This Sunday I chose to revisit Charles Laughton’s Expressionist masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955), a film that as a young horror fan I had long avoided, assuming that because it was “old” it was not likely to be on the level with such modern horror “classics” as Hellraiser. I learned how wrong I was when I finally saw it as a first-year college student. It struck me as revelatory—but I was also somewhat confused by its stark visual texture, its weird humor, and its often jarring shifts in tone, which remain mind-boggling. I’m still not sure how Laughton and screenwriter James Agee managed successfully to infuse a Southern-Gothic horror tale with broad sentimentality and comedy that occasionally verges on slapstick (“You hit Daddy with a hair brush!”). The film doesn’t merely hold together: it’s as mysterious and beautiful as a folk ballad, especially in its last act. It occurred to me that Lillian Gish’s performance here as the gun-toting Miz Cooper (“Get your state troopers out here. I got somethin’ trapped in my barn”) might be the greatest of her entire career.
My favorite sequence, though, is probably that nighttime boat ride downriver that occurs about halfway through the film. John, the film’s boy hero, lies down on the floor of the boat and drifts to sleep; his little sister Pearl sings a mournful lullaby in an eerie voice that sounds pretty clearly like it’s been dubbed by an adult; Laughton dissolves in and out of shots of wide-eyed animals, keeping watch from the riverbank, all framed against the backdrop of “a pin-cushion sky” (to borrow a phrase from Tom Waits). I can remember feeling the urge to laugh at that sequence when I saw the film as a college student, and yet also being struck by its strange power. What’s laughable about this film is Laughton’s audacity to play hackneyed ideas straight. We could call such an attitude “campy,” though it feels like the opposite of camp—a sincerity so pure and innocent that it’s unnerving.
Suffice it to say that the power of this film is undeniable. Kids, take a lesson from me: put down your Hellraisers or your Paranomal Activities or your Saws or whatever passes for cutting-edge horror cinema these days and check out The Night of the Hunter. It’s old, but it’s still cool, I promise. And chances are “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” will never sound the same again.