Charles Frank, 1947
Starring: Jean Simmons, Derrick De Marney, Katina Paxinou, John Laurie
When young Caroline Ruthyn’s father passes away, she is sent to her guardian, her Uncle Silas, whom she has never met. He had an unsavory past — and may be connected with a murder — but her father claims that Silas has mended his ways and is a dutiful Christian. When Caroline first goes to live with him, the estate is somber, but she is otherwise content and learns that an older female cousin — and a handsome suitor — are nearby. But Uncle Silas is really only interested in Caroline’s fortune and hopes she will marry his son, her disreputable cousin Dudley. When this doesn’t work, Silas makes increasingly sinister plans.
Based on the 1864 novel Uncle Silas by Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu, this is really more of a Gothic melodrama than a horror film, but contains a lot of the greatest hits of Gothic literature: a beautiful and vulnerable young heroine, a duplicitous older relative with designs on her, a spooky old house with foreboding wing, issues of inheritance, and murderous plots. Le Fanu might not be as familiar of a name as horror writers like Bram Stoker or H.P. Lovecraft, but his influence on the genre is nonetheless profound. He’s often remembered for the novella Carmilla, the origin of the lesbian female vampire trope, but Uncle Silas was his most popular work and also influenced the emerging mystery genre.
I’m a big fan of Gothic literature — the combination of spooky themes and overwrought melodrama is too much for me to resist — but Uncle Silas certainly has some of the genre’s weak spots. Many of these stories, including the first, The Castle of Otranto, have depictions of human behavior that are a little difficult to swallow. I can accept that Uncle Silas had a dark past, was ostracized from the family, has now reformed, and wants to be brought back into the fold. But Caroline’s father has an almost pathological commitment to welcoming Silas back into the family, so much so that he is inspired to write a codicil into his will. Though Caroline is quite close with an adult female cousin, Monica, who lives nearby, the will decrees that she should go and live with Silas, a man she’s never met who potentially committed a murder.
Luckily the film plays Silas’s true intentions close to the chest for awhile. He and the sweet-tempered Caroline become quite close and he seems very fond of her. While his son is portrayed as the true villain — drunkenly trying to manhandle Caroline on several occasions — Silas’s actions are murkier. Actor Derrick De Marney was only 40 years old when he was cast as Silas, even though the character is supposed to be significantly older — too old to want to marry Caroline himself, thus electing his grown son — and he is essentially only aged with a little make up, a white wig, and De Marney’s sound acting ability. He really is fun to watch and refuses to descend into full blown camp, with the exception of one or two delightful moments. Taking the opposite approach is Katina Paxinou, a renowned Greek actress cast as Madame de la Rougierre, Caroline’s hated former French governess. She reaches some amazing levels of histrionics.
I love the doll-like Jean Simmons, who was fresh off a great performance in Great Expectations (1946) and about to embark on Black Narcissus and Hamlet. Though I prefer her in darker roles like Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952), where she really sizzles opposite Robert Mitchum, she is captivating here. But though she plays an innocent character in Uncle Silas, she at least avoids my most hated stereotype of all time: the utterly helpless young woman waiting around to be rescued. Caroline (thankfully they changed her name from Maud, as it is in the novel) is innocent and naive, but not swooning and defenseless. She is spirited, stands up for herself, and does come to understand that her uncle is not the sweet man he seemed to be in the first two acts of the film.
This Two Cities Films production is a little hard to find on DVD, though you can watch it on the BFI site. There’s also a Greek import DVD, though it’s region 2 only. This comes recommended to any fans of Jean Simmons, Gothic melodrama, or films with spooky dark houses. There’s some lovely cinematography from Robert Krasker (The Third Man) and there are certainly worse ways to pass 90 minutes.