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As the movie begins a rather frail middle aged woman faces the viewers and talks to them as if she is addressing a Sunday school class.

Now you remember children how I told you last Sunday about the good Lord going up into the mountain and talking to the people and how he said, "Blessed are the pure in heart for they will seek God." . . . And then the good Lord went on to say, "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits."

Thus begins one of the most singular and powerful American movie classics. What follows is the recounting of the plight of two children caught in a vortex of evil. More than any other film Night Of The Hunter captures the desperation of young ones living in terror and their perception of the overwhelming and unstoppable power of their terrorizer. It is also a film about rescue and healing.

The film unfolds like a parable. It’s stark black and white photography and simple settings give the illusion of the eery nether world of a gray memory of an earlier time. The children, John and Pearl, live with their young, weary mother. Their father had been arrested and executed for robbing a bank. Only the children know the secret of what happened to the money their father stole. Onto the scene comes a man who introduces himself as Rev. Harry Powell, the former chaplain at the prison where the father was hanged. From what we have already seen we know that Harry Powell was not the chaplain but was the father’s cell mate. We also know that he is a dangerous, twisted man who only wants the money and has murdered lonely women for the few dollars they had. Only John can see that Harry Powell is not to be trusted. But his mother and the other folks in the town are taken in by Harry Powell’s charisma and primitive charm. He soon marries the children’s mother.

Throughout the film the representatives of goodness and protection appear weak, blind or ineffective, no match for Harry Powell. They are often passive or insensitive, arrogant fools. As John and Pearl’s world becomes more and more desperate, people discount the children and are taken in by Harry Powell’s pretense and lies. Soon after the mother abruptly disappears, John and Pearl run away taking with them the money their father stole. Harry Powell follows and no matter how far the children go, he continues to hunt them.

Over the years I have used Night Of The Hunter as a therapeutic aid for people who still live in terror because of what had been done to them as children. In a sense, like Harry Powell, their perpetrators continued to pursue them but now as adults only in the shadowed but often vivid memories of their pasts. I have used the film in a hospital setting, where I would sit with the patient as he or she watched the film and then help the person process the experience and the memories and feelings that it evoked. In the film rescue and shelter come from the most unlikely person; Rachel, who spoke to us in the beginning of the film and appears the most flustered and ineffective person in the film. Yet it is she who is able to see the truth and stand up against Harry Powell to protect the children. Harry Powell is stopped. Like my patients, John and Pearl finally find peace even after they had lost hope that the nightmare would ever end.

Night Of The Hunter is an incredible film to watch. Those who have been abused as children and are still haunted by memories should not watch this film alone. Actually this is movie whose viewing experience is enhanced when watched with another.

1955 Not Rated by the M.P.A.A.

Available from MGM/UA Home Video

The booklet Understanding Victimization by Brian R. Johnson, Ph.D., creator of Therapeutic Cinema, is a helpful aid for those who deal with childhood abuse.   It will help one to see how growing up in an abusive situation affects the way a person thinks about himself and the world as an adult.  This booklet is only $3.00 plus shipping and handling.  Click here to check this useful booklet out_NOW!

Copyright 2003, 1998  Claremont Behavioral Studies Institute
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Last modified: 18 March, 2009