The Uninvited (1944)
Dir. Lewis Allen
Written by Frank Partos, Dodie Smith
Starring Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner
An adult brother (Ray Milland, THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE, OUT OF THE PAST) and sister (Ruth Hussey, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) decide to move into an old seaside mansion on the Cornish coast, only to find (immediately) that it’s haunted by the ghost of a former occupant, who may well be the mother of the brother’s wildly inappropriate naive teenage girlfriend (Gail Russell, OUR HEARTS WERE YOUNG AND GAY). Spooky stuff ensues, like the rooms get cold, there’s some disembodied crying, a seance. Sounds like pretty standard stuff, except that at the time it was something of a pioneer: it appears to be the first actual horror movie to center on a ghost.
Ghost were nothing new in fiction, of course. I mean, there are ghost stories in the Bible, in The Iliad, in Hamlet, in A Christmas Carol. You’d struggle to find a single folkloric tradition on earth that doesn’t offer at least some concept of the spirits of the dead returning to visit the living. These traditions were not explicitly tied to horror, but there are plenty of examples where they are; see, for example, Charles Dickens’ The Signalman from 1866, which clearly milks ghostly figures of the dead for creepy effect. But curiously, up to 1944, cinema had somewhat neglected this tradition. It’s not that it had never depicted ghost before -- Georges Méliès’ THE HAUNTED CASTLE from 1896, considered to be the first ever horror movie, depicts ghostly apparitions right in line with their cinematic depictions more than a century later. The tone, though, was anything but terrifying -- its intent is to provoke amazement and wonder more than horror. THE HAUNTED CASTLE would set the tone for the next half-century of films about the supernatural. The few early Hollywood films that concerned ghostly matters kept their tone light and comic. In fact, as near as I can tell, Hollywood largely avoided hauntings during the silent era. That changed in the late 30’s, but the films remained resolutely light comedies or fantasy-dramas. The earliest American* ghost film I could find was 1937’s comedy TOPPER (and its several sequels over the next few years), followed by the fantasy-drama BEYOND TOMORROW in 1940, and the Bob Hope comedy THE GHOST BREAKERS the same year. Plenty of ghosts, but no horror. Both Laurel & Hardy and Abbot & Costello would make ghost-themed comedies before THE UNINVITED finally came along in 1944.
Of course, the icons of ghostly mischief were all long established by the time director Lewis Allen (DESERT FURY, a movie experts have called “...the gayest movie ever produced in Hollywood's golden era,” which obviously I now desperately want to see) came along to this script by longtime studio worker bee Frank Partos (THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, THE SNAKE PIT) and novelist and playwright Dodie Smith (the original 101 Dalmatians novel [!?], and only one other film script).** But still, it seems to have been somewhat revolutionary to present them in this context, with a strong gothic atmosphere and a serious desire to unsettle. THE UNINVITED has moments of comedy --mostly the result of the witty dialogue-- but it’s clearly a horror movie at heart.
Not that this is exactly THE SHINING or anything. By modern standards, it’s a pretty conventional ghost story with some fairly mild stakes, which is notable more for its breezy charm than its bone-chilling terror. Milland and Hussey discover their house is haunted fairly quickly --mercifully sparing us the usual grind of time-wasting skepticism-- which mildly annoys them and slowly inspires them to pry into the house’s past. They’re surprisingly blasé about discovering that A) the afterlife exists and B) their new home is haunted by vengeful spirits, but gradually the irritation of being constantly awakened in the middle of the night, combined with the peculiar behavior of the adorable young neighbor who was born in the house, generate enough interest for them to casually make some inquiries.
It takes awhile for it to happen, but the film eventually structures itself as an amiable mystery, which moves along at the relaxed pace of its curious --but not especially obsessed-- main characters, pausing along the way for plenty of genial quips and even a little romance. In the final stretch, though, it manages to accrue some genuine momentum and tension, and builds to quite a respectable climax, heightened significantly by its elegantly evocative cinematography by Charles Lang (THE BIG HEAT, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN). Lang had already won the Best Cinematography Oscar for A FAREWELL TO ARMS in 1932, was nominated again in 1940, 1941, and 1943, and was nominated for his work here as well. He would go on to be nominated thirteen more times before his retirement in the early 70s (his 18 total nominations put him in a dead heat with Leon Shamroy for the most ever nominations in his field). So it doesn’t just look gorgeous, it looks gorgeous in the kind of way which cements its basic iconography as part and parcel to the very notion of ghostly cinema. Some somewhat-dated but adequate special effects add a tangible edge to the haunting, but to the extent the movie is scary at all, it’s almost entirely a result of the quintessential ghost-story atmosphere conjured by Allen, Lang, and composer Victor Young (SHANE) who finds the right balance between wistful romanticism and creeping unease. Even by 1944, seeing the ghosts was a bit played out. They’re better off suggesting their presence with the gothic staples of dim rooms lit eerily by candles and accompanied by a soft, eerie moaning. Cliche? You bet, but seldom done with finer craftsmanship than we see here.
A smart, highly literate script guides our characters through the narrative with an assured confidence, gradually turning the tension up with the imperceptible patience of a safecracker. But it does eventually come, particularly with the late introduction of Cornelia Otis Skinner’s (THE SWIMMER, 1968) psychotic mad house matron, who has a rather unhealthy attachment to the former occupant of the house (to the extent of adding a not-so-subtle lesbian subtext).*** The mystery itself isn’t exactly PRIMER or anything, but it’s subtly unique, eloquently constructed, and rather satisfying. And the ending isn’t anyone’s idea of action-packed, even in 1944 (the big finale finds Ray Milland giving the ghost a stern talking-to) but combined with the breezy charm of the cast, the rapturous cinematography, and the perfect air of spooky elegance, you can see how this has remained such a staple. In fact, if anything, the movie is guilty of too presciently anticipating the haunted house genre; although this concept would be revisited many, many times in the subsequent years, very few films indeed managed to add anything to the formula established here. A lot of tropes here have been imitated to the point of meaninglessness over these last seventy years, deluding its potency somewhat to modern eyes. Even if its then-pioneering tropes seem a little shopworn by today’s standards, though, there’s a mastery of craft on display here --and an earnest desire to entertain without pandering-- which remain as impressive and engrossing as they ever were. Not all boundary-pushing films can remain on the cutting edge, but the best among them have more important attributes anyway.
*There are a few scattered English and Swedish examples from earlier
**itself based --fairly closely from the look of it, both in narrative and in tone-- on the awkwardly-named novel Uneasy Freehold by Irish author Dorothy MacCardle.
*** Fun fact: young Gail Russell, who stars with Skinner here, would actually portray her in the film version of her memoirs OUR HEARTS WERE YOUNG AND GAY this same year.