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Wednesday, October 22, 2003
  Old brother Left-Hand

With predictable counter-intuitiveness, the scariest moment in the history of cinema involves no blood, no pointy teeth, no hormonally endangered teens and no hockey masks. Instead it is laced together from innocuous ingredients: a horse, a hill, a full moon and a hymn, The passionate menace of Robert Mitchum’s Reverent Harry Powell in ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is encapsulated in a scene that is the antithesis of the modern shocker. There are no jumpy edits, and no orchestral stabs to activate the bundle of grey matter at the base of your spine that frustratingly refuses to learn the techniques of 21st century Hollywood. The preacher rides in the distance, silhouetted against an implausibly full moon, in unhurried procession over the upturned bowl of a hill. He is unquestionably a diabolical figure; the outline of his wide brimmed hat suggests that he is a missionary of malice and yet in his pursuit of the children he wanders forward with assurance, confident as if he tells the truth when he claims to be guided by the Lord. His malevolent implacability is what makes Mitchum’s character so frightening. As he rides he sings an old hymn:

“Leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms…”

but it is impossible to watch the scene without succumbing to the feeling that it is Harry Powell who is unbending, that he requires no other support than his greed and fervour.

The otherworldliness of the scene is compounded by the way in which it fits into the film’s overall aesthetic. Charles Laughton’s only effort behind the lens is a mixture of two competing worldviews. We open in the hard world of depressed south, the indelicate interior of a prison cell, and then the open roads and fields of an agricultural economy. This sense of environmental verity is continued through the opening stages of the preacher’s assimilation into the community, particularly the harvest festival celebration and the wooing of the children’s mother. The turning point is perhaps one of the most haunting images in cinema; the preacher’s wife, John and Pearl’s mother drowned, one foot tied to a sunken car, writhing in the current like sea-weed. This image completely dispenses with naturalism – perhaps inevitably in technical terms – but from this necessity a clear artistic direction is taken, and the river bed and the fish and fronds are avowedly not approximations of the real thing, they are objects of another world, the world of the shared imagination. Jane Campion unsuccessfully pays homage to Stanley Cortez’s photography at the conclusion of ‘The Piano’, and she is defeated by the most unlikely of foes – the innate beauty of the open sea. Her drowned woman sinks below real waves; she is a human figure lost to the natural world. Laughton’s victims however fall prey to something entirely unnatural and imaginary.

This hallucinatory sensation reaches its climax with the flight of the children downstream and their pursuit by the furious preacher. Owls, frogs and spiders sit in perfect focus on the river-bank, too still and attentive to be real. As they struggle towards a rebirth of sorts at the other end of the river, John and Pearl move through a fantasy, imponderable to them as innocents, as must be the dreams of the unborn.

It is the exacting detail of these sequences that fixes them as a kind of unhappy reverie: after all, in dreams the unconscious mind sees objects from all angles simultaneously, and with perfect comprehension of every single form. The production design of the film is superb, allowing the camera to slowly swim from the grimy naturalism of the agricultural south to the nightmare world which at some time is occupied by all children when they sleep.

The unconscious landscape has also been explored in a more experimental setting in Neil Jordan’s ‘The Company of Wolves’. While the film’s interplay of legend, nightmare and sexuality is interesting, it is not really important here. What is absolutely integral to the success of the film is the production design of Anton Furst. As with ‘The Night of the Hunter’, Furst weaves a world that looks as we imagine it should look if we were to read about it in a book, or hear of it as children from an adult intent on scaring us. The trees of Furst’s wood have not emerged via biological evolution, but through the punctuated equilibrium of our collective imagination. The pillar-like oaks, strangling with ivy and caked with dusty organic matter have grown in the fertile soil of thousands of generations of fear; fear of the dark and fear of the creatures that dwell among them. Every adrenally quickened heartbeat that has ever been felt in a danger-prowled forest can still be heard echoing between Furst’s grizzled but unbowed trees.

It is tempting to see Furst’s relentlessly dark vision as an emanation of the frame of mind that eventually led him to suicide. It may be that this is a sound assumption, but I prefer to see in his rhyme-haunted forests something of the courage and playfullness that comes from baiting your own fears. There can’t be many people who haven’t forced themselves to cross a churchyard at night, or taken the canopied path home just to enjoy the tension and barely submerged strength that is the body’s reaction to fright. When we emerge unmolested on the other side of the menacing path, that energy remains with us, undissipated, a reward for our bravery. Furst’s designs wonder at the idea of fear, they try to perfect that relationship between our instinctive dread, and our ability to provoke it for our own amusement. If you could dream the perfect nightmare, it would look like an Anton Furst creation, as its beauty would be the most terrifying thing of all.
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