secondly, I hope it doesn’t escape your notice that the Harper children are saved by chance. Their being found by Ms. Cooper (Lillian Gish, delivering both very good and very bad lines) is entirely contingent, and given Powell’s nightmarish, unwavering pursuit, their story may very well have ended differently. Sadly, this dependence on sheer luck is all too true for those stuck in real-life horror stories: lives caught in the traps of poverty, discrimination, stigmata. Thus, in a sense, The Night of the Hunter is a film that tries to scare us into being kind.

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