Blu-Ray Review: Criterion Edition of ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is One of Collection’s Best

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CHICAGO – Charles Laughton directed one movie in his entire career, the terrifying and brilliant “The Night of the Hunter,” a modern Grimm’s fairy tale in which the evil witch in the forest has come to life and taken the form of one of society’s most trusted figures. Laughton’s masterpiece was a critical and commercial failure on its release but history has wisely recognized the lyrical power and sheer terror of one of the best domestic horror movies ever made. Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0

The Criterion Collection has had a spectacular year in the world of Blu-ray and their two-disc set for “The Night of the Hunter” stands as one of the best. With hours of fascinating special features, a perfect video transfer, and quite simply one of the best movies of its kind ever made, this is a must-own. The fact that “The Night of the Hunter” was widely-dismissed on its initial release is stunning but history has made reparations for that slight and this set is the ultimate tribute to a classic.

The Night of the Hunter was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 16th, 2010
The Night of the Hunter was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 16th, 2010
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Even if you don’t know “The Night of the Hunter” you probably know images and themes from it either directly or through the numerous films inspired by it. Robert Mitchum, giving the best performance of his underrated career, stars as Harry Powell, a wolf in sheep’s clothing with “Love” tattooed across the knuckles of one hand and “Hate” across the other. Harry is a charming preacher, a fellow who seems like a loving family man. He’s also a serial killer and someone who should never be trusted with the safety of the innocent.

The Night of the Hunter was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 16th, 2010
The Night of the Hunter was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 16th, 2010
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Harry happens to share a prison cell with a man who recently hid a large sum of money. After being released from jail, Harry finds the now-widow (Shelley Winters) of the criminal, marries her, and goes about interrogating and torturing her children to determine the location of the cash. Movies that thrive on children in jeopardy are often exploitative and manipulative but Laughton’s thriller never feels like anything less than a work of art.

And that’s the influence of “The Night of the Hunter” and its genius — the movie has an amazingly lyrical quality with its long shots of a moonlit river or a preacher’s shadow on the wall of a children’s room but it also contains genuine dread. It’s a combination that would influence filmmakers to come in amazing ways. Think of the blend of horror and beauty in the works of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, or Martin Scorsese. You might think that a 1955 film couldn’t have the dark power of those filmmakers but every time I see “Night of the Hunter” I’m stunned that it was released during such a relatively-conservative time. It’s daring, brutal, and pitch-black. Perhaps that’s why critics and audiences feared it 55 years ago. Don’t be afraid. Just see it as soon as you can.

When you buy a Criterion Blu-ray you can be assured of excellent video & audio quality along with interesting, non-filler special features, but “The Night of the Hunter” is exceptional even by its company’s high standards. The new, restored digital transfer is perfect and its balanced with a crystal-clear monaural uncompressed soundtrack. Clearly I love this film but I actually hadn’t appreciated the lyricism of the film in quite enough detail until this version. I knew it was an effective horror experience but I now have more appreciation for the beauty of it as well. That’s quite a transfer — when the video quality can make you love a film even more than you did before.

The actual film comes with a commentary featuring second-unit director Terry Sanders, film critic F.X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt, and author Preston Neal Jones. It’s accompanied on the first disc with a great new documentary featuring interviews with producer Paul Gregory, Sanders, Feeney, Jones, and author Jeffrey Couchman, a new video interview with Laughton biographer Simon Callow, a clip from “The Ed Sullivan Show” in which cast members perform a scene deleted film the film, a fifteen-minute archival “making-of” featuring Robert Mitchum, an archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a gallery of sketches by Davis Grubb (author of the novel), and the original theatrical trailer.

The special features on just the first disc of “The Night of the Hunter” would be enough to merit a five-star review but they’re topped on the second disc by a two-and-a-half hour documentary called “Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter” that includes a treasure trove of details about the making of the film along with outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage. It’s a near-miracle to have this much archival material on a film over a half-century old. Finally, Gitt and Leonard Maltin discuss the doc and the movie itself.

It’s been the best year to date in terms of classics-on-Blu-ray and we’ll be discussing many of them soon in terms of the best of the best as we list our favorites of the entire year. It’s no spoiler to say that Criterion’s “The Night of the Hunter” is near the top of the list.

“The Night of the Hunter” stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. It was written by James Agee and directed by Charles Laughton. It was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection on November 16th, 2010. It is not rated and runs 93 minutes. content director Brian Tallerico

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