Horror through the decades presents: The Night of The Hunter (1955)


After a long hiatus, Lorry Kikta returns for her exploration into HORROR THROUGH THE DECADES.

For our penultimate look into the horror films of the decade that bred the baby-boomers, we revisit Charles Laughton’s cinematic masterpiece, The Night of The Hunter. 


Charles Laughton could absolutely be considered more of an actor than a director, having starred in over 60 films from 1928-1962. He even had a foothold in horror when he starred as the original Dr. Moreau in The Island of Lost Souls. However, in many opinions, including my own, his very best work was as a director for the only film he was officially credited with directing, 1955’s The Night of The Hunter  (he also co-directed 1950’s The Man On The Eiffel Tower alongside Burgess Meredith and Irving Allen, but only Meredith is credited).

The Night of The Hunter is set in the American Heartland during The Great Depression that decimated the nation’s spirit during the 1930s. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb and was written by James Agee who was a novelist from Knoxville, Tennessee, who also wrote the screenplay for The African Queen. Due to the cache of both the writer and director of this film, some of the best actors and actresses of their time or in some cases, a time long before, were attracted to the project.

Robert Mitchum, who could very well be described as the titular “Hunter” had acted in all manner of westerns and war movies before being cast as Harry Powell, a delusional psychotic preacher who roamed the countryside, going from town to town seducing widows for their fortunes and then killing them, moving along to the next. One of the first scenes we meet him in is a scene after some children playing hide-and-seek find a woman’s body right inside of a cellar door (we only see the feet). He’s riding an old beat up car, talking to God about what he’s going to do next. Which is…you guessed it…kill another widow.

Even before that though, the film opens with a woman’s face uplit and surrounded by darkness telling a story to some children. We see this woman again much later in the film as Rachel Cooper, and she is played by silent film star Lillian Gish.

Gish is one of the few silent starlettes whose career survived the addition of sound to films, and the other excesses that ran rampant in 1920’s Hollywood, when she was at the height of her fame. Just read Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon if you’re not sure what I’m talking about (you won’t regret it).

Most well known for her roles in silent films in the 20’s, Lilian Gish stuns in her role as foster-mother and storyteller, Rachel Cooper, in Night of The Hunter. Image courtesy of United Artists and A Sharper Focus

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Additionally, we have another member of Hollywood royalty, playing unsuspecting widow, Willa Harper. Her name is Shelley Winters, and she starred in so many different wonderful roles in films and television shows, from her role in this film, to Charlotte Haze in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, to Belle Rosen in (the original) The Poseidon Adventure to her hilarious guest role as Nana Mary on Roseanne during its original run before Roseanne, ya know, lost her mind.

Those are the biggest names in the film but I think it’s a shame to go without mentioning the actors who played the two children, John and Pearl. They were played by Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce respectively. Chapin went on to act in such films as Tension At Table Rock, while Bruce ended her career as a child star after The Night of The Hunter.

John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) are in many ways the heroes of The Night of The Hunter. Image courtesy of United Artists and A Sharper Focus.

Not surprisingly, I’ve got a little ahead of myself here. I haven’t even told you the rest of the plot. The Night of The Hunter is about what happens when Ben Harper (Peter Graves, Mission: ImpossibleAirplane!) goes to prison for robbing a bank.

He’s fed up with seeing children wandering around with no food, and his family suffering, so he kills two men in order to get $10,000, which in today’s society would equal more than $180,000. He returns home and before the police arrive, he tells his son to keep the money and not tell his mother where it is. He also makes John swear to protect his sister, Pearl.

Meanwhile, Harry Powell, our lunatic preacher, gets arrested for stealing the car he was driving at the beginning of the film. Naturally, the two end up being cellmates, and while Powell is arguably the worse of the two men, Harper is the one who’s about to get hanged.

Not before Powell hears him talking about the money in his sleep. Powell has a new widow to chase down after Harper is hanged, and is convinced that it is divine providence that’s leading him down this path, rather than his own psychopathology which reminds me of, I don’t know, Osama Bin Laden, Hitler, Steve Bannon, and many others.

Willa Harper is beside herself when her husband dies, and bemoans her circumstance to her employer at the ice cream shop, Mrs. Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden,The Bad Seed). Mrs. Spoon hounds her to find a man as soon as possible because “raising children is a job for two”. I can argue that Icey Spoon is just as much of a villain as Powell is because she pushes Willa HARD to get together with Powell when he shows up on the scene.

At the beginning of the film, Mrs. Cooper warns the children about wolves in sheep’s clothing and that is absolutely what Harry Powell is at first. He sings hymns and talks about the Lord. He has tattoos of LOVE and HATE on his knuckles which he uses to tell this story.

“H-A-T-E. It is with the left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E. You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers have veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, is the hand of love. These fingers is always warring, one against the other…”

Willa is completely oblivious to Powell’s designs, but John Harper is not. It’s not soon after that Powell marries Willa and begins a campaign of terror against the whole family to find out where Ben Harper’s money is. John won’t tell and he does his best to keep Pearl from telling.

It’s not too long that Powell is married to Willa that he kills her. He is set on getting the money from the children but they successfully lock him in the basement and steal their dad’s skiff and ride it down the river to avoid Powell. Powell steals a horse and is not far behind them.

One morning, Mrs. Cooper finds the children and takes them under her wing. Eventually Powell catches up to them, but Mrs. Cooper sees right through him. He finally gets what’s coming to him, but at what price?

There’s so much more I could say about this film. It is EXCELLENTLY written, the performances are incredible, and the cinematography is extremely unusual for the time of its release.

Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) keeps watch for Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of The Hunter. Image courtesy of United Artists.

If you haven’t seen The Night of The HunterI suggest you hunt down the Criterion Collection DVD as soon as possible, or wait til they launch their new streaming service. It’s one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve ever seen, without which films like Silence of The LambsSlingblade, or The Apostle (the older one starring Robert Duvall..not Apostle with Dan Stevens…well, hell, maybe that one too, I don’t know yet because I haven’t seen it) wouldn’t be possible.

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It’s not a straight up horror movie with ghosts and goblins and tons of blood, but it’s just as horrifying as anything in movies with those elements. Sometimes the most horrifying monsters are the ones that lie beneath the surface of a human smile. Those wolves in sheep’s clothing, that we often never expect, are everywhere, and that’s some scary stuff.

Do you enjoy classic movies? Have you seen The Night of the Hunter? Let’s discuss in the comments section below.