Monday, April 11, 2011

Sharing a Gothic Fable with Strangers

I'm going to go into movie withdrawal when the James River Film Festival ends after being spoiled with so many movie choices day and night since it started.

Tonight's screening of "The Night of the Hunter" was easily one of the most frightening movies I've ever white-knuckled through.

The story of a truly evil man who sets his sights on two children whom he believes know where their dead father hid stolen money was riveting. And deeply disturbing.

It was also gorgeous and artfully shot in black and white. Perspectives were distorted, shadows conveyed menace but not accuracy in relation to light source and strange camera angles made for an unsettling hour and a half at the Grace Street Theater.

Fortunately for me, I had a film buff seatmate for company. Afterwards, we talked about the innumerable lines that could be drawn from this film to the Coen Brothers and Spike Lee and to any number of films, both before and after this one was made.

The evening began with a reading by film critic Peter Schilling of the source material, which was the book of the same name (and finalist for the National Book Award), a bestseller in 1953. Appropriately, Chop Suey was selling a reprint of the book in the lobby.

Apparently director Charles Laughton was a huge fan of the book (passing it out to cast and critics) and of literature in general. In fact, he did a one-man reading tour using the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare and Kerouac for material. I can't imagine who would attempt such a tour today.

As dark as the movie was, and it was very dark in both subject matter and intensity, there were moments of levity.

The town busybody trying to get the widow married off to the new-to-town preacher was the source of much of it. "A husband's one piece of store goods you never know before you get it home and take the paper off." Amen.

But even the laughter at the lighter moments was limited. The audience seemed to be as on edge as I was and there was very little sound throughout the movie.

As the JRFF devotees like to point out, movies are meant to be seen on a big screen as a shared experience with strangers. And we were sharing suspense.

I think it's safe to say that we were all on the edge of our seats as the bad guy tracked the two children, threatening them physically and emotionally every chance he got.

Resolution came when he was carted off to be hung for murder of their mother, thus allowing the audience of strangers to let out their collective breath.

Even so, I question the British Institute of Film listing this as one of 50 movies you should see by the age of fourteen. Surely we have enough ways to mess up young minds by puberty without showing them Southern Gothic terror in black and white.

Wait, what am I thinking? If they can rot their brains with  realty shows, they can certainly see a well-written book adapted into a culturally and artistically significant film.

Why, with all the references to a way of life long gone (lynchings, corporal punishment, sex for procreation only), it's practically a history lesson for the young'uns.

But I digress, perhaps I'm getting far too into these movies I'm seeing. What am I going to do with myself when the film festival ends?

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