When we talk about Christmas films, memories of watching iconic pictures like Home Alone inevitably pops into one’s mind. A true holiday classic, the 1990 comedy is a thoroughly enjoyable romp especially when you are a child because you get to experience the fantasy of having the house to yourself with the hilarious complications of dealing with burglars on your own. Charles Laughton’s masterpiece The Night of the Hunter, however, is the furthest thing from that specific definition of the Christmas genre.
Instead of goofy thieves, what if the home invader was a psychopathic preacher who learnt about where you lived from your dead father, manipulated your mother into marrying him before killing her and chased you down across the state to get his hands on $10,000? That’s what The Night of the Hunter brings to the table, offering a work of art that was so ahead of its time that most contemporary critics and audiences never really understood its magic at the time.
In fact, the abysmal reception convinced Laughton to never make another film after this directorial debut and he died a few years later. Due to countless re-evaluations and critical revisitation to the film, The Night of the Hunter is now regarded as one of the greatest American films of the 20th century and is often ranked alongside other pioneering achievements in film history like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Due to its unforgettable investigations, the masterpiece has influenced other great filmmakers ranging from Robert Altman to Guillermo del Toro. Spike Lee loved the film so much that he re-contextualised the most iconic monologues from The Night of the Hunter in his own magnum opus – Do The Right Thing. Calling it a Christmas film is perhaps reductive as it oscillates between noir, horror and fantasy but the central theme of The Night of the Hunter is the same as that of the holiday season’s ideological programming – human morality.
There is no The Night of the Hunter without Robert Mitchum who is just terrifying as Reverend Harry Powell, a preacher with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his fingers. He lies when needed, kills without hesitation, frequents burlesque shows and does whatever he can to satisfy his carnal urges in the name of the lord. Although the film’s introduction warns against false prophets, Powell is actually the logical conclusion of modern religious hypocrisy who knows just enough about religion to exploit it. The Night of the Hunter came out in 1955 so one can only imagine how such a depiction was processed by the Christian conservative crowd.
In its runtime of about 90 minutes, Laughton explores a variety of topics such as crime and its socioeconomic roots, domestic abuse, the patriarchal repression of female sexuality, the corruption inherent in institutions such as marriage, the dangers of mob mentality and racial prejudices among many others. Through its unique visual framework which was influenced by masters of German Expressionism like F.W. Murnau, The Night of the Hunter is definitely one of the most gorgeous black and white films due to its immaculately stylised use of chiaroscuros, camera movement and cerebral images that invoke the aesthetics of the Southern gothic.
Although it was the next major leap forward in visual storytelling after Citizen Kane, many did not recognise it until the ’70s. The lyrical nature of the horror on the screen was perfectly complemented by the fantastic screenplay by James Agee. Intended to be told through the perspective of the siblings who lose their parents and are tortured by the nasty reverend, The Night of the Hunter is a child’s worst nightmare. It chronicles the impact of the dissolution of all the social institutions that provide subjectivity to a child’s life, subjecting the children in the film as well as the audience to the manifestation of true evil.
Despite the fact that this particular agent of evil is warded off by a badass woman with a shotgun (played by Lillian Gish), the terror that The Night of the Hunter generates lingers on in our minds. Towards the end, we see that the children are handed a moment of respite on Christmas under the care of Gish’s character who says: “It’s a hard world for little things.” However, such a purely performative function of the holidays only serves to deconstruct the very idea of Christmas and reminds us that while Santa Claus is illusory, Reverend Harry Powell is incredibly real.