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Who doesn't love a good ghost story? Yet, how many truly memorable movies about the supernatural can you actually name? There aren't many though The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1963) quickly come to mind. Prior to the sixties, however, the subject of haunted houses was a rarity in Hollywood movies and that's what makes The Uninvited (1944) unique for its era. With the exception of the atmospheric RKO pictures of producer Val Lewton (Cat People (1942), Isle of the Dead, 1945) and The Wolf Man (1941), the last of the great Universal horrors, the genre hit hard times in the forties, with an abundance of formulaic sequels (The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Son of Dracula (1943), The Mummy's Ghost, 1944) and uninspired low-budget features (The Ape Man (1943), The Face of Marble, 1946). The Uninvited, on the other hand, is a grade-A production from Paramount Pictures, not a studio usually associated with horror films. Produced by Charles Brackett (a frequent screenplay collaborator with director Billy Wilder), the film is a handsomely mounted thriller with a first-rate cast, atmospheric cinematography by Charles Lang, Victor Young's emotionally gripping score, and a highly original story that invites Freudian interpretations of the characters while inserting a lesbian subtext and a droll sense of humor.
While on holiday, music critic Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) discover an abandoned mansion on the Cornish coast. With its remote yet breathtaking location on a sea cliff, Windward House completely captivates them with its possibilities; Roderick sees it as an ideal workplace where he can finally devote himself to his true love, composing music. But when they set out to purchase it from its owner Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), they encounter resistance from his granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), who has a strong attachment to the house. It is soon learned that Stella's mother died there under mysterious circumstances. Nevertheless, the sale goes through and Roderick and Pamela move into Windward House - and almost immediately begin to experience strange occurrences. The sound of footsteps and mournful sobbing keeps them awake at night, the dog barks at something no one can see, and the overpowering scent of flowers and unexplained cold waves often permeate rooms, defying any logical explanation. Windward House is obviously haunted but why? Roderick and Pamela begin to uncover the mystery with the help of Stella whose visits to the house increase the spectral activity and place the young girl in great danger.
While it might have chilled audiences of its era, The Uninvited is not a frightening film by contemporary standards. It is, however, an intriguing mood piece, as subtle and suggestive in its imagery as the best of Val Lewton's work. Incidents that could easily appear clichéd and trite - a séance by candlelight, doors that open and close by themselves, flowers that wilt suddenly in the presence of something evil - convey a genuine sense of the otherworldly. But what makes the film unique are the atypical relationships. The siblings Roderick and Pamela appear to be successful, in their early thirties and single with no current romantic interests. Yet they have set up housekeeping together in a remote location and for all appearances live together like a happily married couple. Their celibate lifestyle, however, proves to be a key to the supernatural events that unfold in the course of the film. When the cause of the hauntings is finally revealed, it is directly linked to the dysfunctional relationship of the former owners, Mr. and Mrs. Meredith. A loveless marriage, an unrequited lesbian relationship, an extramarital affair and attempted murder have left such palpable bad karma in the house that only a healthy loving relationship can effectively exorcise it. And in the course of the film, both Roderick and Pamela find desirable mates, permanently ending the house's dreadful curse. While a Freudian reading of the film might have seemed inappropriate during the forties, it's impossible to ignore now, especially the scenes involving Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), the sinister rest home director, whose obsession with the former Mrs. Meredith is all too clearly spelled out. In a possible homage to the film Rebecca (1940), Skinner makes Miss Holloway as dangerously loony and frightening as Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's 1940 film.
Because The Uninvited was such an unusual project for Paramount, the studio was uncertain how to market it and decided to add some special effects at the last minute to exploit the film's supernatural premise. While the ectoplasmic apparitions are appropriately eerie and more subtle than any present day computer-generated effects, they were removed by the censors when the film was distributed in England and, in many cases, critics and moviegoers preferred that version because it was more suggestive and less obvious.
The Uninvited was a box office hit and also fared well with critics in the U.S., but during the Oscars® it received only one Academy Award nomination and that was for Best Cinematography (it lost to Laura). The film is also famous for introducing the song, "Stella by Starlight," which has since become a pop standard. Paramount tried to imitate the success of The Uninvited the following year with The Unseen. Although it also starred Gail Russell, it was not a ghost story but a conventional murder mystery. It was not a success despite a screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Hagar Wilde.
Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Lewis Allen
Screenplay: Dorothy Macardle (novel), Frank Partos, Dodie Smith
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Film Editing: Doane Harrison
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegte
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Ray Milland (Roderick Fitzgerald), Ruth Hussey (Pamela Fitzgerald), Donald Crisp (Commander Beech), Cornelia Otis Skinner (Miss Holloway), Dorothy Stickney (Miss Bird), Barbara Everest (Lizzie Flynn).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford