It was kind of nice to start this month of ghastly art house terrors and pulpy hilarity with something quaint. That wasn’t my plan and it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting from The Uninvited, given its reputation as one of the scariest films ever (at least according to directors Martin Scorsese and Guillermo Del Toro) but in retrospect it wasn’t realistic to expect something truly horrifying from a Hollywood film made in the forties. After all, outside of those two guys, The Uninvited is remembered for being one of the first Hollywood movies to depict a haunting seriously, not necessarily for being one of the scariest.
This story begins in 1937, when a brother and sister take a vacation to a seaside house in Cornwall, England, and immediately fall in love with the place. Without wasting a moment, the sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey), convinces her brother, Roderick (Ray Milland, dancing somewhere between an English and American accent), to buy the home… Because I guess this was a time when it was cool for brothers and sisters to move out to the coast together. So they go to visit the owner, an older gentleman named Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) who agrees to sell it to them for an unusually low price, despite the obvious protestations of his granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell). Pamela and Rick begin to move into the house, and are disappointed when they unlock the one room they weren’t allowed to enter, which they find unpleasant and inexplicably cold.
Of course, a drafty room is the least of the siblings’ problems. The family pets have a hard time adapting to the house; their dog straight up runs away, while the cat refuses to go upstairs, which is weird because cats love upstairs. Oh, and some nights the siblings are awoken by what sounds like a woman weeping. Don’t worry, the commander says it’s probably just cave wind or something, he’s probably right. Anyway, things come to a head when Rick invites Stella over for dinner. She reveals that she’s been forbidden to enter the house ever since her mother died by falling off the nearby cliffs, back when Stella was three and they lived there together. Stella says she feels a presence in the house, but assumes it’s the spirit of her mother and finds it comforting. However, not much later she suddenly runs out of the house to the cliffs and nearly jumps from the very spot where her mother died, being stopped in the knick of time by Rick.
Having concluded that the house is definitely haunted, the siblings and Stella start working with the town physician, Dr. Scott (Alan Napier) to unravel the mystery of their new home. They find out that Stella’s father had an affair with a Spanish gypsy and begin to believe that the gypsy woman had tried to steal Stella and threw Stella’s mother off that cliff, even though it was considered a suicide. In the meantime, the commander brings Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) into the picture and complicates everything. You see, Miss Holloway runs a sort of sanitorium and also really, really like Stella’s mom – she even has a gigantic portrait of her in her office. Things get even most twisted and disastrous from there!
I’ll give it this: The Uninvited is a surprisingly tasteful film. It’s mostly a melodrama about Stella’s family’s dark past and her romance with Rick, which is fine. In place of scares the movie endeavors simply to build mood and tell a twisted tale, which it does. Even the special effects for the ghosts are cool and eerie, and that’s by my modern standards. They appears as wobbly, smoky apparitions and apparently were actually a last-minute addition by Paramount, which wanted to emphasize the supernatural elements of the story. I’d like to hear more about The Uninvited‘s legacy from critics, historians, or even those directors who love it so much. Maybe that Criterion blu ray has the special features I need?