THE UNINVITED (1944)
A composer and his sister discover that the only reason they're able to afford a beautiful Gothic seacoast mansion is down to the house's unsavoury past.
Avid readers of ghost stories and veteran viewers of haunted house movies won’t find too many surprises in The Uninvited. It might be considered clichéd nowadays, but that guaranteed satisfaction is part of its lasting charm and why respected directors (including Martin Scorsese and Guillermo Del Toro) still list it as one of the greatest haunted house films ever made.
Newcomers to a tight-knit Cornish community move into an old clifftop house, overlooking the “haunted shores”, uncover dark family secrets and awaken a vindictive ghost that threatens a young vulnerable maiden who’s the last in the cursed family line—a perfect batch of ingredients, mixed in an era before the horror genre felt the need to reinvent the formula and be more post-modern.
The newcomers are siblings Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey), taking a break from their humdrum city life in London when they stumble upon the abandoned house and feel compelled to buy it. The maiden in jeopardy is the orphaned Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), the rightful heir to the property, who’s living nearby with her overprotective grandfather (Donald Crisp). Why is he so intent on keeping Stella away from the old house where she was born, and from the cliffs where her mother, Mary Meredith, plunged to her death 17 years earlier?
This is a very enjoyable horror film with a light touch; one that has moments of humour to counteract the spookier content. A well-balanced film, with a good story at its heart that deals with some pretty dark stuff without depressing its audience. Some of the haunted house tropes, that modern viewers have grown used to, began here and yet it still manages to subvert a few of them. It had a fresh idea at its core that can be seen reverberating through ghost stories to this day and, without giving too much away, its influence is still palpable in the likes of Crimson Peak (2015). This 2k restoration on Blu-ray is a welcome addition to the Criterion Collection.
It’ll certainly appeal to anyone who enjoyed Rebecca (1940) and particularly those disappointed there was no supernatural element in Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 psychological suspense novel. The Uninvited was also based on a novel, Uneasy Freehold, by Irish author and political activist Dorothy Macardle, published in 1941. Both stories share central themes including a ‘perfect wife’, considered a paragon in life, exerting a baleful influence from beyond the grave upon an innocent girl.
Because du Maurier’s book preceded Macardle’s by three years, the latter was often criticised as being derivative, but both novels are openly, and perhaps independently, drawing on the Gothic Family trope already established in Romantic literature since the likes of Horace Walpole’s seminal 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798) and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853)—which is name-dropped by Stella in The Uninvited.
Stella Meredith is the catalyst for the entire narrative and the film hangs on the young Gail Russell’s performance. By turns Stella is vulnerable, brave, gentle, possessed, subtle, strident, helpless, defiant, nearly always conflicted… almost the ultimate Gothic heroine! Although her first starring role, it’s a passionate performance which, for the most part, side-steps melodrama and is generally regarded as among her best. It certainly made her a star…
Gail Russell wasn’t meant to be a star. She suffered from pathological shyness and had wanted to become a studio painter and live a quiet, reclusive life. It was her mother that pressured her into acting, hoping her beauty would provide the currency to help the family up from the poverty line. After making an impact with her role in The Uninvited, at the age of 19, she rapidly became a victim of the Hollywood star-system and alcoholism. So began a downward spiral that eventually led to ruin and her premature death in 1961. When you know her real-life backstory, it adds extra gravitas to the film’s central psychological motif of good, nurturing mother versus bad, manipulative mother.
During filming for The Uninvited, Russell had turned to ‘the bottle’ to control her crippling nervousness and avert panic attacks on set. Nevertheless, she demonstrates an impressive range and is superbly sympathetic and emotive. It was said at the time that one look from her big beautiful eyes could melt the hearts of men. Well, maybe, but there’s much more than that going on here.
Leading man Ray Milland was already 16 years into a prolific screen career that spans six decades. That same year he starred with Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944), a romantic musical drama with elements of suspense; and Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear (1944), a bonkers noir spy thriller. There are moments in The Uninvited when his natural style and easygoing body language are reminiscent of James Stewart. He’s equally capable of smoothly swinging from intense drama to lighter moods, at the drop of a hat. He brings his usual everyman charm to the part of Rick Fitzpatrick, a sensitive soul whose light-hearted take on life has become a sort of character-armour.
In the original novel he’s a writer, which works well in a text-based medium, but for the film he’s a music critic and frustrated composer. Stella is his muse and inspires him to write the haunting serenade “Stella by Starlight”, now one of the most widely performed jazz standards, with versions recorded by many musical legends including Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Nat King Cole, Dexter Gordon, and Chet Baker. The piece was composed for the film by Victor Young and The Uninvited was just one out of hundreds of scores he wrote during an illustrious career that earned a string of more than 20 Academy Award nominations. Two years after the film, Ned Washington wrote lyrics to go with the tune and this has been sung by such great voices as Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. The film is best known for being the origin of the song. Young’s score gives mood cues throughout and varies form rousing orchestral swells, humorous ‘plinky-plonky’ passages, and moving melodies…
The rest of the cast all do the script justice. English character actor Alan Napier is perfect as the well-intentioned Dr Scott, later becoming well-known to millions as Bruce Wayne’s butler in the Batman TV series (1966-68). Ruth Hussey is a versatile actress who imparts some of her comedic touch, previously seen in The Philadelphia Story (194o). And look out for a brief cameo from Angela Lansbury’s mother, Moyna MacGill!
