Charles Laughton’s 1955 version of Davis Grubb’s novel, starring Robert Mitchum as a murderous backwoods preacher, was a dark, scary, impressionistic tale; this new TV version, starring Richard Chamberlain in Mitchum’s role, is a brightly lit, ridiculous, literal-minded production.
Grubb’s story was about the way in which the minister insinuates himself into the home of a widow and her two children. The woman idolizes this stern, hymn-singing fraud, but the children recognize him for what he is — a heartless man out to rob them. Mitchum not only embodied such evil, he put a crazy spin on it, turning his preacher into a sexy sleaze.
By contrast, Chamberlain is entirely too stiff and aloof in this role. He looks great, with his blond stubble and arching eyebrows, but looking great is exactly what works against the mood of Night of the Hunter. It requires a funkier, more desperate atmosphere; only Diana Scarwid (Inside Moves), as the wide-eyed yet despairing widow, seems aware of that.
The original, with a script written by James Agee, was a commercial flop; although he had a great career as an actor, Laughton never directed another movie. These days, Night of the Hunter is often described as a cult classic, a term that belittles its artistic achievement. In this context, the TV movie is a bit worse than bad — it’s a travesty. The original is on tape; rent it sometime. D-