Originally published October 29th, 2013
The Uninvited is Gothic horror done at its utmost best; where atmosphere plagues every corner, inundating the audience with unrepentant chills and spooks. Director Lewis Allen treats his tale with reverence, and the characters of Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald are, for better or worse, the audience themselves. With a dash of Hitchcock’s Rebecca by way of a wistful romance and desire for family, The Uninvited certainly makes itself welcome and is lovingly restored via the wonders of the Criterion Collection.
Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) are a brother and sister who stumble upon the beautiful, abandoned Windward House. They purchase it through the owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) who informs them of rumors that the house is haunted. Beech’s granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell) believes the home contains the tormented spirit of her mother. As Roderick and Pamela start noticing strange noise and cold spots in the house, Stella finds herself inexplicably drawn to the house, causing everyone to wonder if the ghost desires Stella as its new tenant.
The Uninvited should be placed next to British works like The Innocents (1961), where atmosphere is the name of the game and the tone of the movie is one of uncertainty. Interestingly, Allen imbues his film with a dash of Preston Sturges (one way is to reuse the set of I Married a Witch of Windward House) to add a dose of levity and illusion. When the ghostly events start manifesting, the spirits aren’t oppressive, aided by there being two ghosts, one evil and the other nice – determined by cold and the smell of mimosa respectively. All the key elements of a good ghost story are accounted for, including the séance and makeshift Oujia board, things regular people shouldn’t be tampering with unless they want to irritate ghosts.
The romance between Stella and Roderick, alongside the mystery of who the ghosts are, adds another layer of complexity. It isn’t enough that there are ghosts, something which should have frightened the Fitzgerald’s out of the house, but the ghosts have logic for their actions. As the brother and sister peel back the mystery, a love triangle involving infidelity comes to light akin to the works of Daphne Du Maurier, and if you’ve watched Hitchcock’s Rebecca – released four years prior – you’ll note how heavily Allen borrows from it. The character of Mrs. Holloway, played with snakelike elegance by Cornelia Otis Skinner is the primary connection. A staunch Mrs. Danvers figure terrorizing the fey Stella, when Mrs. Holloway finally goes off her rocker, it’s almost more terrifying than the ghostly entities. Skinner has crazy eyes down pat, but her forbidden love for the unseen Mary Meredith oozes off her, at times almost overshadowing Judith Anderson’s actual portrayal of Mrs. Danvers.
With all the other characters, it’s hard remaining focused on our main duo. I’ve always found Ray Milland to be a poor man’s Cary Grant, and he doesn’t avoid the comparison with his clipped accent His and Gail Russell’s relationship is a bit odd because Milland appears every bit of his 39 years (19 years older than Russell). Their chemistry is paternal at best, non-existent at worst. Gail Russell was “introduced” with this feature, even though her true debut was the year before. Stella is the lonely pawn in this game, drawn by forces well outside her control. You feel for her as she desperately attempts to fling herself off the cliff and into the churning sea below. Before the Fitzgeralds arrived, she had no one. Her sheltered nature has prevented her from living life, and it’s implied the complications within her parents relationship haven’t helped. Lost in all of this is Ruth Hussey as Pamela. It’s bizarre having her in this at all and not tell the story through her and Milland’s eyes. Because Milland and Hussey aren’t romantically linked, the two spend little time together. The one moment they do spend investigating is fantastic, but after that Pamela’s sitting around or developing a relationship -almost entirely off-screen – with the local doctor (Alan Napier) which broadsides the audience when the ending implies they’re getting married.
I have to praise the production design and lighting within this movie. Shadows have never felt as eerie as they do here; the candlelight almost becomes erotically charged as it caresses the unwitting characters’ faces. Almost total darkness pervades this film, and you’re on the edge of your seat because you literally can’t see anything. As characters walk aimlessly in the dark, you’re waiting for them to tumble down the stairs or some other steep precipice. The battle between man and nature swirls at the film’s fringes, like the churning ocean and the cliff which hems in the house, isolating the characters even more.
Criterion’s audio and video is beautiful with lush blacks which is necessary to enhance the fear creeping around every corner. The visual essay by Michael Almereyda is intriguing, but my favorite has to be the accompanying essay included with the movie, written by Farran Smith Nehme, the Self Styled Siren herself! She provides excellent analysis, background, and context for the movie. There aren’t nearly as many features as in Criterion Blu-ray’s past, but it’s all about the main course.
The Uninvited is a stylish ghost story with subtle horror and humor. The intricacies of the plot are easily understood and the horror gives up ghoulishness for a pervading sense of dread. Ray Milland and Gail Russell are amazing, and Criterion puts out a Halloween chiller for fans of old-fashioned horror.
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