The screenplay was by Frank Partos (a staff writer for both Paramount and RKO) and Dodie Smith, already an established playwright who’d go on to be a noted novelist and children’s writer in her own right with her 1949 debut I Capture the Castle, and, of course, The Hundred and One Dalmatians—both containing some Gothic elements.
Partos was more used to being paired with Charles Brackett, who produced The Uninvited. In turn, Brackett often collaborated with Billy Wilder and apparently was only available because he’d turned down co-writing Double Indemnity (1944) because he felt the morally challenging plot of that classic noir was too sordid and bound to fall foul of the Hays Code.
Bear in mind that this was the mid-1940s and Hollywood was going through a famously oppressive period. Possibly for fear of censorship, entire threads from the novel’s narrative were left out: a zealous priest who performs an unsuccessful exorcism, another suitor competing for Stella’s attention, and the lesbian subtext (though still evident in the film’s backstory) is somewhat played down, only made clear by a few lines of dialogue from Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner). It’s clear that, as a younger woman, her relationship with the late Mary Meredith went beyond simple friendship. As the plot progresses we see a madness in Miss Holloway worthy of a Dickensian villain, and Skinner relishes every moment!
Considering this was Lewis Allen’s first feature as director, he does a grand job. He gets the most out of his cast, not least the fragile Gail Russell. His use of sound cues and unseen phenomena to indicate a supernatural presence, such as intense cold, the scent of perfume, and debilitating malaise, is inspired and leaves much to the imagination. This draws the viewer in and must have strongly influenced another great haunted house movie: Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963).
Allen’s matter-of-fact handling of the pivotal séance scene is exceptionally effective, relying on the understated performances of those present and, finally, a powerful portrayal of possession when Stella rants intensely in Spanish. Quite chilling, and a key clue too. The film is distinguished by being one of the earliest films to present the supernatural as its central theme without explaining it away as, fake, hoax, criminal misdirection or using it as a comedy element.
Another notable feature is his use of the extensive sets. Although the setting is Cornwall, it was almost entirely filmed on MGM studio lots, including the scenes in the little fishing village, the shops, the harbour… There was minimal location filming on the California coast, including some shots with the house added using very convincing matte paintings. Some of the interiors had survived from I Married a Witch (1942), the others were purpose built and carefully avoided the typical appearance of a haunted house. Initially, the cliff-top house looks light and airy and we can totally understand why the Fitzgeralds are smitten with it, later its mood darkens through the use of expressive camera angles and looming shadows. Even so, it often feels more noir than typically gothic. The cinematography was adeptly handled by Charles Lang, who had won an Oscar for A Farewell to Arms (1932) and was to receive many more nominations, including one for The Uninvited. That year though, the statuette went to Joseph LaShelle for Laura (1944).
Whilst talking of the sets, the two huge paintings of Mary Meredith deserve a mention. One takes up a wall of Stella’s bedroom at her grandfather’s house. The other is equally huge and dominates Miss Holloway’s office at The Mary Meredith Retreat—a kind of polite asylum for overwrought women. It’s all we see of this supposedly perfect woman, painted in the style of Thomas Gainsborough by the hugely talented Richard Kitchen. Although uncredited, the sitter for those portraits was Elizabeth Russell, who had bit parts in many of Val Lewton’s RKO horror films.
When I say, it’s all we see of Mary Meredith, well that’s not quite true and would have depended on which cut of the film you’re watching… another actress Lynda Grey, plays her translucent ghost in the finale. But, those spectral ectoplasmic apparitions, though quite effective, were optically added as an afterthought by the studio. Lewis Allen had shown more restraint and decided to leave it all to the imagination. Ironically, the British censors deemed those scenes too scary and removed the effects from the initial UK release. Y’know, Criterion missed an opportunity to restore that alternative version as a Blu-ray bonus here—we could have, in effect, seen the director’s cut, too!
On its release, the film was popular with audiences and critics alike, though it did draw criticism from the Catholic Legion of Decency. At the time, entertaining the notion of ghosts and spirits was taken as a challenge to certain religious beliefs and the seance smacked of necromancy. They also objected to the implied homosexual undertones.
Though not a direct sequel, Lewis Allen directed a follow-up called The Unseen (1945), also starring Gail Russell, this time as a governess along similar gothic lines to The Innocents (1961). Russell also starred in another tale of supernatural suspense, Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), the same year she made the crime-noir drama Moonrise (1948), directed by the great Frank Borzage. She starred alongside John Wayne twice, firstly in The Angel and the Badman (1947), and then in south seas adventure Wake of the Red Witch (1948).
In a couple of other notable roles—now pay attention here, it’s complicated—she plays Cornelia Otis Skinner. Yes, that name’s familiar because she was Miss Holloway in The Uninvited. Skinner began her acting career in self-penned one-woman plays delivered as dramatic monologues, long before that spoken word format really caught on. She also wrote a witty autobiography about her youth… This was adapted for the screen as Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944) and starred Gail Russell as Cornelia Otis Skinner—the same year as they were acting opposite each other in The Uninvited… The film was successful enough for Russell to reprise her role as Skinner in the sequel, Our Hearts Were Growing Up (1946).
director: Lewis Allen.
writers: Frank Partos & Dodie Smith (based on the novel ‘Uneasy Freehold’ by Dorothy Macardle).
starring: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner & Gail Russell.