TV Movies

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Night of the Hunter (1991)

Draft Review by Dean Duncan Jun 29, 2015

It’s not fair to compare any TV movie with a classic original, and it suffices to say that the one’s great, and that this one stinks, but the points of departure do bear enumerating for what they say about two worlds not so far apart; Laughton’s film takes place in the black and white past of another hard times, the style is unmissably formalized and the tone undeniably that of a fantasy–as opposed to a realistic representation of actual conditions– the sum of style and setting is a fairy tale, a fable, a parable of wrong and right that reflects the world because it doesn’t slavishly seek to imitate it, or even, barely, to approximate it; this is contemporary, the approach is TV bargain basement, the detailing of the opening robbery turns it briefly into Chain Gang-like social consciousness, so that everything that follows is to be taken, is taken as strictly literal, so that the menace (the revival meeting, the run-ins with John) gives way to suspense clich├ęs like glowering close-ups and music stingers, and the unsuspecting are inclined to interpret these characters meant as archetypes representing a range of human behaviour as the real thing, which is made even worse because that range is now so restricted; former reticence about violence and such led to artistry, Shelley Winters underwater, Frankenstein climbing the stairs, but here someone resorts to ugliness, with the wife stabbed in front of us, and the villain’s arm stuck under the sewing machine; most disastrously we lose here the whole last section that sets the demonic preacher in a wider context of natural benevolence and a pure religion that defeat wolves in sheep’s clothing, we lose the river flight and Lillian Gish, so that instead of allowing the children to wake up from their nightmare, instead of night giving way to light, instead of avowing that there are still sheep and the possibility of loving sheperds to watch over, we’re left with a staggeringly incompetent tumble down a dam, a lame line about Pearl not being scared anymore, and the titles rolling by; true the Gish part is a bit bumpy (fairy tales aren’t required to be smooth, after all), but without it here we’re left with the tired and insidious message that religion is ineffectual (silly women playing bingo) at best, and more frequently it devours innocents, and that thus its possibilities are exhausted