The Night of the Hunter startlingly opens with heads floating against a starry sky. A few of them are children and one is an old woman. The old woman is giving a bible study lesson about Jesus. I’m not quite sure what I expected from this movie, but I don’t think I was anticipating anything this strange. But it’s actually a really perfect intro into what the movie is: a fairy tale- not the Disney kind, but the true dark kind of fairy tale where people die and children get eaten.
This movie has an otherworldly quality, which is not just from the floating heads. One part of that is the strong expressionistic influence. There’s a lot of monstrous shadows being cast on walls. Nosferatu-esque shots of creeping up stairs. There are sharp black and white angles. The nighttime of this world is strongly opposed to the daylight, which is idyllic and warm. The day feels safe and reassuring. The night is all around eerie.
In the middle of the Great Depression, two children John and Pearl are playing in the yard when their dad, Ben, rushes in with a gunshot wound. Fed up with his children having to live in squalor, he’s robbed a bank. Before the cops catch up with him, he hides the money inside of Pearl’s doll and makes both children swear not to tell anyone where the money is hidden. He gets arrested and sentenced to death. While in jail Ben meets the big bad wolf of this story, Reverend Harry Powell (played by Robert Mitchum). Harry Powell manages to marry the children’s widowed mother while in search of the money. John and Pearl soon after have to flee the murderous Reverend, as he gets increasingly violent towards John while asking about the money.
Reverend Powell is an iconic villain, right down to his knuckle tattoos, which read “LOVE” and “HATE,” that are referenced time and time again. When he displays these tattoos, his hands resemble terrifying, gnashing jaws as he makes them play wrestle each other. Perhaps most terrifying of all is his charisma. He summons up a whole town to his cult-like fire and brimstone sermons. He can flash a disarming smile and get his way almost every time. It’s terrifying to watch a villain with so much self righteous evil gain so much control.
I like the way this movie is scary. Yes, it feels like a fairy tale, but all the reasons to be afraid are very real. It’s scary because the town the kids live in is very judgmental and single minded while posing itself as idyllic. This town is susceptible to a charismatic stranger changing all of their views, and it’s scary because small towns often function this way. It’s scary because there’s no witchcraft or magic. This is just a regular man, which realistically there are few things scarier than a bad man. It’s scary because John is a kid isolated and no one believes him as he’s pursued and there’s few things more frightening than having bad things happen to you and having no one listen.
The Night of the Hunter tells the classic tale of good versus evil, love versus hate. The black and white cinematography drives home the point with it’s sharp dynamic lighting. It’s chilling, uncanny and even ruthless at times, but it also has so many makings of a good fairy tale: lost children, evil step parents, and even a fairy godmother in the end.