‘The Uninvited’ (1944) Review

“Now, don’t get rattled, Pam. There’s a logical explanation for this. “

I’ve somehow stumbled into a theme month this March, with 13 Ghosts and Ghostwatch pointing the way to a spectral spook-fest, if I wanted to follow up on it. I also ran into scheduling problems this week, so I found myself in a bind with not as much time as I usually have to write up my review. So this older review of a classic ghost story suggested itself as a way out of my predicament. I updated a few things, but it’s mostly as it was originally written a few years back. Resurrected, if you’ll forgive the pun. New stuff next week – I’ve got my eye on a couple of J-Horror ghost stories.

I rented The Uninvited assuming that I’d never seen it before – I’d been eyeing the Criterion Collection release for a while, but it was completely based on the film’s reputation as one of the first to treat ghosts in a straightforward fashion. ( Up until The Uninvited the ghost was primarily used in comedies and was most often a gag or hoax.) I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy a film sight unseen, however, especially at Criterion prices. When we (briefly) re-upped our Netflix DVD subscription this was one of the first movies on the list – I could finally see this classic!

Unfortunately, as the movie started with the brother and sister (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) approaching a huge house on a cliff top, I realized that I HAD seen the movie before. Seen it and been unimpressed. It was long enough ago that I couldn’t actually remember when I’d seen it, though. Perhaps on one of those Saturday afternoons at Gram’s that I’ve mentioned a few times.

I turned the film off and paced the basement for a few minutes. This was actually the second movie I’d rented erroneously thinking I hadn’t seen it, and I was annoyed with myself. I thought about just looking for something else, either in the collection or on streaming, but I’d had a long day and wasn’t much in the mood to go trawling. I’d been looking forward to a good old-fashioned ghost story as well. Time ticked by. Finally, disgusted with my own indecision, I turned the machine back and sat down to watch. I wasn’t looking forward to it anymore, but it was better than dithering.

The Medium
The Criterion DVD of The Uninvited is good, looking sharp on my screen even though it’s not HD quality. Unlike some recent DVDs I’ve gotten from Netflix, this one had a few extras on it – including a ‘pictorial essay’ which is as boring as it sounds. I imagine the Blu-ray is well worth it.

Unfortunately, The Uninvited doesn’t appear to be available on streaming at the moment, not even on Criterion’s own channel.

The Movie
The Uninvited follows a pair of siblings, Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey). On a vacation together in Cornwall they stumble across an abandoned cliffside house. Taken with the resemblance to their own childhood residence they inquire about it with the owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp). In short order they purchase it for an extremely low price.

During the transaction they meet the Commander’s granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell), who is very upset at the sale. The house (called Windward House) was once her mother’s, and she feels it is the last connection she has with her, it being the place where her mother died. Stella’s grandfather has forbidden her to visit the place, but she’s invited to visit by Rick, who is attracted to her and tries to get her to shake off her conformity by going sailing with him.

At this point I was still pretty unhappy with things and the general tone – more romantic comedy than spookfest – wasn’t making me feel much better. I think my mood allowed me to disregard things that were already slightly off in the film – the locked door at the top of the stairs, the weird insistence by the Commander about Stella staying away from Windward. Still, I soldiered on.

Things do get more spooky after the Fitzgeralds purchase the house. While most of the house is fine the locked room turns out to be a study with a distinctly chilly air. (Aesthetically, it’s one of the most beautiful sets, so it was difficult to buy it as being an awful room.) In fact, the room seems to suck all the joy and energy out of anyone who enters it – both Rick and Pamela are almost overcome with ennui. So of course Rick chooses it as his study, where he’ll write music!

The night Rick returns from London (where he goes almost immediately after the purchase of the house – leaving Pamela to start renovating) he awakens to the sound of a woman sobbing and moaning. Assuming it’s his sister or the housekeeper he creeps out into the hall. When his sister also comes into the hall she informs him that there’s a ghost in the house. Rick, trying to be sensible, insists there has to be a rational explanation. Sure buddy. Sure there is.

Stella comes to visit for dinner at Rick’s express invitation and she senses a spirit, which she assumes is her mother due to the strong accompanying scent of mimosa, her mother’s favorite perfume. Overcome by some force she dashes for the cliff before Rick saves her at the last second. She has no memory of the event.

Okay, okay things are starting to pick up here. The ghost moaning is pretty creepy and it’s fun to watch Rick’s face as he tries to convince himself that there’s nothing supernatural going on. The sudden flight by Stella towards the cliff is startling as well. Things get more interesting as the town doctor, Dr. Scott (Alan Napier) gets involved. First he helps with Stella and then gives the Fitzgeralds some more background info on how her mother died.

Seems Stella’s father, a painter, had an affair with a gypsy woman named Carmel. Stella’s mother, Mary Meredith, took Carmel to Paris and left her there. At some point Carmel returned and, during a struggle, flung Mary Meredith from the cliff. She died herself not long after.

Now we’re entering Gothic romance territory! This movie is getting better all the time. Soon they’re throwing a fake séance to try and break Stella’s unnatural attraction to the place, but it all goes awry of course, with the glass moving by itself and Stella being possessed by a spirit and talking in Spanish.

The Commander gets wind of all this and responds by sending Stella to a sanitarium run by a woman named Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) – who turns out to have once been a friend of Mary Meredith. The Fitzgeralds and Dr. Scott continue their investigations, even interviewing Miss Hollaway while unaware that Stella has been imprisoned on the premises.

Things build from there with conspiracies, TWO ghosts, and a frightening climactic confrontation at Windward. I don’t want to give too much away, even though it’s been 60 years since the film came out. I saw the twists coming, but they’re fun and I don’t want to spoil anything for folks who haven’t seen it.

The cinematography is excellent and on the whole the film is really well made, with good pacing, sets and acting. The special effects are few, but they’re effective when used. I usually like Ray Milland a lot – even in low-budget films like Frogs – but he’s a little stiff here. I would have loved to see Jimmy Stewart in the same role, as I think he would have had more energy and range. Still, Rick is likeable and his expressions really are priceless sometimes. Ruth Hussey is great and Gail Russell is just stunning.

The Bottom Line
I must have been in a mood the first time I saw The Uninvited, because it’s excellent. Yes, it’s a melodrama and there’s plenty of romantic shenanigans, but there’s also some atmospheric spookiness and good, old-fashioned ghost action as well. I ended up liking it a lot, and recommend it for lovers of classic (and romantic) horror.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.