Weary Londoners Rick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey), are hiking along the coast in Cornwall one day when they come across a glorious old mansion, Windward House. After chasing their wayward dog into the empty house, they fall in love with its architectural charms, and with Pamela’s urging, Rick agrees to look into the possibility of purchasing it. The owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), sells the house—to the chagrin of his granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell), who briefly lived there as a child—for the unbelievably low price of twelve hundred pounds. Beech assures a skeptical Rick that local talk about the house being haunted is mere gossip. But the Fitzgeralds soon discover the haunting is very real—with more than one spirit making its presence known.
Soaked in threatening shadows, The Uninvited (1944), directed by Lewis Allen, is a nuanced and ultimately intriguing supernatural thriller/mystery for which the term “atmospheric” may as well have been invented. And yet, this is no “gotcha!”-type horror film; in building its eerie atmosphere, The Uninvited relies more on what the audience can’t see as opposed to what is visible onscreen. That’s not to say the film is devoid of physical scares—there are some well-composed startling moments that give viewers a jolt, employing devices that fall neatly into studied horror tropes: sudden, loud noises; the opening and slamming of doors by unseen hands; book pages turning by and objects moving by themselves; and one surprisingly well-done ghostly visage toward the end of the film (the special effects are rather seamless as a whole, though some of the backdrops in outdoor scenes are disappointingly static).
The Uninvited presents an effective juxtaposition of shadow and light, both audibly and visually, as Victor Young’s score adeptly complements Charles B. Lang’s brilliant cinematography. Young’s soundtrack mixes airy opening pieces and romantic ballads (including the soon-to-be-popular standard “Stella by Starlight”) with lush orchestral movements and appropriately melancholy undertones in later scenes. The shadows which permeate the morose evening setpieces—heightened as they are by the old-fashioned candlelight that serves as the only source of illumination—are only pushed out by the arrival of dawn, but even then, an air of darkness lingers within the house, which never seems fully lit even in broad daylight.
The heavier elements of the story are balanced by varying degrees of humor and wit, particularly in Milland’s reactions to the happenings. A creepy séance is slightly leavened by Milland’s facial expression when his character is caught moving the pointer on a makeshift Ouija board; his confrontation with the malevolent spirit at the end of the film is lightened somewhat by a bit of awkward, forced laughter at the ghost’s expense, as well as Rick’s pleasant surprise and jauntiness afterward. Milland is the audience’s proxy in The Uninvited: initially skeptical, he comments on the events going around him with a wry skepticism before eventually coming to realize—as we do—that the beautiful house has a disturbing, dangerous side.
Still, it’s the human interactions that define the film, the uneasy, odd relationships between the characters which drive the action even more so than the spectral phenomena. The Fitzgeralds are a strange pair of siblings: just young enough to avoid the term “spinster,” but old enough that their close relationship and cohabitation can strike a peculiar note. When they are (inevitably) romantically paired off with other characters, Pamela ends up with a doctor (Alan Napier) who appears much older than she, while Rick goes the opposite direction, becoming infatuated with the achingly young Stella. Rick’s growing love for the girl is quite paternalistic in nature, not only in their vast age difference (in real life, thirty-seven-year-old Milland could feasibly have been nineteen-year-old Russell’s father), but in his sometimes infantilized treatment of her—an attitude shared by the girl’s overprotective grandfather, and one that leaves Stella thoroughly unprepared to defend herself. And on the opposite side of the coin, Miss Holloway (played to chilling perfection by Cornelia Otis Skinner), an old friend of Stella’s mother Mary, is presented as a not-so-coded lesbian figure within the film. Holloway remains obviously fascinated with the dead woman, and her remembrances of Mary are fraught with sexual undertones; there’s a fervent undercurrent to her recollections, one that reaches a disquieting climax as the mentally unstable woman tries to send Stella to certain death at the house. While it is true the ghosts present their own issues, the heart of the film is the very real trouble that arises from the sometimes unsettling relationships between the living characters, and it is the focus on these human characters that ultimately makes the film so thoughtful and eerily appealing.
Just in time for Halloween, the Criterion Collection has released the long-out-of-print Uninvited on Blu-ray (also available on DVD). The new release boasts a beautiful 2K restoration of the film which renders every thrilling moment in crystalline perfection, as well as the uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The disc also includes several special features, including the trailer for the film and a visual essay by screenwriter and director Michael Almereyda (Hamlet, 2000). Also among the extras are two radio adaptations of the film: a 1944 Screen Guild Theater production starring Milland, Hussey, and Betty Field, and a 1949 Screen Director’s Playhouse version, again with Milland in the leading role. As with many Criterion editions, this release also includes a booklet featuring an in-depth essay on the film—this one a wonderful piece by Self-Styled Siren’s Farran Smith Nehme—which is accompanied by a 1997 interview with Allen in which he recalls the experience of making the film, his first Hollywood production as a director. Fans of The Uninvited could not ask for a better treatment than Criterion offers with this release–without a doubt, it is a must-have.
No mere slick thriller, The Uninvited invites you to check your cynicism at the door and indulge in a subtle yet unnerving ghost story, one that commingles mystery, fear, and Gothic trappings to great effect.