Criterion // 1944 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // October 22nd, 2013
This house is for the living!
Many years ago, before slasher films were considered a viable form of horror, lists of scariest movies would include the likes of The Haunting, The Innocents, Rosemary's Baby, and Psycho; cooler lists might have had entries like Carnival of Souls and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary.
One film that I recall making all the lists was 1944's The Uninvited. I remember, back in the day, catching it on TV (PBS always showed it around Halloween) and talking about it with my friends (we were around 12); like me, they were sufficiently spooked by it.
While it continued to turn up on PBS throughout the '80s, and evidently had a VHS release, The Uninvited is only now getting a proper R1 DVD/Blu-ray release.
Is this disc, from the always-reliable Criterion, worth the wait, or is this a classic remembered more fondly than deserved?
Brother and sister Rick (Ray Milland, Love Story) and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ruth Hussey, The Philadelphia Story) quite literally stumble upon a beautiful vacant mansion -- Windward -- on the coast of Great Britain. Pamela feels a connection to the place immediately, so they decide to make an offer to the owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp, How Green Was My Valley). Despite the modest sum the siblings offer, Beech accepts immediately, much to the consternation of his granddaughter, Stella Meredith (Gail Russell, Salty O'Rourke). Stella had lived in the house until she was 3, at which time her mother -- Beech's daughter -- died in a tragic accident: she fell off the cliff into the sea.
The Fitzgeralds hear rumors that the house might be haunted, but they brush them off -- until one night, when they hear the sounds of a woman weeping. Their dog becomes spooked and runs away, and when their maid joins them, her cat refuses to climb the staircase. Plus, one of the rooms -- an artist studio that had been used by Stella's father -- has an odd effect on those who enter it, causing them to feel depressed and uncomfortable.
The Fitzgeralds aren't about to leave this place they love, so they try to investigate. Slowly, they learn the history of Windward, and the sad story of the Merediths, Stella's unhappily married parents, and the dark secrets that might cause spirits to be restless at this large house by the sea.
A room where all who enter become unsettled...a sobbing woman...the scent of mimosa...dimmed lights...and the waves crashing below a foreboding cliff. These are the elements of horror in The Uninvited, a classic haunted house story that -- I'm happy to report -- holds up quite well after all these years.
Directed by Lewis Allen (Appointment with Danger), The Uninvited takes its time to reveal itself as a horror film. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, with a number of stops along the way for light comedy -- a strength of leading man Milland, but something that comes close to dragging the film down.
The comic interludes -- Rick getting seasick on a boat ride with Stella, Rick's comic reaction after he and Pamela encounter a spirit -- always made me a little impatient. They detracted from the horror elements, and played a bit heavy-handedly. But watching The Uninvited now, after so many years, I understand why the filmmakers felt the need to leaven the horror: At its center, The Uninvited tells a truly terrible and sordid tale, and without the lighter moments, it might have just been too much to take at the time.
This being the '40s, the real root of the horror involves psychosexual underpinnings, this time a quadrangle of illicit -- and, given its time, unnatural -- relationships that still echo and have turned the house evil. The mystery here is picked through carefully and unraveled slowly, with a number of twists and surprises that end up being more disturbing the more they're considered.
Without getting into detail about her character, it would be remiss here not to mention the performance of Cornelia Otis Skinner, who is chillingly malevolent as a predatory family friend who holds the key to the corrupt secrets of Windward. Like Judith Anderson in Rebecca, Skinner fetishizes a grand and ominous portrait and a forbidden memory. It's a memorable performance that contributes greatly to the atmosphere of dank and dread that powers the film's second half, and has propelled it to classic status.
Rather than the in-your-face horror we've grown accustomed to, Allen weaves the horror throughout The Uninvited like a fine but strong thread. It's the elephant in the room, and when it's finally unleashed, past the midpoint, it's almost cathartic.
The film is beautifully shot, and while the score has a few too many obvious notes for my taste (again, those comedy bits), it also contains the beautiful "Stella by Starlight," which is incorporated wonderfully into the film -- Rick is a composer, and he writes the serenade for the lovely Stella (only to have it come out as a dirge when he plays it in the haunted room).
In what would be her best role in a career -- and a life -- cut short by alcoholism -- Gail Russell shines as Stella, the young woman with connections to the house; her delicate performance is a stand-out. Milland and the underrated Ruth Hussey are excellent as the Fitzgerald siblings, and receive fine support from Crisp, as well as Alan Napier (Alfred from TV's Batman) as a local doctor.
Criterion's Blu-ray sports a very good image for this 70-year-old film. There's some softness, particularly in close-ups, but it's overall solid work, with very good detail and contrast, and a fine, filmic grain; it well-represents Charles Lang's striking, Oscar-nominated cinematography. The LPCM Mono track is excellent, with neither nary hiss nor crackle.
The supplemental package is disappointingly slim: a pair of radio adaptations of the story, both of which were on the R2 disc, and an excellent 27-minute Visual Essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, "Giving Up the Ghost." "Visual Essay" is really just a cool term for a retrospective featurette, and in this one, Almereyda provides some nice insights on the film, talks about Russell and Milland -- focusing much of the discussion on another of the actor's films, Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear -- and brings in a cultural anthropologist to talk about how people react to the notion of spirits. Additionally, we get the typically fine Criterion illustrated booklet with an essay by film writer Farran Smith Nehme, and an interview from 1997 with director Lewis Allen by Tom Weaver for his book Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks; and the film's trailer.
While the Visual Essay is excellent and the radio adaptations entertaining, but I wish Criterion had put a little more into this supplemental package. Its heretofore absence from digital media had dropped The Uninvited into undeserved obscurity, and this release will, hopefully, go a long way to righting that injustice. Even though the film hasn't been easy to find in the past couple of decades, it's still quite influential; Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), for instance, has mentioned it as one of his favorite horror films, as has Martin Scorsese. Given that the film has a pretty strong fan base, it would have been nice if Criterion had gotten someone like Del Toro to offer some thoughts.
Need something to watch on a chilly night? I've got something for you to watch on a chilly night.
The Uninvited is a pure, classy, and classic haunted house story. Highly recommended.
Not Guilty -- by Starlight.
Review content copyright © 2013 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1944
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Visual Essay
* Radio Adaptations