In 1955, Oscar-winning actor Charles Laughton, who appeared in films like Witness for the Prosecution, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Spartacus, stepped behind the camera as a director for the first and only time. The result was The Night of the Hunter, a dark, moody thriller starring Robert Mitchum as a serial killer, and a movie that is beloved by cinephiles and has influenced generations of filmmakers and storytellers. It’s a stone-cold classic: not just one of the best films ever directed by an actor, but a movie that many including the revered film magazine Cahiers du cinéma consider to be one of the best films ever made, period.
So while it’s not exactly surprising to learn that Universal is developing a remake, the news does arrive with the same exhausted sense of, “But…why?” that always accompanies stories like this.
Variety broke the news about the remake, which is described as “a contemporary version of the original thriller, rather than a period piece.” Screenwriter Matthew Orton is developing the movie for Universal Pictures. Orton only has one produced credit to his name thus far: he wrote a 2018 spy thriller called Operation Finale which I have not seen but it looks pretty good. Peter Gethers Lay the Favorite and Amy Pascal Spider-Man: Homecoming, Little Women will serve as producers. Still, knowing how great this movie is makes news about a remake tough to swallow. There are thousands of middling movies with solid premises from the golden era of studio filmmaking – why mess with a classic?
The 1955 film, which is based on a novel by author David Grubb, follows a sociopathic preacher who travels the country marrying women for their money, murdering them, and then moving on to the next town. During a stint in jail, the preacher learns that his cell mate has $10,000 stashed somewhere; after the cell mate dies and the preacher gets out, he goes looking for the money, conning the cell mate’s widow into a relationship and trying to coax the location of the cash out of her two young children.
Mitchum’s preacher becomes increasingly unhinged as his patience wears thin, and his menacing performance scared the hell out of an entire generation of moviegoers, and many people have called The Night of the Hunter one of the scariest films they’ve ever seen. Here’s the very old-fashioned trailer with an introduction by Gremlins filmmaker Joe Dante explaining how it scarred him as a child, followed by a spoiler-heavy video in which Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro talks about how much the film means to him because of the way it blends horror and beauty on screen: