Robert Mitchum as a scary serial killer? I’m in
Chris Laughton’s final and only film as a director, Night of the Hunter, is a compelling and creepy tale of a religious psychopath that pretends to play a family man. It’s an interesting film to be classified as classic film noir, but its expressionist lighting and dark themes narrowly place it into the genre/style.
Mitchum plays an evangelist madman, Powell, whom while in prison, hears about a now fatherless family that has a fortune hidden away somewhere. After being released from prison, he seeks the family out and marries the prior widow. The true stars of the film are John (Billy Chaplin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), the step-kids of Powell. The entire film is viewed from their innocent eyes and we watch as that innocence begins to fade away as they become the target of Powell’s insanity. They are exposed to an adult world of greed and violence much too young.
Every frame in the film is carefully crafted. The most memorable shot in the movie is that of the deceased mother at the bottom of the river. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez masterfully crafted the haunting image of her hair floating along with the seaweed at the wheel of a car. Throughout the film, his cinematography contributes to the frightening feeling the viewer feels. The basement scene when the kids are attempting to hide from Powell, the children floating down the river, Powell’s silhouette as he sings on his horse. The low-key lighting aids to the mystery and keeps audiences on the edge of their seat.
A terrible twisted version of a child’s tale, the film resonates with horror. The film is dated, but as an adult watching from 2016 I still felt a chill while watching. Mitchum portrays a terrifying figure, menacing and memorable. His singing will haunt my nightmares. Chaplin puts on a performance that is both empathetic and heartbreaking, much better than many child actors I have experienced. Night of the Hunter is an unnerving masterpiece that current horror and thriller movies could learn a thing or two from. Take notes, filmmakers.