Directed by: Lewis Allen
Written by: Dodie Smith, Frank Partos, and Dorothy Macardle (novel "Uneasy Freehold")
Starring: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, and Gail Russell
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“They call them the haunted shores. These stretches of Devonshire and Cornwall and Ireland which rear up against
the westward ocean. Mists gather here. And sea fog. And eerie stories.”
the westward ocean. Mists gather here. And sea fog. And eerie stories.”
Despite being a long lasting presence in early American and European literature, the subject of ghosts was dealt with in mostly comedic ways by Hollywood in the early 20th century. Perhaps these early producers felt that the supernatural was too silly of a concept to be taken seriously by sophisticated society in the roaring 20s and 30s. By the mid-1940s, however, the entire world had been rudely awakened to the real life horrors of World War II. It is during this period where we finally get films that embrace and acknowledge the supernatural. Universal was cranking out movies in their popular monster franchises, so Paramount decided to bring a new presence to the screen: Unquiet spirits. Based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle, The Uninvited may be the first mainstream studio movie to deal with a ghost or haunting in a serious manner. However, as with many "firsts" would this one merely get by for breaking new ground, or would it genuinely bring something memorable to the table? Join hands, and clear your minds of all thought...
Music critic Roderick Fitzgerald (Dial 'M' For Murder's Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela are traveling along the coast when they spot a beautiful, but abandoned seaside mansion. Intrigued by the house, and wanting a location in which to help inspire his music writing, Roderick and his sister decide to make a purchase. Initially stonewalled by the house owner's granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell), the owner makes Roderick a very unbelievably low price. The deal seems too good to be true, but could it have something to do with the mysterious disturbances and incidents that have been reported within the house? Soon, Roderick and his sister will find out that the rumors and small town gossip about the house they bought are very much true and that a spirit long dead is very much alive within the walls of the idyllic seaside mansion.
The Uninvited hearkens back to a classier time in Hollywood, when horror didn't have to be gritty and disgusting to give audiences a shiver. All they had to do was provide an interesting story and deliver a group of charming actors with which to bring it to life. The remarkable thing is that the film treats its subject matter with the utmost respect. The ghosts here are not used for comic relief and laughs, but instead they are a genuine driving force of the plot. It has been speculated and although I'm not quite positive, but this really could be the very first "serious" ghost movie ever made. The scares are quite impressive for a movie of the 1940s. Despite the early 20th century spiritualism craze, movies featuring occult themes and subject matter were indeed in short supply. The only thing that harms the film's horror aspects is the heavy emphasis on romance. Given that this was the golden age of Hollywood melodrama, you can't really fault the filmmakers for trying to cash in on what was an immensely popular trend. Besides, as an early haunted house movie, there really was no set template or list of rules to follow. What may appear cliched now, was definitely not the case in 1944. Robert Wise's The Haunting wouldn't be released for nearly 20 more years, so the fact that so many of the familiar conventions in a paranormal movie (seances, mist-like spirits, etc) can be traced back to this movie is a testament of how groundbreaking it was. Definitely not as in-your-face as some of the more recent haunted house movies, but we do get a good helping of paranormal fun. The seance sequence (complete with makeshift ouija board, via wine glass and lettered tiles) is a spooky standout.
The acting is superb, but I'm a fan of older movies. I suppose modern audiences would find the acting in films of this era a bit more theatrical and overly dramatic, but I enjoy it just fine. You have to remember, movies of this time were pure escapeism and were more akin to a stage play, than the style we know today, which largely emphasizes realism over escape. Ray Milland has been a longtime favorite of mine. I've enjoyed his work as a conniving husband in the Hitchcock suspense classic Dial 'M' For Murder and even his crotchety turn in the cult classic nature-runs-amok flick, Frogs. Gail Russell turns in a great performance as the daughter whose deceased mother is the source of the disturbances. It's such a shame Gail's life was cut so short in reality, as I think she could've had a very long-lasting career. Batman fans will no doubt notice actor Alan Napier, who portrayed Bruce Wayne's loyal family butler Alfred on the 60s Adam West TV series. Another star of the movie is the beautiful yet haunting score by Victor Young. Playing an integral part of the plot, the piece "Stella By Starlight" went on to become a famous instrumental piece of the time period.
Compared to modern films, the pace is a bit slow, but it didn't bother me at all. You could probably make the same case for many of the best paranormal movies. The cinematography (nominated for an Oscar) also makes the film stand out among others of its ilk. You get both a sense of awe from the natural beauty of the house and the feeling that something isn't quite right. It's sort of that creepy feeling when you look at old paintings, statues, and chandeliers. Items meant for beauty, but for some strange reason, a sinister edge permeates. Director Lewis Allen would attempt another chiller the following year (The Unseen) but it was not met with the same success as The Uninvited. After a handful of motion pictures of differing genres, he later made a decent career for himself directing episodes of many classic television favorites (including "Mission: Impossible", "The Fugitive", "Route 66", and "Perry Mason"). Why it took Hollywood nearly 20 years to release another solid haunted house movie (The Haunting), I'm not quite sure. It's interesting that both films were based on books. Perhaps screenwriters were still struggling on how to depict forces unseen on-camera. Or perhaps the monster and UFO craze of the atomic age was so popular that it practically put all other horror sub-genres on pause for a decade or so.
The Uninvited resonates with the viewer like a well-told ghost story should. It stands as a quieter horror film for a quieter time, and no one can deny its place in horror film history. It may not be my favorite haunted house movie ever, but I would easily rank it among my top 5. If there was ever a horror film in dire need of re-discovery by a new generation of fans, it is this one. It is a true shame that the film is still without a next generation home video release. It's last release was a VHS edition by MGM, although I'm thinking someone else (perhaps Paramount) owns the rights now. Still, it's a movie very deserving of a remastered special edition DVD and high def release someday. Until then, find a VHS copy and prepare to let this movie work its magic on you. Whether you like movies from the days of classic Hollywood or you just like haunted house flicks in general, you can't go wrong here. Much like the long abandoned home whose discovery sets the wheels of the plot into motion, this film is definitely worth the effort that it would take to track down. Buy it!
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