Director: Lewis Allen
Time for another in the 9-part series with blog friend Mike’s Take on the Movies, as we count down to Halloween. Tonight’s theme is Ghosts and Haunted Houses, and I went right back to one of the very first, very best and most stylish of the genre, 1944’s The Uninvited.
While Rick (Ray Milland) and his sister Pam (Ruth Hussey) are on holidays, they chase their terrier Bobby through a gorgeous vacant clifftop house, fall in love with the place and resolve to buy it immediately. It reminds them of their childhood home and would make the perfect place for Rick to get back to composing music. They wonder why they get Windward House for a bargain basement price and soon begin to understand. The owner Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) had a daughter, Mary, who died there years ago, and some previous residents complained of “disturbances,” cut out of their lease and fled. The Commander forbids his granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell) from visiting Windward and suggests the place is haunted.
Rick and Pam chuckle at the very idea, eagerly move in and redecorate. Rick picks for his studio the one “ugly room,” a stubbornly cold and damp, and powerfully depressing space despite its huge window and skylight and magnificent coastal view. Dr. Scott (Alan Napier), who adopts their terrier when it runs away from Windward, tells them how a Spanish Gypsy woman pursued Mary’s husband, lived in the home along with Mary for a time, and how that affair might have led to murder. Dr. Scott also shows an interest in Pam and helps the siblings sort through matters paranormal, criminal and maternal.
Meanwhile, Rick courts Stella, urges her to break free of her Grandpa’s control and her obsession with her dead mother, and her growing independence leads the Commander to call Mary’s former nurse Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) to help protect Stella from “the evil in that house.” There’s a spirit there, whose sobs echo through Windward House at night, causes Rick’s studio to grow more “clammy and rotten” and has the power to hurt Stella or compel her to harm herself. When Rick plays his new composition Stella by Starlight (written for this movie), the lights dim and Stella, overcome with guilt and sadness, nearly runs off the cliff at the very spot her mother fell.
This was one of the first ghost movies, and what a standard it set in terms of look, atmosphere and genre tropes. Special effects are few, just a simple apparition in a flowing white gown, so the scares depend mainly on minimalist visuals and what characters tell you they feel, see or hear. Neither cat nor dog dare go upstairs, fog surrounds the house, book pages turn, doors fly open, flowers die, rooms go ice cold and are flooded with the scent of mimosa (Mary’s perfume). Suggestion goes a long way when you see these rational characters go from being flippant to concerned to turning white at the sound of the doorbell they somehow know must not be answered.
In a house with no power and events occurring mostly at night, the constant use of candles and the occasional flashlight makes for beautiful lighting effects, deep shadow and high contrast. Cinematographer Charles Lang Jr. was nominated for an Oscar for his work. One of many gorgeous shots of Russell (how could they be anything but) captures her looking up the stairs longingly when she learns her mother’s ghost might be there.
Ouija scenes have been done to death in the decades since, but this film’s use was fresh and still thrilling today. Rick, Pam and the doctor set up a fake seance to convince Stella to drop her fixation on the house and ghosts. Their plan backfires when the pointing device takes on a life of its own, and with incredulous, horrified glances they watch the thing glide along the table, spelling out “I guard you from Carmel,” whose spirit then possesses Stella and has her babble a message in Spanish.
As with Danvers and Rebecca (1940), there’s an ever-present dead lady of the house, a devoted unstable friend and gay subtext. The stern, imperious Holloway had some intimate relationship with (or at the very least an unrequited desire for) Mary, a lasting unresolved grief and a deep secret she conceals by making Mary and herself into, as Pam and Rick note, plaster saints. She states that she and Mary were no silly giggling girls talking about flirtations and dresses, but concerned with ambition, career and conquering life. This accomplished woman now runs a clinic that she’s named after Mary, a retreat she likes to call a hotel for guests with mental issues, and keeps a massive portrait of Mary in her office (Elizabeth Russell posed for those, but doesn’t play Mary’s ghost). Stella has a similar painting that she talks to, but it’s fascinating to watch how much more prominently Holloway’s Mary figures in several scenes, with the actors positioned around her or as objects of her gaze. Determining Holloway’s role in the deaths of Mary and Carmel leads to the revelation that (spoiler) Stella is actually Carmel’s daughter.
The script calls for some humour mixed in with the fright, and Milland does well in both departments. He’s a skilled but easy-going charmer, a voice of reason and a good-natured bluffer. To maintain calm in all situations he lies about never getting scared or seasick and claims to have all the answers, and in the end he summons up the bravery to confront Mary’s ghost. He wants to clear the way for the living, to break the spell and save this girl with “a sleeping beauty magic about her, even though he calls himself Prince Charmless. The luminous Russell was perfect as the soft, kind, fretful woman pulled apart by secrets, family and psyche. She shows a passion and inner strength her grandfather hasn’t yet extinguished and brightens at the mention of her welcoming and protective new friends. It’s truly a classic ghost story with spooks and style that never feel dated.