The Original Hillbilly Horror Movie: The Night of the Hunter

Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) towers over John and Pearl’s mother Willa in one of The Night of the Hunter’s most iconic scenes.

Considered by film critics to be one of the greatest movies ever made, The Night of the Hunter (1955) is probably the best Appalachian horror movie that no one’s heard of. 

Based on a bestselling book by West Virginia native Davis Grubb, the film follows the murderous cat-and-mouse game between serial killer Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) and the young Harper siblings as Powell seeks to uncover a secret the children vowed to keep. Made over a decade before Deliverance introduced America to dueling banjos, The Night of the Hunter skillfully draws on elements of the Appalachian experience to produce one of the most iconic films of its era, all while mostly avoiding the negative stereotypes embraced by later films set in the region. 

Taking place along the West Virginia side of the Ohio River during the Great Depression, The Night of the Hunter is a classic tale of innocent good vs. irredeemable evil. The film pits protagonists John and Pearl Harper against sociopath and widow-killer Harry Powell. After learning that John and Pearl’s father told them where he hid $10,000 from a bank robbery before he was arrested and executed, the self-proclaimed “Reverend” Powell sets out to find the money by wooing their mother Willa and ingratiating himself with the local community.

Despite John’s distrust of Powell, the charismatic preacher-conman methodically inserts himself into the childrens’ lives, only revealing his depraved true self to John as he pressures them to give up their father’s secret. When society fails to protect them, the young John and Pearl must take their fate into their own hands as they flee before Powell’s unrelenting menace.

In critical terms, The Night of the Hunter is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made, a surprising fact given the film’s relatively low profile in Appalachia. Roger Ebert listed it as one of his top movies, and the influential French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinema named it the second greatest film of all time in 2008, behind perennial favorite Citizen Kane. In part, this high regard is due to the distinct way the film is shot. Rejecting cinematic realism for an almost-fantastical expressionism, director Laughton drew heavily on stylized lighting and shadow to create a unique ambience and underline the film’s titanic battle between good and evil.

The Night of the Hunter is renowned for its creative use of lighting and shadow to create an ambience reminiscent of the silent film era. Via Wikimedia Commons.

However, any discussion of The Night of the Hunter must also make room for the film’s infamous villain, the Reverend Harry Powell, whose bone-chilling portrayal by Robert Mitchum earned him a spot on AFI’s 50 Greatest Villains of All Time. Based on a 1930s West Virginia serial killer of the same name, Powell is a terrifying Appalachian villain. Making his way from town to town, Powell preys on rich old widows and visits his misogynistic rage on women he considers sinful, claiming to have a special pact with God to justify his actions.  

However, while Powell’s moments of unhinged psychopathy are certainly scary, the most unnerving aspect of the character is the way he cloaks his evil in the guise of a handsome, charismatic man of God. Flashing his roguish smile and effortlessly quoting scripture, Powell not only deceives John and Pearl’s Tyler County community—he charms them into abetting his crimes. Powell’s twisting of religion to further his goals culminates in his spine-chilling use of the classic hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which he calmly sings in his slow, unrelenting pursuit of John and Pearl.

An iconic movie villain, Reverend Harry Powell is best-remembered for having “Hate” and “Love” tattooed on his knuckles.

Apart from Powell’s corrupt use of religion, a common theme in regional literature and film, The Night of the Hunter has several components credibly rooted in Appalachia, especially the Ohio River Valley, peppered throughout. The Ohio River features prominently in the film, both visually and in the plot, and the characters correctly reference local geography, mentioning landmarks such as Wheeling Island, the haunted Moundsville State Penitentiary, and “one of them Sodoms of the Ohio River,” Parkersburg. Hinting at the massive out-migration from the mountains taking place at the time the film was made, one child in the film also gleefully declares “My daddy’s in Detroit.”

However, there is one theme nearly always associated with Appalachia in film that is interestingly almost entirely absent in The Night of the Hunter: poverty. 

Of course, given its setting during the Great Depression, poverty is addressed in The Night of the Hunter, with the kindly old heroine Rachel Cooper (played by silent film star Lillian Gish) caring for children left abandoned during the economic downturn. Nevertheless, the way the film discusses poverty in the region is very different from later depictions. Although times are tough, the Harper family is recognizably middle-class, and their town is in many ways indistinguishable from any other American community, with neatly kept houses, gleaming storefronts, and church picnics that could put Mayberry to shame. They’re poor, but not Appalachia poor.  

There may be a couple of reasons to explain this interesting omission. For one, The Night of the Hunter takes place in the Ohio River Valley, which has always occupied an ambiguous position between Appalachia and the Midwest. However, perhaps the more compelling reason is that the film was made in 1955, several years before the Poverty Tours of the early 1960s “rediscovered” Appalachian poverty and helped codify a new visual vocabulary based around poverty to depict the region. In this sense, The Night of the Hunter is an artifact, a relic from the time before Appalachia was synonymous with poverty in the eyes of most Americans. 

And yet, despite being from a different time, The Night of the Hunter is still one of the best-regarded horror movies set in Appalachia, and the film continues to deliver a chilling experience to new viewers. If you’re looking for a night of thrilling scares, amazing acting, and a pretty good depiction of the region, rent or buy it on Vudu.

Nicholas Brumfield is a native of Parkersburg, WV currently working in Arlington, VA. For more hot takes on Appalachia and Ohio politics, follow him on Twitter: @NickJBrumfield.

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