Directed by Lewis Allen. Starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Alan Napier, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Dorothy Stickney, Gail Russell. Horror, USA, 99 mins, cert PG.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection on 15th October 2018.
With ghost/haunting movies dominating the horror genre right now and Halloween fast approaching what better time for one of the most revered Hollywood ghost stories to be put out on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection.
THE UNINVITED is notable for being the first Hollywood horror movie to take ghosts seriously rather than be a spoof or a comedy, and Lewis Allen’s 1944 film wastes no time in setting up its story. Brother and sister Rick (Ray Milland - DIAL M FOR MURDER) and Pamela (Ruth Hussey - THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) Fitzgerald are out walking on the west Cornish coast (played convincingly by the Californian coastline) when their dog chases a squirrel into a large house set close to the cliff edge. Having been abandoned for several years the house is in excellent condition, and Pamela falls in love with it, convincing Rick to give up their life in London and move down to the West Country once they find out who the owner is.
Luckily they find out fairly quickly that the owner is one Commander Beech (Donald Crisp - WUTHERING HEIGHTS), who lives with his granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell - WAKE OF THE RED WITCH), and Beech is only too happy to sell to the Fitzgeralds’ although Stella is a little less keen on the idea as she used to live in the house with her mother Mary before she died by falling from the cliff edge in the front garden. However, Rick and Pamela move in and, naturally enough, things get weird as the siblings hear a woman crying in the night, there are smells and cold spots in the house, and Stella randomly appears in the garden, but she isn’t quite sure why.
Although we do get to find out eventually as more of her backstory is revealed and that is where THE UNINVITED slips a little from such a strong opening where the extremely likeable Rick and Pamela find their (Pamela’s?) dream house to becoming a romantic soap opera for about an hour. Fortunately, Ray Milland turns on the charm and makes it worth sticking with as he has a few moments where his comedic chops come into play, and he also has a screen presence worthy of his ‘Welsh Cary Grant’ nickname, so any time he is on-screen the story seems to move along a bit. Ruth Hussey is also strong in her role but whenever Gail Russell and Donald Crisp appear the mood, and the pace seems to change. Neither actor seems to let themselves go enough to make their characters anything other than stock ‘haunted love interest’ and ‘stern patriarch’ respectively. Even then they aren’t that convincing at it although Gail Russell does at least have a dreamy, faraway look in her distinctive eyes to make Stella a bit more believable.
The plot of THE UNINVITED does get a little confusing as Stella reveals more of her anxieties and we get to understand why Commander Beech is hesitant to let her near the house again. The introduction of a couple of characters during the second act doesn’t help matters, although Dr Scott (played by Alan Napier, best known as Alfred the butler in the 1960s BATMAN TV series) does at least provide most of the exposition, convoluted and convenient as it is. Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) runs an institution, was friends with Stella’s mother and has a few apparent issues of her own when she is introduced about three-quarters of the way through in a bit of a weak plot deviation. The introduction serves no real purpose other than to provide a bit more exposition to fill in a few gaps. Given the dubious nature of her character her reliability as a narrator is questionable. However, given how many twists Stella’s story has, is anyone that reliable when the plot relies so much on contrivance?
Nevertheless, THE UNINVITED does bring things back a little for the finale which does look mild by today’s standards but back in 1944 it would no doubt have wowed audiences not used to such optical effects outside of a Universal monster movie. Overall, it is a fun little chiller that sags a lot in the middle but thanks to Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey and Alan Napier it does have the necessary sparkle and weight to make it work if you can allow for its now-dated flaws. The humour that Ray Milland brings is a little broader than in the likes of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, and it does feel a bit misplaced at times, although such is Milland’s delivery you can’t help but like him despite the writing being a bit all over the place. Coming backed with a visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda that veers off into the performers’ careers and two radio adaptations of the story – both featuring Ray Milland –the monochrome film looks pretty clean and sharp, making this is as definitive a version of THE UNINVITED as you’re ever likely to get. It may not entirely be as enduring a classic as some other Hollywood ghost stories (THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE HAUNTING, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, etc.) but is a notable movie and worth picking up if you are a collector.