Thursday, October 21, 2010

Double Header: Night of the Hunter and Poltergeist II

For my first Double Header, I'll be going the horror/thriller route since Halloween is right around the corner. I'm actually surprised at how many people haven't made this connection before. One of the films so blatantly pays tribute to the other that you'd have to be blind to miss the similarities. Unfortunately, a lot of people missed out on this first film and never really got a chance to check it out. It's not as if it has ever been in heavy syndication on television, nor does anyone even bother to mention it, but it really does deserve some props for keeping old traditions alive and beginning new traditions as well. With that in mind, lets start off the Double Header with Night of the Hunter.

Night of the Hunter

Night of the Hunter is a classic thriller starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters. Mitchum is perhaps best known for his role in the original Cape Fear, but to me he'll always be the reverend in Night of the Hunter. So what makes a reverend so scary? Well, he's not really a reverend, of course. Harry Powell is a criminal, and while he plays a man of the lord in the film, as the story progresses we begin to see just how crazy this guy really is. Most of the time you'll be struggling to figure out whether he really believes half the shit he says, and the rest of the time he's trying to kill someone. There are even scenes in the film which depict Harry all alone, and he's talking to the sky as if God was there telling him to kill all the sinners. There's no way around it, this is without a doubt one of the creepiest films I have ever seen.

One of the things that makes the film so creepy is the style used throughout. Night of the Hunter came out in 1955, and to be honest it didn't really follow a similar style to anything else that was released at the time. Instead, director Charles Laughton decided to use film elements which had long since been left by the wayside. Through the use of German Expressionism he turns the very setting of the film into a haunted house, where nothing makes any sense and the viewer is constantly in a state of confusion. I don't mean to make it sound like an acid trip, but suffice to say that in the world of the film, many of the settings are exaggerated. This is much akin to what was done with German expressionism in the early 1920's, which is why the film often gets compared to said movement. 

Take the screenshot above for instance. In this shot we see both the highly exaggerated height of the ceiling and the carefully chosen low lighting from the window. While the low lighting might be confused for Noir elements, it really is a tribute to particular expressionist films of the past. Personally, I like to believe that Noir borrowed from expressionism and this is exactly the kind of result you could expect from that. For further example, check out the clip below which shows us the first time that the children have any kind of experience with the villain. In the clip the boy stands up and sees the silhouette of the reverend coming through the window. The kid is supposed to be on the second floor, and there is no way that this silhouette could possibly be recreated from such dimensions.

After the somewhat shocking experience, the kids just go right to bed, which doesn't make much sense to the viewer with both the music and the look that the children have on their face. This is disorienting, to say the least, but here is where the parallels between the two films in our Double Header become noticeable. Many filmmakers sought to pay tribute or borrow from this classic film, one of the more popular being Spike Lee. In his film Do the Right Thing he shows a character re-enacting a scene taken directly from Night of the Hunter, as we can see below.

However, Do the Right Thing is not exactly a horror film, so it isn't part of the Double Header. Instead we're going to focus on a film you wouldn't think of associating with Night of the Hunter at first, but I'm sure the comparison will be absolutely clear by the end. With that said, lets get to our second movie, which is a sequel of one of the more popular horror flicks of all time: Poltergeist II.

Poltergeist II

Confused already? Well, don't be. If you haven't seen this sequel, I can't really blame you. It wasn't exactly a well received film, and time has all but forgotten it. Poltergeist is still a relatively popular film by comparison, but this sequel just didn't get any love. To be honest, the story isn't exactly brilliant, and you probably wouldn't like the direction they took with the movie if you really loved the first film. I was a huge fan of the first, and I only picked up the sequels because I got them both for five bucks on one disc. However, after watching the sequel again, I noticed something very familiar in one of the main characters. Would you believe it? This film also features a creepy reverend, and he wears much the same garb as the one in Night of the Hunter. Quite a coincidence, don't you think? Well, watch the clip below and let me know if anything strikes you as particularly similar to the clips you've already seen of Night of the Hunter.

So we've got the creepy old reverend walking along outside the house singing a hymn in an extremely disturbing way, much like the reverend does in that scene of Night of the Hunter. You can't tell me this was just a coincidence. I'm sure the filmmakers knew what they were doing, and the mile long yard is the ultimate proof. What better way to pay homage to Night of the Hunter than to present some very expressionist dimensions by making their front yard appear to be way bigger than it probably should be. Our clue into this fact is the houses in the background, which all appear to have normal sized lawns and nothing out of the ordinary. All of a sudden we have a huge ballpark in front of their particular house? Come on. This is clearly a nod to the style used in Night of the Hunter. With the similarity in dress, manner, and style, even though he isn't singing the same song, the parallels are extremely clear.

I know, I was surprised too. The last thing I expected from a poorly received sequel of a horror classic was a nod to one of the most unique horror/suspense films of the 1950's. This scene is extremely well done, and in watching the film a second time it actually serves to add more depth and integrity to the film. If you didn't like it before, watch it again with these similarities in mind. I never thought I'd be suggesting that anyone should check out the Poltergeist sequels, but combined with the newfound artistic integrity and the uncanny history behind the films, I have to suggest that you check out Poltergeist II. I'm sure if you watch these two movies back-to-back as a double header, you'll have much the same experience I did, and you'll have a hell of a ride checking out how the style of past horror films mixes with the style of more recent films in the genre. With Halloween right around the corner, this is a perfect duo to watch as it will give you a bit of film history and hopefully quite a few chills as well.

Poltergeist II is available on DVD as a double feature with Poltergeist III for a pretty low price. As I said before, it was never very well received, so it's probably going to be pretty cheap to get your hands on. As for Night of the Hunter, there is one DVD version available right now, and a Blu-ray being brought out by Criterion which is slated for release on November 16th. Sadly, if you want to check it out before Halloween, you might have to buy the previous DVD release or just rent it if you can. I'm sure most of you would rather wait for the deluxe Criterion release, and you can go here and pre-order it right now if you wish. Thanks for checking out my first Double Header. Please let me know if you liked it, or if you want me to do more. I'm going to be doing more Double Headers in the future, but if it is well received I might be convinced to do a few more than what I had originally planned. Stay tuned for future Double Headers, and keep your eyes peeled next week for my Top 10 Favorite Halloween Movies!

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