Got a mainstream classic you want to find an indie match for? Rebecca Gillie can help! This week: Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (2007) and Sleepy Hollow (1999) partner up with Night of the Hunter (1955).
If you think that eerie Gothic landscapes, twisted killers and danger lurking in the shadows are the perfect movie recipe, there’s a good chance you’re a Tim Burton fan. His unmistakeable visual style, full of German Expressionist angles and long shadows, pays homage to the silent horrors of the 1920s, modernised by self-conscious humour and large doses of Johnny Depp. However, Burton’s true spiritual predecessor is to be found in the single directorial outing of acclaimed actor Charles Laughton, the superbly creepy ‘Night of the Hunter’ (1955).
Best described as Dracula meets Tennessee Williams, the plot concerns a sinister ‘preacher’ who arrives in a Deep South town after a stint in jail determined to find the money his executed cellmate hid before his arrest. His snake-like charm wins over the villagers, and before long the cellmate’s widow is being pressured into marrying him and making him stepfather to her two children. When he realises that the young brother and sister are the only ones who know where the money is buried, he disposes with their mother and begins a terrifying pursuit that follows them even after they escape the house. Through highly-stylised Gothic countryside, the children are constantly haunted by a shadowy presence who appears and reappears like a phantom when least expected.
Robert Mitchum is utterly petrifying as the nonchalantly murderous priest, whose soft call ‘Chilllldren!’ is guaranteed to give you the goosebumps. His drawling charisma is absolutely dripping with the evil and corruption of the sweltering South, his dull eyes lighting up occasionally with a frenzy both religious and murderous. In one of the most spine-tingling sequences, he appears from the darkness on the lawn of the house and, standing there, signs a slow, lilting version of the hymn ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ which ranks among the most beautifully eerie moments in fill you are likely to witness.
Perhaps what works about The Night of the Hunter is its melange of genres. The bare plot is the stuff of folk fairytales the world over – two brave children fleeing into the woods to escape the clutches of a greed-crazed monster – but when infused with the aethetics of Gothic horror, it takes on an adult and genuinely creepy tone. The astounding cinematography doesn’t do any harm either, with the sloping roofs, angular landscapes and jagged shadow which Burton would later make his own. For an introduction to the roots of the twisted fairytales which make up the New Gothic style, you can’t do better than to start here.