Quarantine Double Feature is a series in which we pick two films available for streaming and discussion while we wait out this crisis at home. This week: When the Wolves are at the Door.
“Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves,” warns the legendary Lillian Gish’s Miz Rachel Cooper at the start of director Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece “The Night of the Hunter.” One of the most frightening films ever made, this tale of a brother and sister fleeing downriver from their psychotic stepfather is told in the abstracted visual language of a child’s nightmare. Its high contrast black-and-white imagery is a deliberate throwback to silent film expressionism, while the tacky day-glo colors of Matthew Bright’s 1996 “Freeway” are those of tabloid television. The tawdry tale of a teenage sex worker (played by Reese Witherspoon!) on the run from a serial killer is a vulgar lampoon of Little Red Riding Hood, still packing a shock-value wallop almost a quarter-century later. Laughton’s high art and Bright’s lowbrow satire have seemingly opposite aspirations, yet both are stories of what Miz Rachel describes as a child’s ability to abide and endure, especially when the wolves are at the door.
Charles Laughton was a beloved actor of stage and screen whose only foray behind the camera yielded what’s now universally regarded as one of the greatest American movies, so naturally it was a box office flop. I suppose it’s unfair to blame audiences at the time for being baffled by “The Night of the Hunter.” Southern gothic was still on the cusp of becoming a popular form — Flannery O’Connor’s first collection of short stories was published that same year — and the film’s sweaty, overheated theatricality probably seemed an alienating contrast to Hollywood’s new realism on display in hits like “Rebel Without a Cause” and 1955’s Best Picture winner “Marty.”
Adapted by renowned writer and film critic James Agee from a novel by Davis Grubb, the Depression-era folk tale finds a widow (Shelley Winters) seduced by her spouse’s former cellmate, the Reverend Harry Powell. Played with equal parts mischief and menace by Robert Mitchum in one of his grandest, most outsized performances, the preacher is secretly a sex-obsessed serial killer seeking a sack of money stashed away by her deceased bank robber husband. And he would have gotten away with it all too were it not for those meddling kids, who escape with the cash stuffed inside the daughter’s doll into a primeval landscape out of the grimmest fairy tales.
Agee’s first pass at the script famously came in at 294 pages. (In a making-of documentary included with the Criterion Collection disc, an elderly Mitchum hilariously calls it “a g----mned WPA project. The thing weighed 16 pounds.”) But Laughton carved it down to the barest of essentials, letting pictures tell the story via insinuation and unsubtle suggestions, as when the preacher leers at a burlesque dancer and his switchblade snaps open, protruding from his pocket like a pesky erection. Casting the coolest movie star ever was counterintuitive to say the least, as one would never imagine the insolent, sleepy-eyed Mitchum capable of Powell’s gargoyle fits and frights. (Fans of “Do the Right Thing” will admire the “LOVE” and “HATE” tattoos on his knuckles, predating Radio Raheem by three decades.)
But it’s the look of the film that worms its way into your dreams, the deliberately empty sets and elongated shadows evoking pre-sound era German films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu.” Cinematographer Stanley Cortez was hired because of his work with Orson Welles on “The Magnificent Ambersons” and this film shares similar depths of focus and an elemental grandeur. Laughton wasn’t much for contemporary pictures, longing to recapture the hyper-emotional evocations of silent cinema. In fact, he cast a direct line back to D.W. Griffith when he landed Lillian Gish — one of the very first movie stars — as Miz Rachel Cooper, an embodiment of purity and light powerful enough to drive out even a wolf like Reverend Powell.
The first time I remember seeing Reese Witherspoon was in “Freeway,” and about an hour into the movie my buddy leaned over and announced that she would one day be his wife. Apple-cheeked with a chin like a dagger and limbs that flailed akimbo across the screen with anxious energy, the starlet was like none we’d witnessed before, dominating this down-and-dirty movie with shrill, potty-mouthed force of personality. Looking like an angel that would cut your throat, feral 15-year-old Vanessa Lutz dodges cops, school officials and child protective services after her junkie mother (Amanda Plummer) gets arrested for the umpteenth time. She packs all her hopes and a .45 pistol into a picnic basket, hitchhiking across the highway to find her long-lost grandmother’s house.
This puts her right in the path of Bob Wolverton (see what they did there?), a dweeby child psychologist played by Kiefer Sutherland with lip-smacking unctuousness and oversized eyeglasses. Bob’s been leaving dead hookers strewn up and down the interstate, but he cozies up to Vanessa wearing the sheep’s clothing of concern. He gets her to open up about her family’s history of abuse in some strikingly well-acted scenes that provide the film with a baseline of genuine emotion before he finally bears his fangs. That’s when Bob realizes he’s picked up the wrong red riding hood.
In the wake of David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino’s successes, the 1990s saw a ton of lousy, low-budget movies cashing in on outré ultra-violence and ironic shocks, so many that I was quite surprised by how well “Freeway” holds up. Bright is at once proudly, defiantly distasteful yet remains invested in and even respectful of his characters, providing the wild kind of frissons one gets from the best exploitation pictures, in which anything can happen and everybody’s playing for keeps. Unlike most relics from the video store era, there’s no snarky distance from the material here. The movie still feels a little dangerous.
Now that’s she’s a middle-aged mom and the doyenne of prestige television dramas, it’s tough to imagine our Reese ever doing anything so mangy again. (I’m still brokenhearted that she didn’t end up playing Amy Dunne in “Gone Girl,” which Witherspoon produced through her company, Pacific Standard.) Like most movies of its era, “Freeway” ends with a freeze-frame. This one finds Vanessa once again drenched in blood, her mascara smeared by tears into a raccoon mask, and a thousand-watt smile beaming from her face in a sicko, beatific vision that Miz Rachel Cooper might say abides and endures.