It isn’t enough to say that Charles Laughton’s first and only feature as a director, The Night Of The Hunter, is the greatest directorial one-off in cinema history—while that apparently wasn’t clear in 1955, when it opened to ambivalent reviews and poor box office, it should be self-evident by now. In his liner-notes essay for the essential new Criterion DVD, critic Terrance Rafferty calls the film “the most irreducibly American in spirit,” and that’s much truer to its legacy. Though the film is informed by the bold shadow-play of German Expressionism and directed by a British actor, its elemental power comes from its grasp of the conflicts and obsessions that give America its character: the Puritanical consideration of sex and sin (and attendant hypocrisies), the persistent threat of guns and violence, and the Old Testament showdown between good and evil that suggests a land split into the spiritually yearning and the charlatans eager to exploit them. In that context, it makes sense that Laughton considered Lillian Gish the most important of his many extraordinary collaborators: Gish was his direct line to D.W. Griffith, whose eternally provocative silent classic The Birth Of A Nation epitomized the country’s sharp divisions and set its cinema on course.

Working with the great cinematographer Stanley Cortez, whose list of credits extend from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons to the Sam Fuller dramas The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, Laughton creates an atmosphere of enveloping menace, Southern Gothic by way of a Grimm fairy tale. At its center is Robert Mitchum, radiating dark charisma as a false prophet who uses his preacher act to ingratiate himself to a community, specifically lonely widows he can exploit (or just kill) for their money. After getting information from a cellmate sentenced to hang for his role in an armed robbery gone wrong, Mitchum seduces one such widow (Shelley Winters) and terrorizes her young children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) in an effort to find the thief’s stolen loot. Ultimately, the kids head downriver to escape him, finding refuge with a stern old Mother Goose (Gish) who takes in lost children.

Though Laughton didn’t intend it to be a horror film, the first response to The Night Of The Hunter is terror: Mitchum plays evil with a silky, imposing charm that occasionally crosses into shocking fits of rage, and Cortez’s looming shadows evoke Gish’s line about it being “a hard world for small things.” Yet as much as the darkness epitomized by Mitchum blankets the film, Hunter also has an overwhelming allure: The enchanting sequence where the children drift downriver on a boat, as various creatures look on from the banks, is like proto-Terrence Malick, a moving, unexpectedly poetic assertion of the natural world at the bleakest possible moment. Hunter is the stuff of nightmares, but it’s the stuff of dreams, too, and it beckons you to follow it downstream.

Key features: An astonishing two-disc package includes an array of goodies on disc one, including a four-way commentary track, a video interview with Laughton biographer (and actor) Simon Callow, a remarkable Ed Sullivan Show performance of a scene that was never filmed, and lurid sketches by Davis Grubb, who wrote the novel on which the film was based. But the real prize is on disc two: The 160-minute documentary Charles Laughton Directs “The Night Of The Hunter” assembles a treasure trove of outtakes into an unusually comprehensive, fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the movie was made. Among other things, it reveals how Laughton coaxed (to put it kindly) performances out of his child actors, the subtle shadings Mitchum brought to his line readings, and even some bloopers.