How quickly things change.
Not so long ago my awareness of Night of the Hunter boiled down, essentially, to this:
The preacher with the tattooed fingers. I knew it was an old movie from the fifties, I vaguely knew it was a serial killer drama and that it was considered to be a real good ‘un. But that was about where my knowledge of the film began and ended.
And now? Guys, I am a full on stan. With the insufferable zeal of the newly converted I will talk your ear off about this film. I will bore you to tears describing individual scenes. Every night I shake my fist at the heavens because I now know I live in the world where Charles Laughton only got to direct one film AND IT’S NOT RIGHT IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO BE THIS WAY THIS WORLD IS A SICK JOKE.
Guys, this movie is an absolute work of art. It is beautiful to the point of transcendence. It is an aesthetic and stylistic triumph. It is quite good.
The story is one of the great Hard Luck tales in Hollywood’s long, glorious history of giving talented people the shaft. Legendary English actor Charles Laughton made his directorial debut with The Night of the Hunter, now regarded as one of the greatest first films ever made. Critics panned it, audiences stayed away in droves and Laughton tearfully shelved all plans to be a director and returned to the gentle bosom of the theatre where talent is always justly rewarded (pause for hollow, bitter laugh). Actually, I’m not entirely sure that first parts totally true. The few contemporaneous reviews from the time I’ve seen are by no means pans. In fact, they’re often quite effusive in their praise of the film and its director. They’re more just…confused. Like they don’t quite know what to make of this thing. And honestly, that’s fair. It certainly doesn’t fit into any tidy little box.
It’s a horror film, and an often extremely dark one, but from the perspective of a child and with the bulk of the film being carried by two child actors. It’s also a fairy tale, dreamlike and quite surreal in its tone. And lastly it’s an intensely Christian movie which nonetheless acts as an ascerbic and harsh critique of American Christianity. So it’s not exactly like you can do a “If you liked X, you’ll love The Night of the Hunter!“. So it’s understandable, if not not forgivable, that audiences slept on this when it first came out. Also, the poster is kind of terrible and makes it look like it’s a Lifetime drama about a man who desperately needs a dictionary.