A film that starts with a romantic overture and a bit of slapstick comedy involving a terrier chasing a squirrel doesn’t exactly announce itself as an entrant in the horror genre. But then again“The Uninvited” (1944) combines quite a few incongruous elements in unexpected ways.
For one, the British couple on vacation in Cornwall aren’t married; you can tell because they get along fabulously well. Composer and unenthusiastic music critic Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) jokes freely and easily with his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) as they wander idly through a fishing village. The city slickers can’t help but condescend just a bit to the country bumpkins, but their shared affection for an abandoned beach house (mansion, really) with the only vaguely ominous name of Windward House is genuine.
Their urge to buy on impulse is eagerly abetted by the owner, the cranky Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), who sells it for a suspiciously reasonable price. Nobody comments that it’s incredibly weird for a brother and sister to be purchasing a house together, and all parties are happy with the deal except for Beech’s granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell in her first major role) who can’t bear to see the house sold even though she hasn’t been in it since she was a child. Her reasons will be revealed in due time.
The screenplay by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, adapted from the novel “Uneasy Freehold” by Dorothy Macardle, renders its conventional elements (a dead mother, a sobbing ghost, a mysterious gypsy) with an unusual inflection. Director Lewis Allen (a theater director making his feature debut) and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Charles Lang bathe the first third of this semi-Gothic tale in coastal sunlight, all brightly lit town roads and glistening blue water. Even the initial exploration of the house that hides so many bump-in-the-night chills reveals a series of elegant rooms, each with a massive window showing off an exquisite ocean vista. Rippling water fills the window frames, giving the impression that Windward is a lonely barge bobbing along the waves.
Roderick (AKA Rick) and Pamela match the cheerful visual design with a steady stream of urbane, light-hearted banter. Rick’s glibness comes naturally, but eventually it serves as his only shield against a supernatural world impinging on his own previously carefree one. As in many ghost stories, the protagonist starts out as a skeptic, but one of the subtlest touches in the film is the way Rick’s attitude transforms gradually as a matter of simple pragmatism. There is no single reveal, no hair-standing fright that strips away his defenses. At some point it just becomes obvious that the local gossip about the house must be taken seriously, and so he does, but always with a ready quip loaded as a reminder that dawn will come eventually, no matter how dark the nights get.
There’s nothing particularly frightening about “The Uninvited.” Its thrills and chills are little frissons that tickle the imagination instead of grabbing by the throat. Instead, it has earned its honored place in the haunted house genre primarily by dint of its earnestness. Even when Rick and Pamela fire off one-liners, one never gets the sense that Allen or the screenwriters have planted tongues in cheeks. The twisty back story has its campy elements, but they’re always taken seriously and the film delivers a potent emotional payoff as a result. This is also due in no small part to the performance of ingenue Gail Russell, who is anything but flawless. Some of her line deliveries are less than convincing, even outright awkward, but her tremulousness translates as genuine vulnerability. Looking even younger than her nineteen years and so china-delicate, she caters to every protective instinct the other characters and the audience might have. Roderick falls in love with her, Pamela sees a child who needs a maternal figure, and her grandfather yields to complete but understandable paranoia in the desperate effort to guard her from threats that are not as imaginary as they first appear.
“The Uninvited” was enough of a commercial hit to greenlight a follow-up with 1945’s “The Unseen” (directed by Allen with Russell upgraded to co-star, but no Milland or Hussey on board), but the magic couldn’t be recaptured. “The Uninvited” might not induce sleepless nights, but its assured storytelling and gorgeous cinematography make it one of the essential haunted house movies.
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. There’s a bit of source print damage visible from time to time, but this high-def transfer of a film that’s nearly 70 years old looks quite remarkable. Some of those windows cast sharp lattice-work shadows on the floor and it’s all rendered in vivid detail. The fine grain structure is well preserved and really adds to the textured look of the black-and-white photography. Nothing looks noticeably buffed or polished here; it’s a very “filmic” look and leaves little to complain about.
The LPCM mono track is distortion free and if it all sounds a bit flat, that’s just due to the source material. The music is sharply recorded and all dialogue and sound effects are clearly mixed. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The main feature on the disc is a bit of an odd duck. Filmmaker Michael Almereyda narrates a “visual essay” about the film titled “Giving Up The Ghost” (27 min.) If you’re looking for analysis or a close reading of any kind, you’ll be disappointed. Almereyda opts for a free associative approach which mostly consists of him talking about Ray Milland and the ill-fated Gail Russell, and more time on “Ministry of Fear” (the Fritz Lang film starring Milland and also released by Criterion recently) and other films than on “The Uninvited.” A sidetrack to an interview with cultural anthropologist Erin Yerby for a “serious” talk about spiritualism doesn’t contribute much. I was mostly frustrated by this feature, but perhaps I was just caught off-guard by its eccentric, digressive approach.
Criterion has also included two radio adaptations of “The Univited.” The first is from an Aug 28, 1944 episode of “Screen Guild Theater” (29 min.) and the second is a Nov 18, 1949 episode of “Screen Director’s Playhouse” (30 min.) Both feature Milland.
We also get a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)
The 24-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme and an excerpt from a 1997 interview with Lewis Alen conducted by writer Tom Weaver.
“The Uninvited” is a classic of the haunted house genre, and please don’t let a nasty old word like “classic” scare you away. The extras are a bit limited, but Criterion’s high-def transfer is gorgeous. This film hasn’t been released on a North American region DVD before, but this nifty Blu-ray makes up for the oversight.
Its thrills and chills are little frissons that tickle the imagination instead of grabbing by the throat.