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The Uninvited

The Uninvited(1944)

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Now out on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion, the 1944 Paramount film The Uninvited holds up beautifully in 2013 as an elegant yet haunting, and still frightening, ghost story. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey play a brother and sister who happen upon a grand house sitting atop a cliff on England's Cornish coastline. It's empty, and they fall in love with it. It's for sale, and they are able to buy it -- quickly and cheaply. Then they find out why.

Of course, there have been signs the place is haunted... Their dog barks at nothing (which we know is something!) and refuses to go upstairs, and eventually into the house at all. One particular room, which had been the only one locked, is unusually cold and damp, and flowers wilt within seconds of being brought into it. Strange scents permeate the place. And eventually, the sounds of sobbing can be heard in the dead of night, coming "from everywhere and nowhere."

As Milland and Hussey begin to investigate the house's past inhabitants, the previous owner (Donald Crisp) and his granddaughter (Gail Russell) take on greater prominence, as do their deceased relatives. Russell in particular is constantly drawn to the house, where she lived as an infant, but the reasons for this may have evil origins and deadly consequences.

The Uninvited is impeccably made, building an atmosphere of dread even in daylight conditions, right from the haunting prologue of surf pounding the rocky shoreline as we hear Milland in voiceover setting up the story as a giant flashback. But it's when the screen goes dark that the film creates its most satisfying chills. Candlelight, flashlight, moonlight all are photographed by Charles Lang, Jr., in breathtaking high-contrast fashion, making this a movie best enjoyed in a very dark room. There are no cheap thrills here.

Director Lewis Allen, a British theater director making his first feature, works through the power of suggestion. (The inclusion of special-effect ghosts was imposed on him by Paramount, but they do not diminish the film.) He brings not just a wonderful sense of atmosphere and decor but also crisp storytelling skills -- there's simply no fat in this picture. Allen went on to direct solid film noirs like Desert Fury (1947), So Evil My Love (1948), Chicago Deadline (1949) and Suddenly (1954) before moving primarily to television.

If there are any flaws in The Uninvited, it's an occasional overplotted talkiness as Milland and Hussey learn the backstories of the other characters, but the movie is otherwise so visually alive and engaging that this is a minor quibble. Milland and Hussey give fine performances, as do Donald Crisp and Alan Napier as a town doctor, but it's nineteen-year-old Gail Russell in her starring debut who makes the biggest impression. Truly beautiful and magnetic, Russell unfortunately was so nervous and insecure about working in Hollywood that she started drinking on this picture to calm herself, and was never able to give it up. She would die at age 36. Also in the cast is playwright/actress Cornelia Otis Skinner, who takes on a role of Russell's former nanny. In many ways she is to this film as Judith Anderson's "Mrs. Danvers" was to Rebecca (1940), another movie with a prominent, scary house. Both characters have more than a hint of implied lesbianism about them and their devotion to other now-dead female characters -- a quality that did not escape notice by the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1944!

Ultimately, it's refreshing to have The Uninvited on hand again, as it's a rare ghost story told with intelligence and seriousness, a film that successfully makes the audience believe in the supernatural (at least for the duration of the film), allowing them to feel pleasurably chilled and eerily captivated. Audiences in 1944 certainly felt that way. The movie drew rave reviews and made a killing at the box office. Paramount inevitably rushed a follow-up into production, The Unseen (1945), which was in no way connected narratively to The Uninvited, but again featured a creepy, ghostly story, was directed by Lewis Allen and featured Gail Russell in the cast (as well as a script co-written by Raymond Chandler). But it was considered a disappointment, especially when compared to The Uninvited.

Criterion's Blu-ray of The Uninvited boasts a pristine 2K transfer with superb image and sound, which is especially notable considering the film has a very famous score by Victor Young that produced the classic song "Stella By Starlight." Extras include two radio adaptations of the story, featuring Ray Milland, a very interesting and well-produced 27-minute visual essay on the film and its makers by Michael Almereyda, and a booklet with an excellent essay by Farran Smith Nehme and a 1997 interview with Lewis Allen conducted by Tom Weaver. This is a classy presentation of a classy movie, and cis very highly recommended.

By Jeremy Arnold