I enjoyed watching Lewis Allen's 1944 haunted house feature The Uninvited for the first time on Criterion Blu-ray as much as I raised my eyebrows. Considered one of the first supernatural films to take the idea of ghosts seriously rather than as a punchline, it undoubtedly has an effective level of atmosphere and while it successfully takes its ghost story seriously, it also knows to balance any tension with some humorous beats and moments of romance. That said, I wasn't really buying the romance angle and making this a tale of cohabitating siblings also seemed a little... weird to me.
We're introduced to Rick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) on holiday in Cornwall, England where they stumble upon a cliffside house. After their dog chases a squirrel through an open window, they ultimately barge in to fetch him, realizing the house has been empty for some time. For whatever reason, they fall in love with it and decide on a whim they want to make an offer.
Seeking out the house's owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), Rick makes a ridiculously low offer, surprised to not only have it accepted, but to also learn there is talk that the house is haunted. Both he and Pamela laugh off the idea, shake hands and are now the proud new owners of what is known throughout as Windward House.
Adding to the mystery behind the house's legacy, we meet Beech's granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell), whom has been barred from visiting the house for reasons initially unknown, but we do begin to learn of a family secret that drives the plot to completion.
Looked at with modern sensibilities, The Uninvited has several little elements that stick out like a sore thumb. The idea of a brother and sister vacationing together and suddenly deciding to buy a house and move in together is weird to me. Walking along the beach with their little dog they may as well be a couple and, outside of acting on anything romantically, they have all the signs of being married. They're not. Then, Rick begins to rather creepily yearn for the 20-year-old Stella, who must be at least 15 years his younger, over the course of a long afternoon. Beech may want to keep Stella away from Windward House because of the terrors that still walk the halls, but I'd be more afraid of the creep that just moved in if it was me.
There is also a strange decision made in how the characters refer to Stella's deceased parents who once resided at Windward before their untimely deaths. Stella's mother, who died falling off the cliff just yards from the front door, is known by her full name, Mary Meredith, while her father, a painter, is referred to only as Meredith. As plot details come to light, conversations in which Mary Meredith and Meredith are mentioned in the same breath become a blur of confusion. In fact, I'm not sure how the actors even kept the story straight.
I'd be lying if I said these details didn't affect my initial impression of the film, though there remains more to enjoy than to nitpick, even though it would have made for a far more intriguing storyline if instead of simply starting a romance with Stella, he was actually attempting to cheat on his wife with the young girl. Given the nature of the mystery at the film's core this parallel story could have resulted in a spectacularly dark finale and would make for a wonderful remake if placed in the hands of the right modern day director.
Where I found an appreciation for the film, however, is in the treatment of the supernatural and not only the ways in which we're meant to be kept on edge, but in the characters' interactions with the ghosts around them. The best example I can think of comes one morning, just before dawn as Rick awakes to the sound of someone crying. Believing it's Pamela he rushes out of his room only to find she hears it too and has heard it before. She talks of how it will slowly fade with the dawn breeze so matter-of-factly it's a little jarring. If you were to wake up in your house to the sounds of a woman howling from some dark corner of your home I suspect you'd be more wide-eyed and alarmed, just as Rick is, than to simply slough it off as Pamela does.
In her included essay with this Criterion release, Farran Smith Nehme suggests scenes such as this are what makes the film scary, or at least more frightening than the likes of films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. She writes: "People do not, as a general rule, encounter chain-saw-wielding cannibal families when they go too far outside the city limits. But how many have been alone in a strange and isolated house and lain awake, hoping that the sound outside the bedroom door wasn't footsteps?"
I agree, and this is actually why I find elements of the Paranormal Activity franchise frightening, it's the unseen element within the every day setting that makes it chilling. Sure, horror films may gross us out, but by comparison, a bump in the night, whether you believe it's a ghost or a possible intruder, is going to be far more scary a thought than to believe you're somehow going to stumble upon a house of inbred cousins in the woods hellbent on chopping you up and wearing your skin as a jacket... as unpleasant as that sounds.
Even better than this, though, are the glimpses of Mary's one-time nurse, Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) whom everyone who writes about this film is sure to liken to Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, which is one of my personal favorites. Holloway's devotion to Mary suggests something more than just a nurse-patient relationship. Her introduction into the story is just as muddy as other elements, but her impact is lasting.
For a Criterion release this one is rather light on features, though what is included is worth it. Michael Almereyda presents a nearly 30-minute visual essay on the film that largely explores the careers of Ray Milland and the tragic end to the career of Gail Russell. In addition to this there are two radio adaptations, from 1944 and 1949, both starring Milland. I don't believe I've ever listened to a radio presentation in the past, but I listened to both of these. Each runs 30 minutes and most interesting is what each decides to cut from the story and what to include. The end result is always the same, though I wonder how I would have felt listening had I not just watched the film.
Overall, I enjoyed this release and loved the HD presentation of some stellar black-and-white photography from Charles Lang (Ace in the Hole, The Big Heat). Despite my qualms with the story, I like these old school Gothic horrors more reliant on shadows, the use of sound and the actors' performances than CG blood and guts. I wouldn't rush to call it a classic, but for those that know what to expect this is a worthy addition to your collection. Not to mention, the next time you watch the original Poltergeist you'll understand the intent when Jobeth Williams says, "Mmmmm, smell the mimosa."