J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category

The Night of the Hunter

Posted by J on January 31, 2011

It’s possible that The Night of the Hunter is the best film ever made.  That’s such a contentious claim, we know.  But as a midwestern Americans, we understand it very well, and thematically and aesthetically it fits the current accepted criteria for “great movie.”  So let’s just agree to call it one of the best yet made.

There is a lot of America in the movie, past and present.  A psychopath who disguises himself as a preacher, Harry Powell, who seems to believe that he is doing the Lord’s work, attacks and robs widows.  He does this by seducing them first with his God talk.  Thrown in jail for stealing a car, Powell learns of $10,000 in stolen cash from Ben Harper, a fellow prisoner who, the day after he tells Powell about the money, is executed for murder.  Harper has a wife and two children.  This is a great opportunity for Powell. Once released from jail, he heads to the Harper homestead.

The problem is that no one knows where the money is, except for Harper’s two children, John and Pearl.  The battle is on between Powell and the children.  Powell first seduces the townsfolk with a religious story about the battle between “Love” and “Hate.” words he has written on the knuckles of his left and right hands.  He then seduces Mrs. Harper and marries her.  For the kids, this is a big problem.  Their new stepdad is a psychopath.  For Mrs. Harper, now Mrs. Powell, it is a wild descent into being brainwashed by a misogynist.  She sides with Powell, and against her children, while believing that sex is an unclean abomination.

What we have described so far is a plotline that we tend to avoid.  We don’t enjoy being around psychopaths in reality, and we don’t like watching them on screen, especially those who try to torment children.  If this movie had been made anytime between the 1970s and today, it would’ve been a disaster. It most likely would’ve been a horror film strictly about a creep who chases children.  But this movie veers, in its third act, upwards to another level.  By doing so, it becomes a kind of Midwestern fairy tale — the old kind of fairy tale, like the stories of Brothers Grimm, where the bad guys are really maniacs who murder for pleasure.

The movie depicts the faults and virtues of the Midwest.  Granted, the faults of the Midwest and South have been the feature of many a film.    There have been so many idiotic or psychopathic rednecks in the last forty years of movies that we get really defensive about the depiction of our native region.  And Harry Powell may be the ultimate Midwestern psychopath. He talks to God and deceives all of the townsfolk, who believe him to be an honorable man of God.  But Powell’s character is balanced by another’s — whose we won’t say — who enters the third act and introduces hope into the story.  The movie does not treat Christianity as if it is a religion of hucksters and brainwashed fools.  It is quite honest about the possibilities of proclaimed Christians.  Powell, who sings “Leaning on Jesus,” is a devil in disguise, the townsfolk are naive fools who eventually form a lawless mob, but others are genuine Christians in word and practice.

The idea of Huck Finn is also attacked in this movie. John Harper, probably 8 years old, is a kind of Huck Finn, a would-be orphan who floats down the river.  But John is forced into playing Huck Finn by foolish and sinister adults.  And in the end, he is the anti-Huck Finn who needs reforming from a charitable Aunt Polly.  John’s fatherlessness is a major problem, and his substitute father (Powell) is an even bigger one.  The idea that he will be taught — via the story of the baby Moses — is that Christian doctrine provides the ultimate Father.

We like movies that have a touch of the mythical.  The Night of the Hunter has that.  It is a morality tale that taps into primal feelings and makes you root hard for the children and against Powell.  And it mythologically elevates Middle America.  Since this is one of a handful of movies that do that for our beloved, native land, for us, it is special.

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Frankenstein (1931)

Posted by J on April 18, 2009

This is where we get our image of Frankenstein’s monster as a stiff brute with a funny walk. In Mary Shelley’s novel, the frankenstein1 monster has flowing locks of hair and he seems quite swift and nimble as he runs halfway around the world.   More importantly, though, this is where the association probably began between the name “Frankenstein” and the actual creature.  In the novel, of course, Frankenstein refers to the scientist and chief narrator, Victor Frankenstein, not to the monster.

Even though this version has shockingly bad acting, it is far better than you would expect overall.  The director, James Whale, knew how to frame a scene, so you’ll see plenty of fun angles with fine lighting and shadows.

As for the story, this Frankenstein plays up the social alienation the monster is supposed to feel, and Victor’s poor decision to unleash a deadly technology on the world without thinking about the consequences, while playing down Frankenstein and the monster’s father/son and God/Satan relationships.  The monster doesn’t talk in the movie, so he can’t tell us how angry he is at the world, nor can we sympathize with him via his great linguistic and oratorical skills, which is how Shelley’s monster is depicted.

Instead, the monster here is labelled as a predetermined criminal who could do nothing but evil.  Frankenstein’s assistant accidentally takes the wrong brain, one labelled “abnormal,”  so the monster gets a brain that should make him a cold-hearted killer.  The movie sides here with nurture in the nature v. nurture debate, since a maniac killer he does not turn out to be.  In a famous scene, he plays with a little girl, laughing and smiling until he does something he doesn’t seem to understand the moral consequences of.  As in Shelley’s book, the monster’s lack of moral understanding is Frankenstein the scientist’s fault, since he is the creator who abandons his creation — or the father who ditched his own son.

The various misunderstandings of the monster’s intentions lead to his hunt and eventual (so it seems) death.  He is hunted down by the Swiss bourgeois and exterminated via mob justice.  There is much that can be read into the movie’s final scene.  It seems anti-democratic, but perhaps only in the sense that the prejudiced middle-class dopes won’t tolerate or reason with our monster friend.   James Whale was a homosexual, so perhaps his revision of Shelley’s story implies that (then) oppressed, misunderstood taboo groups are mistreated.  Or the mob could be viewed as a bunch of angry Luddites who destroy not only a masterwork, but an invention that could actually benefit them, if only they accepted what it could do.  The ending, simply put, is something you look at and see what you want to in it.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 4

Morality: okay

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