The best kind of horror comes not from monsters or ghosts, but from other human beings. "Cape Fear," "Heavenly Creatures," and other such movies are brilliant examples of this.
But one of the most compelling examples is "Night of the Hunter," a haunting movie that slowly descends into an exquisitely-filmed, brilliantly-acted nightmare about a malign preacher and the two children who are trying to escape. Like an old fairy tale, it's full of terror, magic, beauty and darkness.
Murderous preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is arrested for car theft, since the police don't know that his hatred of women has led him to repeated murder. He shares a prison cell with bank robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who stole ten thousand dollars. Powell tries to coax the location of the money from Harper, but the thief takes it to his grave. Only his son John (Billy Chapin) knows its location.
Upon his release, Powell arrives in Harper's town, claiming that he wants to "bring this small comfort to [Ben's] loved ones." Everyone is taken in by him, including his new wife -- Ben's gullible widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). When she vanishes, John and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) must escape their evil stepfather -- even though he's determined to hunt them down and find the money.
When it was first released, "Night of the Hunter" flopped completely. Not very surprising -- the 1950s audiences weren't ready for the unconventional villains, rich symbolism, or the fact that an actor had dared to stray into a director's chair. Fortunately, it lived on as a cult film, and is now regarded as a classic.
It's especially sad that Laughton never directed again, because this is simply astonishing. It feels like a fairy tale, with Powell as the wicked witch, and the children as the protected innocents who are helped by a "fairy godmother." Laughton also loads it down with sexual and religious symbolism -- the LOVE and HATE tattoos, the switchblade, the eerie sacrifice scene.
Best of all is the cinematography. Beauty and horror are inextricably tied together: the dead Willa with "her hair waving soft and lazy like meadow grass under flood water," or the little river animals watching the children escape under a starlit sky. But there are also moments of pure terror, such as the preacher's shadow falling over the kids, or calling out as they're hiding, "I'm out of patience, children. I'm coming to find you now..."
Robert Mitchum played another evil stalker several years later in the superb "Cape Fear," but this performance is even better. His Powell is a seething mass of murderous fervour and sexual hatred -- his intense eyes are enough to give you goosebumps.
He's also backed by some excellent performances -- Chapin is amazing as the little boy determined to obey his father and somehow stop Powell. Bruce and Winters turn in some solid performances, and veteran Lillian Gish has a good supporting role as the kindly Rachel.
As chilling and compelling as when it was first released, "Night of the Hunter" is a vibrant, primal experience, and nobody has quite come close to what it portrays.