The Uninvited

Director: Lewis Allen
Screenplay: Dodie Smith and Frank Partos (based on the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle)
Stars: Ray Milland (Roderick Fitzgerald), Ruth Hussey (Pamela Fitzgerald), Donald Crisp (Commander Beech), Cornelia Otis Skinner (Miss Holloway), Dorothy Stickney (Miss Bird), Barbara Everest (Lizzie Flynn), Alan Napier (Dr. Scott), Gail Russell (Stella Meredith)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1944
Country: U.S.
The Uninvited Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The UninvitedWhen The Uninvited was released in late February 1944, Hollywood horror was entering a particularly lowly period. Glancing over the list of horror titles released that year, one quickly catches immediate whiffs of exhaustion, regurgitation, and desperation, as studios were churning out little more than recycled monster movies: so-called “monster rally” movies like House of Frankenstein, which brought together almost all of the recognizable monsters in the Universal stable for no good reason, and various sequels and spin-offs like The Mummy’s Curse, The Mummy’s Ghost, Cry of the Werewolf, The Invisible Man’s Revenge< and Return of the Vampire. Abbott and Costello hadn’t yet fully derailed the genre with their “meets” comedies (the first of which, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, was still four years away), but the writing was on the wall.

Which is what makes it so intriguing that The Uninvited appeared when it did, right in the midst of a genre that was coming fading fast and wouldn’t be taken seriously again for another 15 to 20 years. It certainly wasn’t the first haunted house movie to come out of Hollywood, but it was one of the first to take the subject matter seriously. Most studio-produced ghost stories, dating back to the silent era with films like Cat and the Canary (1927), had been primarily comedies, using spooky old houses and things that go bump in the night as contrast to wacky hijinks, slapstick pratfalls, and plotlines that almost always ended with the revelation that the supernatural terror had a very practical explanation (call it the “Scooby Doo ending”). The Uninvited, on the other hand, which was based on the novel Uneasy Freehold by Irish writer Dorothy Mcardle, takes its chills quite seriously and literally, positing with an unusually straight face the idea that a haunting could be more than a backdrop for comedy.

The story takes place in Cornwall, initially established with impressive and ominous shots of ocean waves crashing thunderously against the rocks, where vacationing Londoners Rick and Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey)—brother and sister, not husband and wife, as one might initially expect—happen upon the beautiful and deserted Windward House sitting dramatically atop of a seaside cliff. They make an impulsive decision to buy the house from its owner, the curmudgeonly and wealthy Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), even though they have heard stories from the locals that the place might be haunted. They are also not dissuaded by the fact that Beech’s granddaughter, a beautiful and fragile young woman named Stella (Gail Russell), seems unnaturally attached to the house, to the point that she lies to Rick and Pamela about its being up for sale and is later seen standing portentously by the cliff, staring up at the house after they buy it.

As with many things in the film, though, Stella turns out to be something different than she initially appears, although her connection to the house is a vital element of the increasingly complicated plot, which revolves around a back-history involving Stella’s mother, who died under mysterious circumstances when she was a child, her father, and her father’s lover, a Spanish gypsy named Carmela. After Rick begins to develop a relationship with Stella and brings her to the house for the first time since she was a child, it becomes clear that a malevolent presence (or presences) is haunting the house, which is manifest in multiple ways, including the forlorn crying of a woman in the middle of the night, the strange smell of mimosa that fills certain rooms, an unrelenting chill in the upstairs room where Rick, a composer by trade, sets up his studio, and later a phantasmagoric body that appears briefly at the top of the stairs (an image insisted upon by the studio, which wasn’t about to release a ghost movie in which no one ever actually sees a ghost). While Pamela is immediately convinced of the haunting, Rick attempts to approach it with a sense of cool rationality (he is a seasoned Londoner, after all), although he isn’t immune to cowering under the bedsheets when things get really creepy. Their Irish housekeeper, Miss Bird (Dorothy Stickney), is decidedly more superstitious and less comfortable sharing space with the spirits of the departed, as is their dog, which refuses to go up the stairs. Stella, who becomes more and more a part of their lives, is constantly drawn to the house even though it is clear early on that whatever presence is haunting it means her harm, which is why Commander Beech is so insistent that she stay away. Once Stella’s mother’s old friend, the malicious and domineering nurse Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), enters the story, all of the pieces of a Gothic mystery are firmly in place.

The Uninvited was the directorial debut of Lewis Allen, who would go on to forge a name for himself primary as a director of tough-guy movies starring the likes of Alan Ladd and Edward G. Robinson before moving into exclusive television work in the 1960s. At the time he was under contract with Paramount after having been drawn to Hollywood from the New York and London theater scenes, and his dexterity with actors and atmosphere is part of what sets The Uninvited apart from so many horror movies of its era. Rather than relying on the shock of monstrosity, he builds tension and suspense and mood, allowing the chilly grandiosity of the Cornish mansion to set the stage, priming us for the inevitably ghostly intrusions to come. His approach, as visualized by the superb cinematographer Charles Lang Jr., is very much of the Val Lewton school of horror, whose best films (including 1942’s Cat People and 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie) belied their sensationalist titles with a low-key approach that used noir tropes to suggest, rather than show, the worst. This approach typically garners more critical respectability, and The Uninvited received largely positive reviews in an era when horror movies were routinely dismissed as cultural detritions suitable only for undiscerning children.

Interestingly, despite its success, The Uninvited did not inspire a rash of serious ghost movies, as the similarly themed The Sixth Sense (1999) would do more than five decades later. Allen himself tried to capitalize on the film’s success a year later with another chiller, The Unseen (1945), which also starred Gail Russell (whose beauty, unfortunately, far surpassed her acting ability and whose career was tragically cut short at age 36 by alcoholism that supposedly started on the set of The Uninvited). That film did not fare nearly as well, and thus The Uninvited became something of an anomaly, a serious-minded, visually elegant chiller with real dramatic weight that was destined to stand apart.

The Uninvited Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Uninvited is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda
  • Two radio adaptations from 1944 and 1949
  • Trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme and a 1997 interview with director Lewis Allen
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 22, 2013

    Available for the first time on home video since the days of VHS, The Uninvited looks superb in Criterion’s new edition, which boasts a 2K digital film transfer from a 35mm safety duplicate negative made from a nitrate composite fine-grain print. Extensive digital restoration has brought the image back to life, giving us crisp contrast, excellent detail, and a decided lack of wear and tear. Blacks are nice and inky, and the fine gradations of gray in the image reveal hitherto unseen levels of detail but without sacrificing the inherent film grain. The lossless monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from an optical soundtrack print and digitally restored, giving us a fine presentation of things that go bump in the night and ghostly wailing, as well as the magnificent “Stella by Starlight,” which was a major hit back in 1944 and has been covered countless times in the ensuing years.
    The supplements are a little bit light, but still pretty good for Criterion’s $29.95 price point. There’s no commentary, but filmmaker Michael Almereyda contributes a substantial 26-minute visual essay on the film. He provides some fascinating background information and visual analysis, although he does tend to get a bit sidetracked at times, such as when he lets his background discussion of the career of Ray Milland descend into a lengthy analysis of his role in Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear. The disc also includes not one, but two complete radio adaptations of the film, one from 1944 and the other from 1949, both of which star Ray Milland, as well as the original theatrical trailer. The insert booklet contains an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme and a 1997 interview with director Lewis Allen originally published in Tom Weaver’s 2004 book Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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