Forget all those Halloween movies with vampires and zombies. If you’re in the mood for a couple of good scares, I suggest two of my favorite “dark” films — “Cape Fear” and “Night of the Hunter” — which will have you reevaluating your opinion of the human species.
Interestingly, both films feature Robert Mitchum, a pretty big star from the late 1940s until his death in the 1990s. He had this perennial smirk and lazy eyes and looked like the title of his autobiography, “Baby, I Just Don’t Care.” Though he played many traditionally heroic roles expected of a leading man in those days — war hero, cowboy, detective, etc. — he veered into darker territory with two noteworthy performances of brutal killers with haunting results.
“Cape Fear” starred Mitchum as Max Cady, an ex-convict returning to a small Florida town with revenge on his mind. In the backstory, Cady was sent to prison based on testimony from a lawyer played by Gregory Peck. Now paroled, he uses the legal system he has become so well acquainted with to terrorize Peck and his family. In private Mitchum tells Peck of his intent to wreak havoc. In public he is a model citizen, but happens to appear almost everywhere Peck and his family go — be it a public courtroom or a bowling alley. And every place, no matter how innocuous, turns sinister by Mitchum’s very presence as the covert threat he poses morphs into the overt rage he harbors, and the audience discovers his intention on quenching that rage by destroying innocence. Don’t watch it alone.
One way to describe Robert Mitchum’s magnum opus “Night of the Hunter” is this: Flannery O’Connor goes to Hollywood. It’s a highly stylistic treatment of a Southern gothic tale of mayhem, with enough philosophical, cinematic and theological underpinnings to keep film studies professors employed into the next century. It also happens to be the only film directed by the great British film actor Charles Laughton.
To suggest Mitchum’s “preacher” Harry Powell has issues is like saying Hitler had an inkling for the Low Countries. He is a festering cauldron of every deadly sin wrapped up in an outer shell of respectability and piety. He is the outward poster child of a traditional traveling preacher that was a common sight in the Depression era South, where “Night of the Hunter” unfolds. In truth, he is a psychopathic killer bent on finding hidden bank robbery money and he knows who knows where it is — a 10-year-old boy and his little sister.
Lots of people get Powell wrong. The widow who thinks he will be a good husband and father to her little boy and girl. The town gossip who sees a devout and spiritual man of God so powerful at preaching about love’s constant battle with hate. But the boy is not blinded by Powell’s pretense.
And that is when things go from bad to worse, as Powell’s murderous lust for the money throttles up and he targets the little boy and his sister. The orphans have to run for their lives. But, run as they do, they are never long out of the earshot of Mitchum’s baritone voice singing a gospel tune astride a pale horse in relentless pursuit.
When the orphans wash up like Moses in a skiff on the banks of a river, they are brought into the loving and truly God-inspired life of an old woman played by silent screen icon Lilian Gish. Her character has a brood of discarded children and, though she grouses to the Lord about two more mouths to feed, we know she would never turn them out.
When Powell arrives on Gish’s doorstep forlornly seeking his “precious little runaway children,” Gish’s character peers right through the sheep’s clothing and sees straight through to the wolf. The “Hunter” goes into action but he meets his match in Gish’s character. Although she is weak in her frail body, but powerful in her faith in God despite Mitchum’s size, power and ever-present switchblade knife, Gish defends her children against this evil presence. The false and profane prophet is no match for either Gish’s innate godliness — or her handy 12-gauge shotgun.
Neither Mitchum’s Max Cady or his Harry Powell possess powers from hell, have claws or fangs. They are not members of any particular class of zombie or satanic coven. They are human beings in which evil has made a home, and that makes them infinitely more dangerous and frightening than any make-believe monster of the imagination.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.