The Uninvited (1944) may be the best 'ghost story' of the classic film era, combining lush romanticism with genuine spookiness. It's taken a very long time for this much beloved and admired film to come to DVD, but it's proven worth the wait, now available in a fine print from the Criterion Collection (released on both standard DVD and Blu-ray on October 22nd, just in time for Halloween). It couldn't be more perfect for the season, but a movie this good should be watched year round.
The Uninvited concerns a brother and sister, Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey), who impulsively decide to pool their funds and purchase an old, empty house on the Cornish coast. Rick and Pam move in with their housekeeper (Barbara Everest), but the trio are soon dismayed by strange happenings: the cat won't go upstairs, the dog runs away, and most alarming of all, a woman's plaintive wailing is heard every night just before dawn.
Rick is enchanted by Stella (Gail Russell), a sweet young girl whose deceased parents once lived in his new home. Stella's grandfather (Donald Crisp) is strangely adamant that she not visit the Fitzgeralds, and it soon becomes clear that Stella is strongly connected to the unsettling occurrences. The Fitzgeralds work to unwind the mystery, aided by the local doctor (Alan Napier, later of Batman); their hope is to free both Stella and the house from the ghosts which haunt them.
The Fitzgeralds' quest is slowed by Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), who was a friend of Stella's late mother Mary. Indeed, Miss Holloway seems more than a bit obsessed by Mary's memory; Miss Holloway clearly knows more about Stella's past than she's willing to disclose. Why does she dislike Stella so strongly?
One of the reasons The Uninvited is so admired is that it doesn't 'cheat' and pretend the apparitions weren't real. It's a true ghost story, and by film's end all the complicated mysteries have been resolved in a logical way.
Another part of the film's magic is that it doesn't rely on conventional means to scare the audience. There's no blood or gore, nothing visually horrifying -- other than a couple of apparitions seen from time to time -- and no ominous music. The movie lets the story and setting provide the suspense, while the score, centered around composer Victor Young's 'Stella by Starlight,' provides a romantic counterpoint to the terror, just as the film's gentle love story provides a welcome offset to the scarier moments.
The movie also has a nice sense of humor, largely supplied by Ray Milland as the good-natured Rick. He and Pam are scared yet also admirably brave, although part of their bravado initially comes from the fact that they can't quite believe that what they're experiencing is real! As reality asserts itself, they determine to deal with it, in part because he's fallen in love with young Stella, while Pamela develops a fond relationship with the doctor.
Dr. Scott's matter-of-fact acceptance of what is happening is another somewhat unexpected touch; he may be a man of science, but he's lived in Cornwall long enough to know that strange things can happen! Hussey and Napier bring warmth and intelligence to their portrayals, believably communicating the growth of their relationship despite little screen time alone together.
Gail Russell, who had previously just had a couple of small roles, is billed as 'Introducing Gail Russell.' She does a fine job in a role which covers a great deal of emotional territory, portraying a charming, lovestruck girl who is also disturbed and obsessed with her unknown past. In the séance scene, Russell is quite effective when she suddenly begins speaking in Spanish, providing one of the keys to the film's conclusion. Offscreen, the shy young beauty fell into the habit of using alcohol to calm her nerves, leading to her early death at the age of 36. This sad backstory makes her performance in The Uninvited all the more haunting.
The Uninvited was directed by Lewis Allen, who would soon thereafter direct Gail Russell in a less successful 'spooky' film, The Unseen (1945), costarring Joel McCrea. The superb cinematographer was Charles Lang; this film is certainly a recommendation for the beauty of black and white; it’s impossible to imagine it looking any other way.
The film's literary connections are quite interesting. Dorothy Macardle's novel was co-written for the screen by Dodie Smith, who would become a novelist known for The Hundred and One Dalmatians and I Capture the Castle. Cornelia Otis Skinner, who plays the very creepy Miss Holloway, was herself a writer, whose memoirs Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944) and Our Hearts Were Growing Up (1946) were brought to the screen -- with Skinner played by none other than Uninvited star Gail Russell.
What a pleasure to see this film on Criterion's beautiful Blu-ray! In addition to the lovely picture, the sound quality is excellent -- quite important for a film with key sounds ranging from faint ghostly weeping to crashing waves to the beautiful melody of 'Stella by Starlight.
Extras include the trailer, two different radio productions, and a 'visual essay' by Michael Almereyda. I found Almereyda's rambling piece of varied quality, of greatest interest when discussing the careers of the film's stars. He lost me during a chapter on séances, but I liked his closing thoughts on how films preserve moments in time, with the actors on screen being, in a sense, ghosts themselves.
The Criterion presentation also includes a hard copy booklet with an excellent essay by Farran Smith Nehme, also known as the Self-Styled Siren; those who rent the film can access the essay online at the Criterion site.
The Uninvited is highly recommended.
Laura Grieve is a lifelong film enthusiast whose thoughts on classic films, Disney, and other topics can be found at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings
, established in 2005.