I've always seen it as a silent film with sound, the exaggeration of mime and performance in tune with what it is for a child to be horrified and thrilled by the unknown, dark shadows of an adult world.
Dev said it perfectly. That's exactly the perspective required to evaluate this film. I really think this is the key to understanding Laughton's work and his intensions. As adults we often forget what it was like to witness and observe the world as a child, when our logic and reason were not as much of an influence on our perceptions, and thus our view of the world was warped and exaggerated, though we were unaware of it at the time. Shadows were cast in a more terrifying way, the dark was just a bit more pitch black, and old adults were creepy if they were strangers.
I'm going to go off a bit of a tangent for a moment, but I can only make my point clear with a rather lame example. I remember watching a sitcom once where a character explained to a date that, when he was a child, for the longest time he believed "Gunpoint" was an actual place, so he could never figure out why people kept going to this town where so much crime was committed, and so many bad things happened to the inhabitants. As a child he wondered why anyone would want to live or visit a town where people "were robbed at Gunpoint". He just figured if so much crime occurred at this town, everyone should move away from it. I remember watching the show, and thinking to myself that I had similar flawed logic as a child, and a great deal of simple daily activities never really made sense when I was a child. The problem was I couldn't really remember any specific example, because everything that confused me as a child, now makes perfect logical sense as an adult, and I made the mistaken assumption of thinking that they always made perfect sense to me.
My point is that to watch a film such as The Night of the Hunter
, which relies heavily on adopting a (slightly warped) childhood perspective, and notice all the exaggerations in style, mood, atmosphere, acting, dialogue, etc. it remains difficult for adults to grasp the absurdity, (hyper)sensitivity, and vulnerability of childhood viewpoint or experience. Though Laughton captures it in wonderful ways, it's difficult for an adult to grasp just how brilliantly he does so, because our own perceptions are just so far removed from childhood. We live in a world that, for the most part, we can make sense out of, while we forget that childhood was absurdly confusing at times. One of my own earliest memories is of riding around in my tricycle in an apartment in Libya with an older cousin, who was also riding around in a tricycle. However, no matter how many times I remember that moment, it always seems as if his front bike tire was enormous, and almost so gigantic that I feared it would run over me. My mother once told me that makes absolutely no sense, since our bikes were apparently the same size. Yet the childhood perspective warps everything.
One problem is that, as adults, we usually simply discard childhood to mean innocence, so we assume anything from a childhood perspective should merely capture an innocent quality that we now long for. I believe that is the great difference between our reception to something such as To Kill a Mockingbird
vs The Night of the Hunter
. Something like To Kill a Mockingbird
, as good as it is (and I do enjoy the film), comforts us as adult viewer, because it conforms to our perceptions of childhood as adults, while The Night of the Hunter
really "immerses" (it's so embarrassing to be using a Movie Critic buzzword) into the world of a child with all its absurd atmosphere and strange performances.