The Night of the Hunter is one of the most bizarre movies I’ve seen, operating mostly as a crime thriller but also with elements of religious allegory, horror, and laugh-out-loud camp (an old lady walking down the street wielding an ax?).
In very basic terms, this movie has the always creepy Robert Mitchum as an ex-con who is after two children in possession of a doll stuffed with thousands of dollars. The Night of the Hunter gets its real scares from this narrative element, often suddenly shifting to realism in which Mitchum’s character pulls out a switchblade knife in hot pursuit of these young children. These disturbing images are not accompanied by fast editing or stylized music, making the effect all the more chilling and genuinely scary.
Another interesting aspect for this film is the prevalence of religious motifs. The movie starts out with something out of a Twilight Zone episode, us looking at a night sky with faces floating around recounting a Biblical story, and this theme continues through the film’s climax. In one of The Night of the Hunter’s most powerful moments, the children’s caretaker Mrs. Cooper tells the story of baby Moses in a reed boat floating up the Nile. This parallels beautifully with the two children, particularly the older son John, who themselves escaped their abusive household; this also proposes John as a savior figure, who has some greater destiny to protect others, as Mrs. Cooper does now. These are thought-provoking and engaging scenes that elevate The Night of the Hunter to more than your typical crime thriller.
I am eager to revisit this film so I am hesitant to give it a letter grade review. Much of this movie was all over the place, and I was focusing more on what was going on than evaluating it for sheer quality. I can tell you, however, that it is a very scary and engaging thriller, and is definitely worth watching. Almost 60 years later, there still haven’t been movies that go where The Night of the Hunter has.