Happy Halloween, my friends! I couldn’t resist putting this piece on one of my favorite films of all time–just in time for this spooky day, I might add. There is so much to say about this film that it easily could’ve been three times as long. Enjoy!
Some films transcend regular genres. They might draw on an eclectic mix of inspirations, from literature to art, and the result is a work of strength and imagination whose stature only increases with the passing years. You can hardly find a better example than the gothic masterwork The Night of the Hunter, most easily definable as a horror film (I know I can’t resist it every October).
The elements are familiar–riverside towns and the Great Depression, prayer meetings and Bible stories, fairytales and fables. It’s soaked in the atmosphere of what we’ve dubbed “southern gothic,” and softened by several haunting songs (few non-musicals would use songs more effectively). But it draws its greatest power from something less familiar to the modern viewer: the rich influence of silent film, particularly Expressionism and the work of D.W. Griffith.
In 1914, horror wasn’t a recognized movie genre. Yes, there were films with macabre elements (like those strange, ancient special effects excursions by de Chomon and Melies), and you had your usual dark mysteries and thrillers (often in serial form). But the idea of being an enthusiast of “horror films” wouldn’t enter the public lexicon for quite a few years.
So in order to find the ancestors of Frankenstein, (1931) and The Haunting (1963), we have to weigh our options. The 1910 Frankenstein certainly counts, yes? And something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) does, obviously. What about the serial Les Vampires (1915), with that one famous still? Or something off the beaten track, like Charley Bowers’s surreal short There It is (1926) or Max Linder’s Au Secours! (1924)?
One film that’s an obvious candidate is The Avenging Conscience, or Thou Shalt Not Kill (1914), D.W. Griffith’s Poe-infused drama containing visions of leaping demons and fake skeletons. I know I prefer watching it around Halloween.