Lewis Allen, 1944
Starring: Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey
A composer and his sister, Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald, are on vacation on the English coast when they see an abandoned house, fall in love with it, and learn it is for sale. Known as Winward House, it has a possibly questionable background and a cold, reserved former owner, Commander Beech, but the price is right and they eagerly purchase it. They also meet Beech’s lovely, imaginative granddaughter Stella. At first she doesn’t want them to buy the house, but Rick and Pamela befriend her and Rick begins to develop feelings for her.
Stella has a somewhat unhealthy attachment to the house, because it is the place her mother died when Stella was a child. Rick and Pamela come to believe the house is haunted and one night at dinner, Stella is overcome by a presence and nearly throws herself off the cliffs. The Fitzgeralds seek the help of local physician Dr. Scott, who tells them about the house’s torrid past. Stella’s father, an artist, had an affair with his model, Carmel, a Spanish gypsy. Mary, Stella’s mother, insisted they take Carmel far away to Paris and leave her there. But Carmel eventually returned and tried to throw the infant Stella over the cliffs. When Mary came to her rescue, Carmel threw Mary over and died of pneumonia soon after.
Believing there are two spirits in the house, benevolent Mary and evil Carmel, they preform a seance. Stella becomes possessed and speaks in Spanish; afterwards she falls ill and Beech secretly sends her to Miss Holloway, her mother’s old best friend who runs a strange sanitarium. Stella is afraid of Miss Holloway and is kept locked up all day. Unaware that Stella is there, the Fitzgeralds visit Miss Holloway and learn more about the family history, though they think she may be lying. Dr. Scott informs them that there may be something odd about Holloway and that she likely killed Carmel with medical neglect. They learn Stella is there and launch a rescue mission, but Holloway has sent Stella back to the house - and to the cliffs - alone.
The Uninvited was the first Hollywood film to seriously examine ghosts and a haunted house without falling back on the two traditional tropes, crime and comedy, which were found all over Hollywood in the ‘20s and ‘30s in films like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Ghost Goes West, Hold That Ghost, and various adaptations of The Cat and the Canary. While Universal embraced the supernatural with Dracula, The Mummy and somewhat with Frankenstein, Paramount were really the first to make an American ghost film.
Moody and atmospheric, director Lewis Allen doesn’t overplay his hand and is careful to make the use of the supernatural sparing, but effective. The early scenes of a woman crying during the night are a particularly clever entry way into the hauntings and manage to avoid the more ludicrous, comic ghostly cliches such as objects moving of their own accord. Charles Lang Jr.’s cinematography is another of the film’s strongest points and was nominated for an Academy Award. Between the wonderfully gothic Devon coast and the excellent lighting, The Uninvited is a beautiful film with a setting that perfectly matches it themes and tone.
There are some strong performances. Ray Milland (The Premature Burial, Dial M for Murder) is likable as always and he feels a bit Cary Grant-like here. His character is responsible for some welcome, but well balanced comedy that never feels cumbersome. The lovely Ruth Hussey (The Philadelphia Story) is good as his sister Pamela and it is to the script’s credit that she takes charge for many scenes and does not dissolve into hysterics over the hauntings. Donald Crisp essentially reprises his role as the controlling, conservative parental figure from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and Alan Napier (Batman and Isle of the Dead) is likable as the friendly, concerned neighborhood doctor. The real star of the film is Gail Russell (Wake of the Red Witch) as the troubled Stella. Her performance carries the film and she is fittingly ethereal, nearly as haunted as the house.
The Uninvited is based on the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle. Though I have not read it, screenwriters Dodie Smith and Frank Partos supposed removed some excessive characters and streamlined the plot, making this a more simple, stripped down affair. In certain instances the film skates close to the line of what was acceptable in ‘40s Hollywood. Though there are somethings I can’t mention without ruining the final twist, Stella’s father’s affair with his model must have been somewhat shocking. Miss Holloway is obviously obsessed with Stella’s mother and though the lesbian undertones of that obsession are not fully spelled out, it is a fairly obvious subtext.
While Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) is known as the best early American ghost film, it takes a number of plot points from The Uninvited, including the use of central female characters and their malevolent mothers. The excellent British film The Innocents (1961), based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, also bears a number of things in common with The Uninvited, perhaps accidentally, such as a torrid sexual affair that haunts the proceedings. It is important to keep in mind that both The Innocents and The Haunting were released in the early ‘60s. In the ‘40s, there were few serious horror films that could content with The Uninvited, with the exception of Val Lewton’s masterful horror films for RKO, such as Cat People and The Seventh Victim, all films essentially about female sexual repression.