One of Hollywood’s first serious attempts to address the possibility of life beyond the grave makes all the right moves, but nevertheless remains firmly entrenched in the mainstream arena. Mark Fraser looks back at an early modest chiller.
WARNING: This review contains some spoilers.
According to British film critic Jeffrey Richards, there was a sound reason why ghost stories found their way into 1940s’ cinema.
Having witnessed the globe being plunged into World War II, and then watching as millions of casualties started to clock up, movie makers took it upon themselves to momentarily abandon many of the popularised Gothic themes they had been exploiting the previous decade and, instead, concentrate on “gentler examinations of the supernatural”.
“With the violent deaths of loved ones becoming an inescapable fact of wartime life, the cinema did its best to lessen the pain of bereavement by presenting death as something benign, and affirming the fact of life after death,” Richards wrote back in 1980.
“The tone of these films was gentle, often whimsical; the effect was to reassure rather than frighten.”
While it’s likely Richards had movies like William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Joseph L Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs Muir (which was released the following year) more in mind than Lewis Allen’s 1944 black and white haunted house opus The Uninvited, his observations are just as relevant when looking at this earlier work.
Although a little darker in tone, Allen’s film, which was produced by Paramount Pictures and shot mostly in California, is in part concerned with both the negation of bereavement and the need for closure from a past tragedy.
Furthermore, despite some satisfying unsettling moments, it is also – by today’s standards at least – quite a moderate horror story, with the titular entity* being harmless enough throughout most of the movie that none of the characters ever see fit to contact a priest to help them try and solve their paranormal problem.
Based on the book Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle, The Uninvited is primarily about siblings Roderick “Rick” and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) who purchase, at a bargain price, an old English mansion on the Cornwall coast, only to discover it is haunted.
After some investigation, the pair finds out the offending ghost may be the dead daughter of previous owner Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), who is as keen as hell to keep his granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell) away from the place.
With the assistance of local physician Dr Scott (Alan Napier), the Fitzgeralds also learn that the house has a dark secret involving the spirit (whose real life name was Mary Meredith), her deceased cuckolding painter husband (who is only referred to as Meredith) and his now dead Spanish gypsy mistress Carmel.
Helping harbour these skeletons in the closet is Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), the owner of a retreat/sanatorium where Stella has been sent by her grandfather for treatment. Having known both women, she ends up holding the key to the final-twist explanation underpinning the mystery.
Regarded by some as Hollywood’s first serious ghost movie, The Uninvited is quite effective as a modest chiller, with Allen (in his debut feature) and scriptwriters Frank Partos and Dodie Smith loading the narrative with just the right amount of supernatural material to keep audiences interested until the film’s climatic moment, when the musician/music critic Rick – without the assistance of the church – singlehandedly admonishes the unwanted apparition with the help of a candelabrum.
It is also a steadily-paced story which doesn’t play its hand too soon, although it could probably do with a couple of more jolts here and there. As a result, the whole thing is reasonably well behaved, which may or may not be a good thing for a film that not only suggests the possibility of life beyond the grave, but at a couple of crucial moments also flirts with the notion of spiritual possession.
Having said this, The Uninvited has a few nice touches scattered throughout its running time. One involves a quickly-wilting bunch of roses in the mansion’s unusually cold upstairs studio (a wonderful, albeit brief, piece of in-camera stop-start animation by, one assumes, visual effects crew members Farciot Edouart and Gordon Jennings) which inexplicably goes unnoticed by the occupants.
Another is the eerie omnipotent pre-dawn sobbing that fills the house during the early morning’s darkest hour.
In addition, there’s a spooky séance attended by Dr Scott (whose man-of-science pedigree effectively acts as a substitute for the clergy), the Fitzgeralds as well as Stella who, at this point, is on the verge of finding out the late Mary may not have been who she purported to be.
Also worth mentioning is the Oscar-nominated lighting of Charles Lang, which subtlety changes the mood of the movie while Rick is playing his self- (read Victor Young-) composed piano serenade “Stella by Starlight” for his growing love interest in the creepy first floor study. Up until this point, the film has a cheery brightness about it – especially during its first 20 minutes when Rick and Pamela find, and purchase, Winward House. Once it reaches this scene, though, the overall tone of the picture undeniably becomes a little more sombre as the mystery thickens and a sense of urgency begins to gain momentum.
Finally there’s the ghost itself, which doesn’t look too bad given the technology of the day. Aptly described as “a mist curling like opium smoke and topped by an indistinct face” that is not dissimilar to the “spirits that swirl through the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark” (Nehme, 2013), it becomes more aggressive as the story reaches its conclusion.
While The Uninvited does have its fair share of fans, British author/actor Jonathan Rigby makes an interesting point about the movie in his book American Gothic when he describes it as being “wrapped in so suffocating a mantle of faux-English gloss that it turns its tale of a maleficent ghost into a peculiarly twee after-dinner anecdote”.
Acknowledging the film as “engaging and sufficient”, Rigby also complains that a key scene (involving the sobbing voice in the early morning darkness) is “punctuated beyond repair” when it concludes on an odd comic note. Additionally, he accuses the ending of having “a saccharine pay-off”.
Rigby has a point – this is a Hollywood production through and through, with Allen’s “light touch” ensuring it was a mainstream hit upon release.
Nevertheless, he notes “its relatively serious approach was a deviation from its contemporaries, where the spirit world was played either for laughs or wartime sentiment”.
Interestingly, this seriousness touched upon two social issues which were pretty much taboo in the 1940s – illegitimate child birth and homosexuality (read lesbianism).
Strangely, the censors at the time weren’t so much concerned with this as they were by the observation that “in certain theatres large audiences of questionable types attended this film at unusual hours”.
If anything, this kind of extraneous comment remains uninvited.
*It turns out there are actually two spirits at large in the house, with the main one being the malevolent – and therefore unwanted – Mary. The apparition of Carmel, on the other hand, is never seen.
Jeffrey Richards: “Matters of Life and Death”, The Movie (Orbis Publishing Ltd, Volume III), 1980, p 704
Farran Smith Nehme: “The Uninvited: Spirits by Starlight”, The Criterion Collection website, October 22, 2013
Jonathan Rigby: “Rising from the Past”, American Gothic (Signum Books – an imprint of Flashpoint Media Ltd), 2007, p 244
Anthony Slide: “Censored Screams! Horror Films and the Production Code in the 1930s”, Filmfax, March-April 1999 (This quote, the final one cited in the above review, was reprinted in Rigby’s book on page 244.)
Words by Mark Fraser
Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Man With A Movie Camera” Transcends Propaganda | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness