So many of horror’s great boogeymen wear their monstrosity for all to see. Robert Mitchum’s smiling, sermonising Reverend Harry Powell is an obvious precursor to a great number of these nightmares, from A Nightmare On Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger to Cape Fear’s Max Cady (who, of course, Mitchum would originate from).
He’s the snake in the grass, the wicked stepfather, the evil authority figure, the relentless dark force pursuing our innocent heroes with impossible accuracy. “Don’t he never sleep?” cries young John Harper as he spies Powell on the horizon. Powell will never stop until he gets what he wants.
Charles Laughton’s The Night Of The Hunter holds up wonderfully to repeat viewings, and its influence on the horror genre only grows clearer with the passing decades. Five years before Anthony Perkins surprised Janet Leigh in the shower, Mitchum was conducting one-sided conversations with God about the “…things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair.” With his knife in his jacket pocket, Powell brazenly inveigles his way into the hearts of a small town community and the bed of Shelley Winters’ grieving widow Willa Harper, who is nothing but a means to an end; Powell has his mind set on something else.
While sharing a cell with soon-to-be-hanged Ben Harper, Powell discovers that he has hidden a great deal of money somewhere on his property. He sets out to find the stash, but finds that, while Willa and her young daughter Pearl are easily won over, son John is stubborn as a mule. His threats become more explicit, and it’s not long before he resorts to deadly force.
Laughton’s direction is exemplary, although the film’s failure at the time meant he never directed again. The use of light and dark is absolutley stunning, highlighting Powell’s almost supernatural ability to slip into the shadows, and the film’s dark humour keeps the atmosphere uncertain. It’s fun to watch Powell con the self-important local bible-bashers, who go out of their way to rush Willa into a marriage with the handsome preacher, but there’s nothing funny about the lengths that Powell will go to. Mitchum plays the balance between light and dark beautifully, slipping from a smooth-voiced raconteur bouncing a child on his knee to a very real, very scary threat in the blink of an eye.
This ability to tonally shift gears is just part of the film’s identity as a modern fairy tale. It begins with a somewhat spectral warning about wolves in sheeps’ clothing from Lillian Gish’ kindly Rachel Cooper, who doesn’t appear until the final third, while the climax resembles the Three Little Pigs, as Powell sings his refrain from the garden while Rachel and the children keep watch inside.
Presenting the terror of classic fairy tales in a Southern Gothic setting and foreshadowing countless nightmarish boogeymen to come, The Night Of The Hunter is a true horror classic.
The Night Of The Hunter opens at the BFI Southbank on 17 January, and will play at selected cinemas nationwide.