Director: Lewis Allen
Screenplay: Dodie Smith, Frank Partos
Based on a Novel by: Dorothy Macardle
Starring: Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Alan Napier
Running Time: 99min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I love a good haunted house movie. So what better way to celebrate horror in October (as most film bloggers do) with a review of a classic early example of the sub-genre. Criterion are getting in the Halloween spirit by releasing Lewis Allen’s 1944 film, The Uninvited, on Blu-Ray in the UK. So I switched off the lights and prepared for an hour and a half of ghosts and things that go bump in the night.
The Uninvited sees brother and sister Roderick (Ray Milland) and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ruth Hussey) stumble upon an old abandoned house by the sea. Pamela falls in love with it and convinces Roderick they should put the cash together to buy it and move in. Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) is the current owner and offers it to them for a more than reasonable price (£1200!! I wish houses were that cheap these days). However, his granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) tries to stop them due to it being her dead mother’s house. The siblings go ahead and buy it anyway and Roderick tries to smooth things over by taking the uptight Stella out for a bit of fun. The pair start to fall for each other, but the Commander isn’t happy about the coupling. He doesn’t want Stella to have anything to do with the old house and we begin to see why.
Roderick and Pamela hear eerie crying in the night with no visible source and there’s a general sense of coldness and unease around the house. When they learn of the tragic demise of Stella’s mother there 17 years prior, they enlist her help to try to put a stop to the haunting. Through a seance and other meddling, this opens up a whole new kettle of fish and threatens the sanity and safety of the already delicate Stella. However, our protagonists do gradually learn the truth behind the Meredith family’s dark history and must use it to help Stella before the mysterious psychologist Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), who is brought into the equation by the Commander, does any damage.
The video essay by Michael Almereyda included in this set describes The Uninvited as the first film to take ghosts seriously. Before, they had been portrayed in a more comic fashion or had been unveiled to be hoaxes devised by criminals. Here the idea of spirits trying to reach out to the human world is treated with respect and taken as fact. As such, the film must be appreciated for being groundbreaking in its way and it certainly had an influence on many horror films to follow. However, I didn’t the feel the film had aged as well as some other classic haunted house movies.
Largely I had an issue with the dialogue. It’s very talk-heavy for a horror film and characters too often try to explain everything away in that typical old-fashioned, matter-of-fact style. As such, the film is loaded with exposition when more might have been demonstrated visually.
The look of the film more than stands up though. Cinematographer Charles Lang, who enjoyed a long career packed with classic credits, does a marvellous job with light and shadow. The night scenes, when our ghosts become active, are beautifully realised with great pools of black providing space for the protagonists and audience to fear what might be lurking there.
Speaking of fear, the film employs some classic, largely quite simple techniques to scare the audience – animals who don’t trust the house, doors and books opening by themselves and a nice touch where flowers swiftly wither when inside. These are fairly effective but have since been overused. Surprisingly, the most effectively frightening moments (other than possibly the creepy wailing that can be heard at night) come from the 70-odd-year-old special effects that visualise the ghosts. Swirling, mist-like apparitions are conjured up that are beautiful yet undeniably creepy. They’re made possibly through hand-drawn animation, but I’m not actually sure – they look that good.
In my opinion, however, I felt these horror sequences were a little too fleeting. I thought there could have been a couple more scary scenes and what was there could have been drawn out a little longer to build greater suspense, with less chatter over the top. Perhaps this is due to my modern sensibilities, where the horror takes centre stage in such films, but the rest of the story was less interesting to me. The central mystery, although fairly enjoyable to watch unfold, is rather predictable.
The performances are a little bland too, other than Milland who gives his character a nice light touch. In general the film has a mildly comic flavour, away from the supernatural sequences. A scene with Roderick suffering from seasickness and their dog chasing a squirrel for instance add a sense of fun to the otherwise dark tale.
So, The Uninvited shows its age with its exposition-heavy dialogue, stuffy acting and low horror-quota. However, when the scares do come they still send a chill down your spine and there are some incredibly effective special effects for the time. The mystery is fun to follow and there’s an enjoyably light air throughout, but it can be quite predictable and could have done with some more sustained tension. It must have been very frightening at the time though and is clearly influential on many horror films to follow, so respect to it is due, but don’t expect it to hold up quite as successfully as some classic horror films.
The Uninvited is out on 15th October on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfer is very nice for the most part, although there was a strange blur with the movement in the opening shot (this could possibly be an issue with my projector I guess). It soon smoothes out after that and the only issue was a mild flickering in some of the darkest sequences. For its age, the film looks great though.
There are a couple of special features included too:
- New 2K digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– New visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda
– Two radio adaptations, from 1944 and 1949, both starring Ray Milland
– PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme and a 1997 interview with director Lewis Allen
I’m always a fan of these visual essays as they help better appreciate the film in question (and help me write my reviews!). This one goes into more detail about the lives and careers of its two stars, Milland and Russell, who both led troubled lives. It gets quite poetic and touching by the end in fact. The radio adaptations are less vital, although it’s nice to hear a different cast tackle the source material.