The Uninvited (1944): “a Chiller… but not like we know it”

The Uninvited is a curious supernatural “thriller”, set on the southwest coast of England. The film is Lewis Allen’s adaptation of a Dorothy Mcardle story (Uneasy Freehold), in which composer Rick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland), and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey), fall in love with an old, mouldering property whilst holidaying in the area. Upon purchasing the property, against the warnings of current owner Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), they stumble into a supernatural mystery that lies at the heart of a family tragedy centred around the Commander’s granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell).

The film itself is a mixed bag, but this seems to be more a symptom of Hollywood’s approach to the supernatural prior to 1944. With the notable exceptions of Universal’s Monster films, featuring Frankenstein, The Mummy, etc., the major studios treated the paranormal as something of a distraction. Hence in most ghostly goings-on prior to “The Uninvited”, the insubstantial visitations are the schtick used by some criminal gang to distract from their shady plan (and, inadvertently, pre-empting every plot of Scooby Doo in the process), or just the McGuffin around which a comedy vehicle revolves – with perhaps the most notable peddlers being Abbot and Costello.

Milland, who becomes lovestruck by the young Stella, is still nearly 20 years away from his chilling turn in The Man With The X-Ray Eyes (1963), and there seems to be a kind of James Stewart stand in – every line, even in the moments of high drama, delivered with a quirky half-smile. Even when he shows his resolve and mettle, it seems to be accompanied by a naivete that everything will be alright, even when tackling a threat from beyond the veil.

Ruth Hussey seems suitably nervous as soon as the haunting starts, and yet seems unphased whenever Milland states a trip to London is needed – potentially leaving her alone and at the mercy of whatever malignancy is at play. Up to a point, at least, as she unfeasibly finds comfort and romance remarkably quickly with the village doctor, played by Alan Napier (perhaps best known for his role as Alfred Pennyworth in the 1966 Batman TV series). Debutant Gail Russell manages to portray a conflicted, innocent victim convincingly, whilst at the same time exuding the starlet qualities that caused the studio to pluck her from obscurity for a seven-year film contract.

There is a twist, as the tragic history of the Meredith family unfolds, but it is telegraphed so obviously that you find yourself willing the cast to catch up with you quickly before someone gets hurt. It’s a shame the supernatural thriller element of this is so weakly plotted since the film itself has some excellent cinematography from Charles Lang, who uses the powerful, turbulent churning of the ocean to great effect on a number of atmospheric shots. The isolation of the afflicted house is well established too. The score, by Victor Young, is chilling in places, especially when underpinned by the song that Milland’s character writes for young Stella.

The special effects, used sparingly throughout, are nonetheless quite effective, and remain ethereal enough to haunt the memory long after the credits roll. The identities of the ghostly apparitions are kept hidden until the last possible moment.

The real tragedy for this film is that it comes across as a light-hearted drama when it could have been a really affecting supernatural chiller. Perhaps, with the horrors being perpetrated on the fronts of WWII, and the undoubted losses still being keenly felt by the relatives of the fallen, it may be that the director felt it too macabre to do a true chiller.

The presentation of the film, too, is a little lacklustre. Despite an informative video essay, and a couple of radio adaptations of the same story, this release from Criterion on Blu-Ray does not take advantage of recent advances in upscaling technology, and so the feature is presented in a traditional, boxy 4:3 format. The trailer for the film is included and makes it seem a more chilling proposition than the final product delivers.

Ultimately, “The Uninvited” is a placeholder in cinema history – a curio that marks the end of the supernatural being held up as an object of mockery, but not quite crossing over into true thriller territory.

The Uninvited is available now as part of the Criterion collection.

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