Houses of the Unholy


Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is the movie freak’s definitive love machine: maligned when first released in 1955, hopelessly out of synch with American postwar sensibilities, so aberrant and singular it may properly be called the first Hollywood cult movie. An arch, Kabuki-like morality play set in a Saturday Evening Post mid-country and populated by shrieking archetypes, the film was, famously, Laughton’s only directorial effort, and the mind boggles to ponder what kind of auteur career the man might’ve had come the ’60s. As it is, Hunter is a paroxysm of stylistic excess, so untempered by reality or taste that even its stiff-limbed child performances feel like bad dreams.

The affect is mega-noir, of course, mated with scripter James Agee’s gushingly folkloric voice, Stanley Cortez’s Teutonic cinematography, and twisted around the hot core of Presbyterian outrage. Agee’s screenplay—from Davis Grubb’s relatively graphic, forgotten novel—was a fearless evocation of revival-tent axiomism that shouldn’t have gotten arrested in Eisenhower-era Hollywood. But Laughton understood Agee’s proximity to Grimm vaudeville, and fashioned the most intensely expressionistic movie of its day, outside of Welles. As the notorious blackjack preacher (“LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles) stalking a pair of little children in possession of a loot-stuffed doll, Robert Mitchum manifested unscrupulous evil so shocking that Laughton (according to Mitchum) upped the film’s fairy-tale ante in post-production as countercharge.

Few “Golden Age” movies are as visually fecund (Shelley Winters’s underwater corpse, her hair waving in the drift), and few have been so ruthlessly plundered. Take Don’t Say a Word for a recent and facile example, but Welles’s Touch of Evil and The Trial both bear Hunter‘s teeth marks, as well as Angelopoulos’s Landscape in the Mist, Ozon’s Criminal Lovers, and much of David Lynch’s primary oeuvre. Though purely homegrown, Hunter contains no social critique—the issues are elemental, the morality biblical, the trials Homeric. In terms of cinematic texture, it’s a hound from hell.

America gets sliced for sandwiches often enough, as it did in the smugly transgressive American Beauty, but those sandwiches come with mayo and chips in Life as a House. Irwin Winkler’s flagstone-and-treacle weeper has a moody drug-dealing teen son, a pert hottie next door, a phallus-focused mid-life-crisis dad, an upwardly self-involved mom, neo-con neighbors, and mild but seamy forays into gayness. But instead of satire, there’s tear-cranking terminal disease, generational healing, lots of sunsets, nonstop piano tinkling, and free-flowing menopausal élan. Kevin Kline is the long-divorced everyman architect in question, who in one day gets fired and cancer, and decides to hole up all summer long with his hateful, huff-crazy son (Hayden Christensen) and build his dream house. Rote father-son squabbling ensues, but it’s not long before the ex-wife/mom (Kristin Scott Thomas) begins showing up and pitching in. Everybody is sanctified by hammering roof beams. Subtlety-free, Winkler has apparently learned nothing from producing Scorsese all those years; Life as a House is so feel-sniffly-good it could make you revisit lunch.

In terms of full-on Hollywood skull-fucking, though, Rod Lurie’s The Last Castle has no competition. Bizarre, confused, sanctimonious manure that makes Lurie’s own The Contender look responsible by comparison, Castle takes the Cool Hand Luke paradigm, wrings it of irony, and reshapes it into an inane recruitment ad. Robert Redford “stars” (insofar as he is present, and occasionally winces) as a court-martialed three-star general sent to a strictly run military prison; after a single inmate death, this tight-lipped Christ decides to whip the cons into a chest-swollen platoon and take over the place. Lurie, a West Point graduate and ex-Premiere brownnoser, can’t decide whether to condemn or glorify martial control, so he does both, with a full orchestra blaring. (When the men fall into rank and file and spontaneously start yowling “The Halls of Montezuma,” Lurie’s camera pan unconsciously evokes the viewers’ slackjawed disbelief.) Only Mark Ruffalo, as the amoral prison bookie, emerges with his dignity.