I forgot how crazy “Night of the Hunter” was.
I saw the 1955 Charles Laughton-directed film, starring Robert Mitchum as a murderous preacher with a series of dead wives in his wake, in my movie-crazy adolescence way more than 30 years ago. It was during a period I was soaking up every movie I could find on TV – this was before the VCR era, even – and reading about everything, from the old Universal horror movies to classics like the Marx Brothers and Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory.”
But in the decades since I saw “Night of the Hunter,” my mind had pretty much rendered it to its single-sentence plotline: Woman-killing man of the cloth has murderous intentions for his adopted family.
I forgot how subversive, how darkly funny, how outright odd much of the movie is.
Set in rural West Virginia in the 1930s, the movie starts out with a shock: Children playing in a yard begin a game of hide-and-seek, only to discover the body of a dead woman in the opening to a storm cellar.
We quickly discover she’s the latest victim of Harry Powell, a traveling preacher and serial killer. As he tools along country roads, Powell talks to God about his mission: Kill women and steal their money to fund his religious crusade.
Powell’s travels are interrupted by his arrest for auto theft and he spends a few weeks in jail. While inside, he meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a family man awaiting execution for murder. After hearing Harper talk in his sleep about the existence of $10,000 in stolen cash – and following Harper’s execution – Powell is released and goes to find and befriend Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and her children, skeptical John (Billy Chapin) and loving Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).
Powell talks his way into marriage with Willa – with the help of town busybody Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) – and then sets out to find the $10,000, murdering his new family if he must.
The movie is full of menace and performances that range from subtle (Mitchum, usually) to over-the-top.
“Night of the Hunter” has been cited as an influence on the filmmakers that followed it, but watching Laughton’s movie, it feels like he was influenced by everything from homespun small-town dramas (the town gossip) to horror films (the moody lighting, the lurching figure of Mitchum when he’s chasing the children, images right out of a “Frankenstein” movie). Laughton puts a satirical spin on all this, however. The gossipy neighbor who practically forces the widow into Powell’s arms literally leads the lynch mob after Powell’s head at the end of the movie.
There’s a drinking game to be played watching “Night of the Hunter,” and it involves taking a drink every time Mitchum sings a verse of a hymn or emptying your glass every time he calls out, “Children …. ” in a spine-tingling sing-song tone.
Alternately, “Night of the Hunter” could almost be recut as a 1980s sitcom, with Mitchum as the bumbling dad, forever tripping over things in the basement.