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Ominous October: The Uninvited (1944)

It's that time of year when people seek out their favorite scary movies to give themselves a chill. We will be reviewing spine-tinglers from the classic movie era. Today, Adam and Rodney review The Uninvited.

ADAM: As ocean waves relentlessly beat against the craggy coastline, a mild English voice guides the viewer into the netherworld of a ghost story. To an American, the mere mention of such places as Devonshire and Cornwall invokes a world far away from the ordinary concerns of life. The narrator goes a step further in establishing the uncanny setting: “Mists gather here, and sea fog, and eerie stories…” The Uninvited is one such story; it’s perhaps the purest model of supernatural Gothic to come out of the Hollywood studio system.

RODNEY: Ghost stories were hot stuff in 1944. Times were dark in the US, and we were doubtlessly dealing with far more in the way of death than we had been accustomed to (or that we should ever become accustomed to). While maybe not the first ghost story to be taken seriously in Hollywood, The Uninvited definitely blazed a trail. Our spooks had in the past been of the grotesque as Universal’s monsters, or maybe came with a healthy dose of chuckles from the likes of Bud & Lou or Bob Hope, but then, the latter especially, rarely centered on REAL ghosts.

A: 1940’s Rebecca is an obvious influence on The Uninvited, but the Hitchcock classic and the gothic films it spawned tended to only flirt with the supernatural. In this case, there is no detective or psychoanalyst to explain away the apparitions.

The notorious Windward House.

R: What struck me about watching The Uninvited is how the film starts like a light comedy, with Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey randomly coming across a house in Cornwall when their dog (shades of Asta?) chases a squirrel inside the beautiful, empty home. Seemingly on a whim, they purchase it for a steal. Seems like some antics may be coming doesn’t it? But that’s not the case. Instead, the house is haunted by the ghost of a young mother whose daughter lives with her grandfather who sold the house. There is a second ghost too, and lots of strange scents, chills and bizarre crying. We’re talking about some genuinely eerie proceedings here.

Ruth Hussey and Ray Milland hear a woman crying.

A: Milland and Hussey are the uninvited, plunking their ordinariness into a fantastic scenario. In a movie like this, it’s essential to have at least one average, healthily skeptical protagonist for the audience to identify with. The film does a great job ratcheting up the horror. The painter’s studio on the second floor of the house—ironically, the most well-lit room in the place—has the bizarre ability to make the occupant feel an acute sense of depression. Moments upon first unlocking the door, Milland’s spirit dissipates. “I suddenly felt completely flattened,” he says. We then see their bouquet of flowers wilt in a matter of seconds—the first inkling that the threat is indeed external.

Gail Russell feels the spirit.

R: The highlight of the film for me is the performance of Gail Russell, who depending on who you believe was either an insufferable diva on set, or was so paralyzed by stage fright that she could only remember a few lines at a time and turned to drink to get through the filming days. I suppose both could be true but knowing the tragedy of how Russell’s career path went (she died of alcoholism at 36 and relied on friends and colleagues for film parts for close to the last 10 years of her life), I found her performance very affecting. She certainly seems scared to death. You can see it in her eyes, even.

The painter's studio in Windward House.

A: Gail Russell and Milland perform the most effective scene of the film in that painter’s studio. Under the last vestiges of daylight, the actors converse in silhouette against the room’s wide expanse of windows. Then, under candlelight, Milland serenades Russell by improvising “To Stella by Starlight” on the grand piano. The light fades to near darkness as Milland’s playing gradually becomes more melancholic. The scene culminates in a crescendo which calls to mind the dark romanticism of Vertigo. It’s one of those shining moments in movies where all the elements come together. Victor Young’s score interplays beautifully with the diegetic piano. Charles Lang’s cinematography is richly shadowed. It’s such a lush scene that it’s worth watching with the sound off just to observe the performances—both actors becoming “completely flattened” as the room exerts its malignant influence. Even if you find the story silly, it’s hard not to be swept up by director Lewis Allen’s perfectly modulated tone. It’s an auspicious directorial debut and I don’t know if he ever reached these heights again.

R: The film is generally well regarded today and did well upon its initial release. Audiences were often treated to this somber and atmospheric feature after gigantic over-the-top vaudeville shows (the Capitol Theatre in Washington DC even had Henny Youngman and Pansy the Wonder Horse as a lead up to the film, according to John McElwee, which is quite a contrast to the pitch-black room that I watched the film, solitarily).

A: Leave it to American showmen to plan such a well-rounded evening of entertainment!

R: Reviews in the What the Pictures Did For Me columns in Motion Picture Herald tell a somewhat different story of small town patronage not knowing quite what to make of this picture. “You better turn on your deodorizer while you run it. You will need it.” proclaimed AE Hancock of the Columbia Theater of Columbia City, IN mincing no words. As for me, I like Ray Milland and Ruth Hussy just fine, and while the film is a little overlong and meandering in places, the performance of Gail Russell and the general creepiness of the proceedings are plenty good enough for me to regard this one as a four-star picture. The Uninvited has a fine reputation and it’s well deserved. Not a perfect movie, but a very good one.

A: The film is based on Dorothy Macardle’s novel Uneasy Freehold. Marcardle, who was for a time a political prisoner, is best known for her writings about the Irish Civil War. This propagandistic bent apparently provides subtext to the novel. I don’t think much of this translated into the film version, but that’s not to say there aren't any transgressive qualities to the movie. She’s not quite to the level of Agnes Moorehead in Rebecca, but Cornelia Otis Skinner’s Miss Holloway is sufficiently psychotic. Notably, the film portrays ghosts and humans as both having the capacity for evil.

Cornelia Otis Skinner as Miss Holloway.

The narrator at the beginning of the film suggests that the people of these coastal towns are more attuned to the supernatural, so I looked at The Irish Times’ review as a benchmark. Their Cinema Correspondent wrote, “The atmosphere is, from the start, pitched tortuously high, but the thread of tension never snaps and the audience are kept perspiring merrily from start to finish. Lewis Allen directed this melodrama, and I doubt if even Hitchcock could have made a better job of it.” James Agee concurred, noting that he “…experienced thirty-five first-class jolts, not to mention a well-calculated texture of minor frissons.” Maybe the ensuing 77 years—and an unceasing barrage of screen terror—has lessened the number of first-class jolts to a modern audience but The Uninvited still holds strong as a literate, masterfully concocted chiller. Four stars.

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A little comment about the painting of the ghost. Surprisingly, this is due to a tangent when reading about Maria Montez. Montez was very good friends with the actress Elizabeth Russell, who kept her surname after she divorced Rosalind Russell's brother. She was not in many films, although Val Lewton liked her and used her in a couple of his. And the studio must have liked her too and thought she would be the perfect image to depict the ghost of Mary Meredith, Stella Meredith's mother. Coincidentally, both Meredith actresses shared the same last name of Russell as well.

Adam Williams
Adam Williams
Nov 02, 2021
Replying to

I saw Elizabeth Russell in the cast list on IMDb and I knew I'd come across her before, I just couldn't place the face. Taking a look now, I remember that she is a particularly frightening presence in The Curse of the Cat People. Thank you for making this connection between two of the best horror films of '44.

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