The Harbinger Online

Safe From Larvae and Rust: The Night of the Hunter


“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. — Vladimir Nabokov, 1964

In the spirit of Halloween, these next few entries will be about some less popular, but nevertheless great horror films that everyone should watch. I personally am not a fan of typical horror movies, but these are absolutely amazing. So if you’re looking for blood and gore, these movies don’t have a lot of them.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Not many people are afraid of southern preachers, but after they watch this movie they will be. It’s about the psychopathic Pastor Powell who travels around towns murdering widows for their money. With “L-O-V-E” tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and “H-A-T-E” on the other, he charms the townspeople with impromptu sermons about the infinite struggle between the two forces. He then seduces widows, murders them, takes their money and moves on to the next town. In one particular town, he discovers that a father who had robbed a bank had hidden the large sum of loot with his widowed wife and two children. It takes no time for him to seduce the pious widow and marry her. It also takes no time for him to dispose of her. Powell is now alone with the two children and the hidden money. But the children see right through the evil of the psychotic pastor and are on their own to protect both the money and their lives. An extremely well made movie, The Night of the Hunter works in darkly subtle ways and delivers a frightening atmosphere without any blood, jump scares or special effects. Known for his laid-back, subtle style of acting, Robert Mitchum lurks with a cool, dominating presence as the evil preacher, casting an unsettling aura. He’s absolutely convincing as the charismatic preacher/serial killer. The cinematography is pure magic. The camera hardly moves so the impeccable composition and lighting can deliver the film’s fear-gripped, nightmarish atmosphere. The high-contrast, expressionist lighting makes many shots look almost surreal and breathtakingly beautiful in a nonetheless ominous way. There’s a scene in which the children are hiding from the pastor in a barn, and at the crack of dawn, they wake to the sound of a distant, familiar voice singing “Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms…” And in the background, against the horizon, we see the small silhouette of Pastor Powell riding slowly on horseback, in steady pursuit of the children while singing that incessant hymn. “Don’t he never sleep?” mutters the boy in despair. This doesn’t sound all that exciting, but the slow, subtle feeling of dread will creep and stalk you like a nightmare. These traits are rare in horror movies. It goes to show how well-used creativity and craft can make creepy and timeless films in a genre that was and still is dominated by special effects and trite scare devices. Some horror aficionados may feel this film to be a dud for its lack of gut-spillings and rotten flesh, but I think it will last a lot longer than both its many contemporaries and modern counterparts.

The Night of the Hunter was the only film directed by the famous actor Charles Laughton. It was unfortunately ill-received by both audiences and critics at the time of its release. But like many great pieces of art, it is now being acclaimed as one of the greatest movies of all time.

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