Color, 1955, 93 mins.

Directed by Charles Laughton

Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves / Written by James Agee / Produced by Paul Gregory / Music by Walter Schumann / Cinematogarphy by Stanley Cortez

Format: DVD - MGM (MSRP $24.98)

Full Frame / Dolby Digital Mono

Though it enjoys a reputation as one of the most frightening films ever made, The Night of the Hunter offers so many layers of enjoyment even after countless viewings that critics' refusal to categorize it as a horror film almost seems understandable. The sole directorial effort of actor Charles Laughton, the film offers a terrifying view of evil from a young perspective and, along with Curse of the Cat People and The Sixth Sense, remains one of the few successful portrayals of childhood terror.

A malevolent preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), travels the backroads of America, killing off innocent widows and living off of their stolen money. He winds up in prison on a petty charge and shares a cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who shot two men while robbing a bank. Harry tries to learn the hiding place of Ben's money but fails when Ben is finally hanged. Released from prison, Harry charms his way into the home of Ben's widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). Willa's daughter, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), takes a shine to the preacher, who entertains the masses by performing an unforgettable wrestling match with his hands, tattooed "LOVE" on one set of fingers and "HATE" on the other. However, Willia's older son, John (Billy Chapin), is the only one in town who senses the preacher's true motives, even after Harry marries Willa and converts her into a fiery religious zealot. The two children wind up on the run from Harry, who pursues them on horseback until they wind up in the home of the kindly Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a mother hen who finally may prove to be a match for the false man of God.

As visually remarkable as any film ever made, Night of the Hunter uses rich black and white imagery to stir up primal, haunting imagery that must have made Jean Cocteau jealous. The chilling tableau of one character chained underwater to a submerged car is just one highlight; other unforgettable touches include Harry's shadow consuming John as he tells Pearl a bedtime story and the suspenseful basement sequence, in which Harry first corners the two children. Laughton wisely follows Davis Grubb's fairytale-influenced novel almost to the letter, while Walter Schumann contributes a forceful yet lyrical score which perfectly supports the film at every turn. Mitchum and Winters give perhaps the best performances of their careers, while Gish proves she could still perform on the same level found in her best work for D.W. Griffith.

Previously released on laserdisc in similar transfers from both Criterion and MGM, this film has always looked very good on home video. However, MGM's DVD outclasses them all with an astonishingly crisp transfer sporting amazing clarity of detail and rich, black shadows which add considerably to the ominous tone of the film. Apart from the same washed out theatrical trailer, the disc also includes some adequate production notes, but the film itself is the real showpiece here. Every self-respecting fan of horror and cinema in general should be sure to find a place for this title in their DVD collection.

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