If an esteemed actor is going to direct just one film in their career, it may as damn well be a terrifying classic! Charles Laughton’s lone film as director (credited), Night of the Hunter featuring an iconically terrifying performance from Robert Mitchum, is just as nightmarishly powerful today as it was in 1955 - even if it wasn’t appreciated in its time. Now this true classic comes home to 4K from KLSC with an excellent Dolby Vision transfer, a respectable audio mix, and a fine assortment of extras. Highly Recommended
“Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil?
Because my colleague M. Enois Duarte already wrote such a terrific review for Criterion’s 2010 Blu-ray, I’ll defer to his thoughts in a moment. For my part, The Night of the Hunter is about as close to perfect as you can get. Ahead of its time in 1955, Charles Laughton meticulously crafted a thrilling and visually stunning film. Using all of the tricks in the book from miniatures, to force perspective, to rear projection, Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez offer a deceptively beautiful-looking film with imagery that’ll haunt your dreams. That’s to say nothing of the great performances from Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish with an excellent turn on her own from Shelley Winters.
I discovered this movie entirely by accident. I was up late scouring the Dish guide for something to watch and settled on a movie called “The Night of the Hunter.” With a name like that, it had to be a horror film right? I expected blood and guts and got heart-pounding suspense instead. That first viewing took me a little time to get into, but once we see Mitchum conversing with the good lord about how many victims have been delivered unto him, I was hooked. I had to see where this film went and I was not disappointed. In fact, The Night of the Hunter became an instant favorite and one of the films I have to watch on a regular basis.
While I think Mitchum was creepy and menacing in Cape Fear, he’s much more slimy and deceptively evil as Preacher Harry Powell. Perhaps not as horrifying as his real-life counterpart, but he works for this film. His classic “right hand/left hand” is certainly a highlight moment, but it’s not always what Mitchum says that’s so damn creepy, it’s how he moves. What what he does after finishing that speech. Immediately after, he gracefully slides back onto the stool and leers at the children in one slick move like a coiled snake. He’s performing for the adults in the room, but those children are his target and it’s chilling. If the stories are to be believed, Mitchum and Shelley Winters didn’t exactly get along, but Winters is terrific in her own right. Beaten down by the world around her, she plays wounded innocence beautifully as she willingly subjugates herself for even the faintest of praise from Harry. And then we get a cunning and lively turn from Lillian Gish. I may always be tempted to say “Arrakis. Desert Planet. Dune!” when she first appears during that bizarre opening segment, but then when she’s pitted against Harry she’s a force all her own and the silent screen gem never backs down.
Enough of my dithering, go ahead and read M. Enois Duarte’s 2010 Criterion Collection The Night of the Hunter Blu-ray Review for more thoughts on this excellent film.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
The Night of the Hunter tells the story of Mr. 4K UHD Blu-ray with a brand new two-disc release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The 4K scores a BD-100 disc while a BD-25 disc is included for bonus features. There isn’t a 1080p edition included. The discs are housed in a two-disc case with identical slipcover artwork. The discs load to static image main menus with standard navigation options.
The Night of Hunter certainly has an interesting A/V presentation on 4K, so let’s dig in. On the image front fans of this terrifying feature get to enjoy a robust black and white 2160p 1.85:1 Dolby Vision transfer. Yes, that is 1.85:1. Where this is a curiosity is the Criterion Blu-ray is framed at 1.66:1. I haven’t been able to find any clear definitive “set hard in stone” source that says one is more correct than the other. When comparing a variety of scenes, the only notable difference is a little more image information on the right and left sides and sometimes it looks as if the 4K also has a little more or a little less top and bottom information depending on any given shot. Correct or not, I can’t say, but it still looks quite good even if the extra pillar boxing of 1.66:1 invokes more of a tighter claustrophobic feel than this 1.85:1 version does.
As for the rest of the transfer, it’s terrific. Image detail is impressive right from the jump with a more refined film grain structure than what we saw thirteen years ago from Criterion. Facial features, clothing textures, and even the H-A-T-E and L-O-V-E on Harry’s hands are more clearly defined. I was also really impressed with how all of the visual tricks held up to high-resolution scrutiny with the forced perspective, miniatures, and rear projection employed.
Dolby Vision proves to be a lovely accent to this film’s highly stylized grayscale. Those dark spaces are sinisterly dark while the whites are bold and crisp without ever appearing too hot. The shadows in between are intense with perfect shading. Obviously, there aren’t any colors to speak of. The only iffy thing that some may take issue with - and it can’t be helped - is the notable image quality shift ahead of any optical transition. Some of those scenes can be quite long leading into that dissolve to the next shot, but that’s how it's always been. Otherwise, this is a damned beautiful image well worth celebrating.
Next on the list that might draw some question marks, KLSC offers up a DTS-HD MA 5.1 and a DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track. The Criterion disc opted for the perfect original LPCM Mono audio and for these classic films I really don’t understand the need to move away from that - especially in a case like this where a surround experience is actually rather ineffectual. To be blunt, there’s almost no surround experience to speak of, it's mostly just music bleed and little if anything else. There isn’t an aggressive sound effect spread or dialog placement as that's all keep to the front and center. Aside from a few iconic scenes where the music swells for some dramatic imagery, channels outside of that front/center focus see little of any notable attention. Then there’s the 2.0 track which sounds like a fold-down of that 5.1 spread making its presence just as odd.
On the whole, both tracks are solid and do their jobs. The dialog is crystal clear. The sound effects are on point and don’t sound like they’ve been tinkered with or replaced/updated. When Harry sings his eerie melody astride the pale horse it’s just as creepy and unnerving as ever. The Walter Schuman score is just as beautiful as ever. Truthfully you can’t go wrong with either track at all, they both work, but compared to that LPCM mix, they don’t offer a whole lot of extra oomph or pizazz to the show, so this is a case where they probably could have just left it well alone and been fine.
On the bonus features front, if you have the Criterion Blu-ray on the shelf, you’re going to want to keep it. The materials KLSC pulled together are great in their own right, but aren’t nearly as extensive and encompassing. The most interesting piece is certainly Tim Lucas’ very detailed commentary track, which may offer up some familiar tidbits for those well-versed in the lore of the making of this film, but he still has some great points to add. The Isolated Music and Effects track is a nice addition allowing you to appreciate the film's score and some of the singing and incidental sound effects. After that we get some new interviews, and for fans of the film it’s pretty cool to see Kathy Garver who was [the stand-in actress for] little Pearl pop up with her thoughts. It’s sadly not a very long interview. Earnest Dickerson stops by to share his love for the film and artest Joe Coleman appears for some interesting backstory materials about the true story that inspired the novel the film was based on.
4K UHD Disc
Bonus Blu-ray Disc
The Night of the Hunter isn’t just one of the best horror thrillers of an era, it’s one of the best movies ever made. Full stop. It may have been a massive failure at the box office and Charles Laughton never directed a feature again, but a little time and appreciation has gone far for this film. Robert Mitchum got to play several creepy characters in his time, but his Harry Powell is truly iconic. Now on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, the film picks up an excellent new Dolby Vision transfer. Some may take issue with the framing, but regardless, it’s a beautiful effort. Audio is strong on its own set, but the upgrade to surround sound is fruitless since it isn’t fully utilized. Bonus features may not be as robust as the Criterion set, but they’re worth taking a gander at. Highly Recommended