The Best Horror Movie of 1955: The Night of the Hunter

Movies Features horror movies
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The Best Horror Movie of 1955: The Night of the Hunter

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

The film industry’s horror output has definitely improved for the better by the time we reach 1955, a year that is toplined by two classics that could easily headline almost any year of this list—provided you categorize either as horror, of course. The Night of the Hunter is a grim American fairy tale with ethereal cinematography, grossly misunderstood in its initial release, while Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques is a pitch-perfect, pulpy murder mystery that presaged the coming era of giallo and slasher films in many ways. We ultimately chose Night of the Hunter, but here’s some additional words on Les Diaboliques, which you should absolutely watch, from Paste’s own Dom Sinacola:

Watching Les Diaboliques through the lens of the modern horror film, especially the slasher flick—replete with un-killable villain (check); ever-looming jump scares (check); and a “final girl” of sorts (check?)—one would not have to squint too hard to see a new genre coming into being. You could even make a case for Clouzot’s canonization in horror, but to take the film on only those terms would miss just how masterfully the iconic French director could wield tension. Nothing about Les Diaboliques dips into the scummy waters of cheap thrills.

The rest of the year feels extremely “1950s” in its output, as it probably should: We’re smack in the middle of the decade. Giant monster movies like Tarantula are running amok, with more excellent Harryhausen stop-motion animation in It Came From Beneath the Sea, in which a giant octopus at one point destroys the Golden Gate Bridge. Additional sci-fi horror films from this year include The Quatermass Xperiment, which is considered the birth of the British horror revival at Hammer Film Productions, and the lush but cheesy This Island Earth, which would go on to be the main course featured in the theatrically released MST3K: The Movie, 41 years later.

Beyond that, there’s still a plethora of others one could mention, from Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy to Universal’s Revenge of the Creature and the first Godzilla sequel, Godzilla Raids Again. Truly, it feels good to put the lean years of the late 1940s and early 1950s behind us.

1955 Honorable Mentions: Diabolique, Tarantula, It Came From Beneath the Sea, The Quatermass Xperiment, Dementia, This Island Earth

The Film: The Night of the Hunter
Director: Charles Laughton

When Charles Laughton passed away in 1962, following an Academy Award-decorated career as one of Hollywood’s more recognizable and respected performers, it was sadly under the impression that his sole directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter, had been some kind of failure. For a film that is now often cited as one of the best of the 1950s, or even the very best that the decade has to offer, it’s fascinating to puzzle over how the contemporary critical reaction could have been so cool. Film writers of the day looked at the movie and called it old-fashioned, or stilted. They seemed unimpressed by the evocative, dreamy cinematography of Stanley Cortez, or the icily seductive performance of Robert Mitchum, in the role of a lifetime. Somehow, The Night of the Hunter instead became one of those movies cited as an influence by a cadre of up-and-coming auteurs in the New Hollywood generation, and its stock rose with the fortunes of its disciples.

Adapted from the 1953 David Grubb novel of the same name, The Night of the Hunter is a brooding thriller with elements of Southern Gothic and expressionistic horror. Calling upon works by directors such as Paul Leni and F.W. Murnau for inspiration, Laughton imagined West Virginia as a silent, wide-open (but shadow-stalked) place of fantastical beauty and hidden peril for the innocent. The story plays like an adult fairy tale: A family with two young children is menaced by an imposter who joins the community under a pretense, looking for a hidden treasure. Only the kids can see through his murderous intent, but will they be able to convince anyone of what’s happening right under their noses before it’s too late?

Mitchum’s performance here, as the magnetic and sonorous “Rev.” Harry Powell, ranks among the all-time great film antagonists. Powell is the male equivalent of a “black widow,” moving in with lonely women to bleed them dry and eventually leave bodies behind in his wake. Ending up in jail for an unrelated crime, he becomes aware that his cellmate, who is sentenced to death, left behind the score of a bank heist, with only his children knowing its location. What’s left for Powell, after his release, but to cozy up to another widow? This he does with honey-dripping flattery, always with icy-cold intention in the back of his eyes, regarding this woman and her children as tools to be used and discarded as soon as possible. Powell carries himself like a man without a care in the world, whistling mirthlessly wherever he goes. He acts as if he genuinely believes that God approves of his actions, and we pray that he must be mistaken—because if he’s not, we’re all in trouble.

Visually, the film is both beautiful and distinctive, with scenescapes of the West Virginia countryside that evoke the wild, dangerous wildernesses of folk tales by the Brothers Grimm and the folksy, rural ramblings of Mark Twain at the same time. Danger pools in the shadows of overgrown hedges and trees. Sunlight filters down through the shimmering water of a river and the gently waving hair of a submerged corpse, still in her nightgown. It all feels like a dream you’ll struggle to piece together the next morning, only to have it slip away a little more, the harder you concentrate.

There’s no other film with quite the same feel as The Night of the Hunter. It remains an American classic; one that now receives, more or less, the esteem that it always deserved.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.