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During the Depression of the 1930s, Preacher Harry Powell, a murderous, self-proclaimed "man of the cloth," travels throughout rural West Virginia believing that he is doing the Lord's work by killing rich widows. One evening, Preacher is apprehended by the police for stealing a car and is sentenced to thirty days at Moundsville Penitentiary. Soon after, in nearby Cresap's Landing, Ben Harper robs a bank and kills two employees. Ben races home, where his son John and young daughter Pearl are playing with her doll, Miss Jenny. Ben, who is wounded, looks for a place to stash the stolen $10,000, and after hiding it, makes John and Pearl swear never to reveal where the money is. John then watches with horror as several policemen drag Ben away. Ben winds up in a cell with Preacher, who harangues him to reveal the money's location. Ben scornfully dismisses Preacher, who nonethless thanks the Lord for leading him to a "widow in the making." After Ben is hanged, John watches over Pearl and ignores the taunts of other children, while Willa takes a job at Walt and Icey Spoon's ice cream parlor. One day, John visits his only friend, Uncle Birdie Steptoe, a well-meaning drunkard who lives in a wharfboat on the river. Birdie promises to repair Ben's skiff, but John's happiness is tempered when Birdie reveals that he met a stranger claiming to have known Ben. When John then goes to the ice cream parlor, he finds Willa, Pearl, Icey and Walt being charmed by the smooth-talking, gospel-quoting Preacher. Preacher tells them that he worked at the penitentiary, but John remains suspicious. When Preacher spots John eyeing the tattoos of the word "LOVE" on his right hand and "HATE" on his left hand, he wins over Icey completely by dramatically telling the story of "right hand-left hand," and how love triumphs over hate in the Bible. Icey insists that Preacher attend the town picnic the following Sunday, then begins to pressure Willa to make herself attractive to the handsome stranger. At the picnic, Willa confesses to Icey her fear that Preacher is after Ben's stolen money, and at Icey's prompting, asks Preacher if Ben told him about the loot. After Preacher claims that Ben told him he had thrown it into the river, a relieved Willa asserts that she now feels clean. Later, when John goes home one night, he is confronted by Preacher, who reveals that he and Willa are to be married the next day. John replies that Preacher will never be his dad, then inadvertantly blurts out that he will "never tell." Preacher realizes that John knows where the money is hidden but, stating that they have a long time to share their secrets, allows the boy to run off. On Willa and Preacher's wedding night, Willa is deeply ashamed when Preacher roars at her that he will not be "pawing" her as the business of their marriage is to tend the children she already has, not to beget more. Later, Willa, who desperately wants to please Preacher, leads a revival meeting with him and renounces her former sinful life. One night, Pearl is playing outside with the stolen money, which Ben had hidden in Miss Jenny, when John finds her and stuffs the bills back into the doll, just as Preacher comes to call them in. After Preacher reprimands John for telling Willa that he has been asking him about the money, Willa scolds John for lying, as she believes that Preacher is innocent. Soon after, however, Preacher locks John in his bedroom while Willa is out, and takes Pearl to the parlor to question her. As Willa is coming home, she overhears Preacher threaten to tear off the little girl's arm if she does not reveal the money's hiding place. That night, as Willa lies in bed, she realizes that Preacher always knew that Ben did not throw the money away, and that John knows where it is hidden. Still unable to face the truth, Willa states that Preacher married her to save her soul, and lies passively as he slits her throat with his switchblade. The next morning, Preacher tearfully tells Walt and Icey that Willa has run away. While the Spoons are comforting Preacher, Uncle Birdie discovers Willa's body, trapped in her old model-T car, in the river. Afraid that he will be blamed for the murder, Uncle Birdie returns to his boat and gets drunk. Later that day, John and Pearl are about to be apprehended by Preacher as they hide in the cellar when Icey suddenly arrives. The children reluctantly emerge at Icey's bidding, and after Icey departs, John tells Preacher, who is badgering Pearl, that the money is buried in the cellar. Preacher forces the children to accompany him, but John succeeds in outwitting him and escapes outside with Pearl. While Preacher is attempting to break open the cellar door, John runs to Uncle Birdie for help, but finds him passed out. John then puts Pearl into Ben's skiff and barely manages to push the little boat into the river before Preacher can catch them. Time passes as the children, relentlessly pursued by Preacher, float down the river. One morning, the sleeping children are awoken by Rachel Cooper, an elderly farmer who takes in orphaned and illegitimate children. The pragmatic but compassionate and religious Rachel currently cares for Ruby, Mary and Clary, and quickly settles John and Pearl in with her brood. One night, Ruby goes to town, supposedly for a sewing lesson, but in reality to meet boys. She is approached by Preacher, who questions her about John and Pearl. Although Ruby becomes enamored of Preacher, he leaves upon obtaining the information he seeks, and when she returns home, Ruby confesses her actions to Rachel. Rachel forgives the confused adolescent but remains worried about Preacher, who shows up the next day, claiming to be John and Pearl's father. When John declares that Preacher is not his dad, Rachel realizes that Preacher is a fraud and chases him away with a shotgun. As he retreats, Preacher screams that he will be back that night, prompting Rachel to hold vigil with her gun. Preacher sits in the front yard, waiting, and when Rachel is distracted by Ruby, he slips into the house. When Preacher suddenly appears before her, Rachel shoots and wounds him, and he runs into the barn. Kept company by John, Rachel then waits through the night, watching the barn, until the state troopers arrive in the morning. As the men arrest Preacher, John, overcome by memories of Ben's arrest, runs to the prone Preacher and hits him with Miss Jenny. When money pours from the burst doll, John, unable to bear the strain any longer, cries out for his father to take the money back. Later, John, incapable of looking at Preacher, is unable to identify him at his trial for Willa's murder. After the trial, an irate Walt and Icey lead a mob to lynch Preacher, but he is snuck out the back by the police, who are assured by Bart the hangman that it will be a pleasure to carry out his duties. Later, on Christmas day, the girls give Rachel potholders, while John shyly presents her with an apple wrapped in a doily. Rachel gives John a pocket watch, and after the happy boy goes upstairs, warmly states that children continue to abide and endure.