'Night of the Hunter' remains a chiller


May 02, 1991|By Michael Hill

Give Richard Chamberlain credit. He's got leading-man looks and a persona that would allow him to coast through enough projects to keep the Jacuzzi hot and the chardonnay cool for the rest of his career. But the guy actually likes to act!

He first proved that when, instead of cashing in on "Dr. Kildare" (1961-66), he headed for England for classical training. A triumphal "Hamlet" was the result.

Now the king of the romantic miniseries takes on a role of pure evil and villainy. And he does it quite well, as you can see Sunday night at 9 o'clock on Channel 13 (WJZ) in ABC's "Night of the Hunter."

This Davis Grubb novel was first filmed in 1955. Directed by Charles Laughton, that justly celebrated version was, literally and figuratively, a black and white allegory about the contest between good and evil.

This remake, directed by David Greene ("Fatal Vision"), has altered the plot a bit and is more of a straightforward thriller. It remains a gripping, chilling story.

Robert Mitchum was the bad guy in the original, and either through makeup or a bad face lift -- maybe both -- Chamberlain's eternally boyish features take on some of the menace that Mitchum can project.

The film opens with a desperate young man robbing a check-cashing operation for $50,000. He's shot in the process but makes it to his house and shows his young son where he has stashed the money just before the police arrive and take him away.

He dies shortly thereafter, an event hastened along by the rather brutal attempt of Chamberlain's character to find out where the loot was stashed. Chamberlain is a convict who has gotten wind of the story about the missing money and taken the bed next to the young robber in the prison infirmary.

With 'love' tattooed across the fingers of one hand and 'hate' on the other, Chamberlain's self-styled preacher gets out of jail and heads for the rural Appalachian town where the crime took place and where the money remains.

After a seemingly selfless, nearly miraculous, incident puts him in the good graces of the village elders, Chamberlain begins wooing the widow of the robber. The widow is a good part for Diana Scarwid, who played Christina Crawford in "Mommie, Dearest."

While the town and the mother are taken in by the fire and brimstone act, the young boy -- played by Reid Binion -- who knows the money's whereabouts is not. What starts out as a cat-and-mouse game between the two of them over the location of the stash eventually turns into a brutal confrontation.

Though this "Night of the Hunter" lacks the evocative moodiness of Laughton's version, it nonetheless keeps your attention. The

clash is not drawn as stark confrontation between absolute evil and pure innocence but as a battle between a manipulative madman and a youngster too rooted in common sense to be taken in by this preacher's act.

That's not to say that this "Night of the Hunter" doesn't deliver its share of messages. They abound with everything from "A little child shall lead them" to "The love of money is the root of all evil." It's just that this "Night of the Hunter" seems more intent on entertaining than mesmerizing.

It has its flaws. Burgess Meredith's character of an aging river rat seems superfluous, perhaps indicating something ended up on the cutting room floor. And the final chase sequence lacks the punch the rest of the film has set you up for. But it's a well-made, nicely directed, finely acted movie.

It is interesting to contemplate the message delivered by this story in 1955 and how that changes 35 years later. The original can be seen in part as one of a skein of films such as "Inherit the Wind" that denounced the ignorance and superstitions of rural America.

Moreover, its allegory about the man who preaches good to hide his evil ways can be placed in the context of the McCarthyism that was still a powerful force in 1955.

In 1991, denouncing the pursuit of money above all other ambitions is certainly a pointed message in the post-junk bond, post-Michael Milkin era. But a more specific subtext can be found in the voice that Chamberlain gives to this character.

So listen and you'll hear the rhythm and cadence of a television evangelist. He may be preaching the gospel and saying all the right things, but all he's really after is your money.

'Night of the Hunter' remains a chiller

"Night of the Hunter"

*** A demented ex-convict takes to the pulpit as he first seduces a widow and then terrorizes her family to search for money missing from a holdup in this remake of the 1955 movie.

CAST: Richard Chamberlain, Diana Scarwid

TIME: Sunday at 9 p.m.

CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)

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