[toggle title=”Specs” state=”close” ]
Director: Lewis Allen
Cast: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Gail Russell, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Alan Napier
Length: 99 min
Release Date: Oct 22th, 2013
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English: Mono LPCM 2.0
- New visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda
- Two radio adaptations, from 1944 and 1949, both starring Ray Milland
- PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme and a 1997 interview with director Lewis Allen
Somehow The Uninvited (1944) slipped under my radar. I’d been looking forward to seeing this often praised horror mystery for many years. The Uninvited makes Top 10 Scariest Movies lists every Halloween. Respected genre filmmaker Guillermo del Toro chose The Uninvited as one of his six favorite “fright flicks” in a 2011 article in USA Today. Well, don’t get your hopes too high, because frankly, The Uninvited is a little disappointing, despite the presence of Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey and Cornelia Otis Skinner, as well as director Lewis Allen, whose credits include The Unseen (a sequel to The Uninvited), So Evil My Love and Suddenly.
For decades, The Uninvited was held up by film reviewers as one of the scariest haunted house movies ever made. To which I say: not so! I don’t think The Uninvited was all that frightening even when it was first released almost 70 years ago. The Lodger (also released in 1944) and Hangover Square (1945) are scarier pictures!
Wealthy composer Roderick Fitzgerald (Milland) and his sister Pamela (Hussey, occupation unknown) buy an old house on the Cornish coast on impulse and relocate from London. Meeting with Windward House’s owner, Commander Beech (a flinty Donald Crisp), the Fitzgeralds are amazed when their low offer is immediately accepted, as if the owner is glad to rid himself of the lonely cliff-top property. However, before sealing the deal, Beech warns the siblings that the house is subject to strange “disturbances”… in this case, haunted by the ghost of his daughter Mary Meredith, the mother of Stella Meredith (the tremulous Gale Russell, in her first film role). Years before, Mary fell off the precipice behind the seaside residence, landing on the rocks below. (This scene is only described in expository dialogue). Since Mary’s death, there have been otherworldly “visitations” at the Fitzgerald’s new home.
This isn’t in-your-face horror. It could be argued that The Uninvited is too subtle by half… and that the plot is overly convoluted, as much of the action is described and not seen. It is easy to lose the thread of the narrative in this glossy and elegant production. We hear a crying woman late at night, (a genuinely creepy moment). Before an apparition reveals itself, a strong scent of mimosa pervades the room. Candles burn out in cold spots. A makeshift séance leads to a frightening revelation. A cat behaves aggressively when an invisible entity hovers over the staircase. The Uninvited is more of a murder mystery with supernatural overtones. The culprit is eventually revealed in the guise of a diaphanous apparition.
It seems two ghosts are vying for control of the soul of Stella Meredith, driving her to leap from the nearby cliff to the waves crashing against the rocks below on that rough stretch of Cornish coastline. (Incidentally, the settings of The Uninvited are so convincing you’d swear you were in sunny southern California).No discussion of The Uninvited is complete without some mention of the sad fate of the ingenue. Gail Russell became something of a Hollywood horror story in her final years, before her untimely death in a room full of empty vodka bottles in 1961, at age 36. Almost as though she were cursed by her debut in The Uninvited, Russell became a chronic alcoholic and drunk driver, busted many times, until Hollywood “uninvited” her. She became something of a joke in Tinseltown, except to those she injured in hit-and-runs. One can’t help but wonder if the oversensitive Russell was affected by the ghosts of The Uninvited, in a manner similar to the way in which Linda Blair was said to be affected by The Exorcist’s demons 30 years later.
But it’s good (almost comforting) to see the reliable Alan Napier as a local doctor. Viewers of a certain age may remember Napier as Alfred the Butler from TV’s Batman series starring Adam West.
One major problem with The Uninvited is that Ray Milland seems to be doing a different film from everyone else. He paces his dialogue as though he is in a screwball comedy. The lightness of his touch and the breeziness of his manner drain the film of fear, as his character seems oblivious to the spooky events in the haunted house. Perhaps if The Uninvited had been filmed after Milland played a desperate alcoholic in The Lost Weekend, his performance might have had darker shadings and been more on-target. Obviously, Lost Weekend director Billy Wilder saw something dark in Milland that no one else did.
The Uninvited really shines in Criterion’s 2K digital restoration. One of the best things about the film is Charles Lang Jr.’s atmospheric cinematography. The shots of Milland and Hussey creeping around their haunted mansion by candlelight make the ghosts seem almost palpable in the air. Contrast looks very pleasing. Natural film grain is present, but not obtrusive, even in low light scenes. The print itself is certainly aged, but looks to be in good condition, and there is no sign of artificial sharpening, or DNR filtering. In short… this is now the best way to see The Uninvited, and is in keeping with Criterion’s usual high standards.
The mono soundtrack is fully equal to the demands put upon it, and provides plenty of atmosphere when the ghosts start making a racket. Age damage is kept to a minimum, and there are no real issues with hiss or crackling.
The extra features include two radio adaptations of The Uninvited: The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater broadcast of 1944 (with Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey and Betty Field as Stella), The Screen Director’s Playhouse broadcast of 1949 (with Ray Milland), and “Giving Up the Ghost: Notes on The Uninvited,” a thoroughly absorbing 27-minute visual essay by Michael Almereyda on the film’s history, branching out into a study of Milland’s later career in horror films such as X and The Thing with Two Heads, as well as an account of Russell’s sad history and premature death from liver failure.
Although overrated and not particularly frightening, The Uninvited was one of the first Hollywood films to take ghosts seriously, as Michael Almereyda points out in “Giving Up the Ghost.” Up until then, ghosts and haunted houses had appeared in comedies and spoofs, or were revealed to be a scam or scare tactic employed by crooks. The Uninvited tackles the supernatural elements head-on. The anguished spirits in Windward House are not kidding around. But because so much is revealed in expository dialogue (without even the occasional flashback), the plot of The Uninvited is confusing and talky. The evil ghost that withers the flowers and scares the cat is presumably not the benevolent ghost that smells like mimosa. But the fact that two rival female ghosts share the old Gothic mansion isn’t revealed until late in the proceedings, further confusing the viewer (and perhaps the screenwriters as well). Unfortunately, several moments of dim comedy seem to have been lifted from an entirely different movie, possibly aimed at showcasing the talents of lightweight leading man Ray Milland, best known at this juncture in his career as the lead player in a series of frothy comedies such as The Major and the Minor. The Uninvited almost gives up the ghost because of these inane comic interludes, just as it’s starting to build up a head of steam. Yet because of its acceptance of the supernatural and adult treatment of the subject of ghosts, The Uninvited (flawed as it may be) deserves its place of prominence in the history of supernatural cinema.