By Caroline Nelson ‘16Film Columnist
If Halloween failed to terrify, you might want to turn to “The Night of the Hunter.” Though this classic came out in 1955, the intervening decades have not even come close to stripping it of its power to disturb. “The Night of the Hunter” is probably one of the first great stories of serial killers on film with one of cinema’s first great serial killers, Harry Powell, a maniacal preacher with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed across his
hands. Powell is one of cinema’s greatest villains. He is a misogynist who believes he and God have conversations and for whom violence sex and religion are braided together. He has gotten under our cultural skin to the point where sinister characters everywhere from “The Simpsons” to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” follow his lead and even those seeing the film for the first time will recognize his knuckle tattoos or the discovery of one of his victims.
The film centers around Powell’s pursuit of two children through the Depression-era South. Through the criminal actions of their father, the two siblings come in to the possession of a large amount of money, the existence of which Powell soon learns about.
He proceeds to charm his way into a position of leadership in their town—and more insidiously, into their home. Much of the impact of this struggle on the viewer derives from the fact that there is so little to shield innocence from depravity. Not only has the Depression wreaked havoc on the fabric of community, but also the majority of adults fail to recognize or oppose the threat that presents itself to them. Key among these adults is the children’s mother, played with by the inimitable Shelley Winters.
However, this film undeniably belongs to Robert Mitchum as Powell. Compelling and charismatic, particularly at his most deranged, Mitchum brings this character to vividly demonic life. Like the rest of the film he manages to be both very natural and deeply theatrical. This probably springs from the film’s unusual mishmash of style and mood. It is typically considered a film noir, but lacks most of the staples of that genre. It is quiet clearly a serial killer drama but includes flights of fancy more appropriate to a fable or fairy tale. The only person capable of seeing through Harry’s façade, a pious gun-toting woman played by the great silent film star Lillian Gish, seems to have wandered in from a Western. The tone is that of Southern Gothic shot in the style of German Expressionism. But the great thing about this film is that all of these seemingly disparate elements come together seamlessly to create something that feels less like a movie and more like a dream, or more accurately, a nightmare.