12th Oct2018

‘The Uninvited’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Ruth Hussey, Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Donald Crisp, Barbara Everest | Written by Frank Partos, Dodie Smith | Directed by Lewis Allen

uninvited-criterion-blu

“Be afraid. Be afraid, for heaven’s sake.” This line may have inspired Geena Davis’s famous warning from David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Indeed, this 1944 groundbreaker provides a reference point for many a horror movie since. While The Uninvited may not chill you to the bone, it is a reminder that not everything in the horror genre prior to Jack Clayton’s The Innocents relied on spooky stageplay castles and camp.

Adapted from the novel by Dorothy Macardle (it had the neat title, “Uneasy Freehold”) and directed by feature debutant Lewis Allen, the narrative is for the most part a vehicle for exposition. In that way it’s more suited to the page or the radio play format; but the plot is intriguing enough, the performances are effective, and there are some creepy images and ideas. It’s similar to Jamaica Inn in terms of its rough rural setting and its menacing coastal atmosphere, although it doesn’t have the intensity of Hitchcock’s classic.

Siblings Rick (Ray Milland) and Pam (Ruth Hussey) stumble upon a beautiful cottage whilst hiking in Cornwall. They proceed to buy the property from Commander Beech (Donald Crisp). Like Mr Ullman in The Shining, Beech plays down the warnings of a historic tragedy, selling at a knock-down price. Apparently, Beech’s daughter, Mary Meredith, fell to her death from a nearby clifftop when her daughter, Stella (Gail Russell), was just three years old. No sooner have the Fitzgeralds moved in, Stella (Beech’s granddaughter) sparks up a romance with Rick, and she becomes fascinated – perhaps obsessed – by Windward House, which seems to have a mysterious psychic hold over her. Meanwhile, Rick and Pam are hearing odd things in the night and witnessing strange phenomena. What’s with the odour and the dire cold in the “Bluebeard Room” upstairs?

Clearly, the house is haunted. But how to exorcise the demon? The only option is to get to the bottom of the mystery of Mary’s death, so she might find peace. It’s a tale of grief involving a Spanish gypsy woman named Carmel, and it leads to all manner of haunted house tropes that would go on to become genre standard: locals telling tales; women on cliff edges; animals shrinking from invisible presences; doors inexplicably opening and closing; wailing after dark; book pages turning on their own; spirits forged in mist. The investigation into Mary’s death doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. It seems to take the most basic investigation – an idle perusal of journals – to uncover a truth which frankly should have been investigated thoroughly at the time. Some characters seem to have held onto deep and pertinent secrets until now, as if they’d been waiting for the movie cameras to roll. Still, it makes for swift storytelling.

As you might expect for a septuagenarian film, much of the horror comes through suggestion. This naturally pushes the dynamic toward tell not show – I lost track of the number of times characters informed us they could smell mimosa – but it also triggers the imagination in a way that visceral gore could never do.

There is a brilliant scene where Rick wakes in the night to the sound of a woman weeping, and he takes a walk, peering into the bottomless dark at the foot of the stairs – but the voice emanates from “everywhere and nowhere”. There are some genuinely creepy and memorable images. Early on, a bunch of flowers withers in seconds simply by sitting in the Bluebeard Room. Later, in the same room, Rick improvises a serenade for Stella. As he plays, the candles die, and his keystrokes fall into minor key, as if he’s overcome by something terrible and unknown. Something… uninvited!

After craftily giving us a tour via a dog chasing a squirrel, Allen makes good use of the interior set of the house. The lighting is deeply atmospheric, particularly in the use of shadow. In one moment, when we are beginning to suspect that Stella may be possessed, Allen shoots her in silhouette alongside a front-lit Rick, as if he’s gazing into the eyes of a ghost. It’s subtly sinister. The more obvious spectre effect – the ghost itself – is sparingly used, but it is eerily effective, and similar to the formless creature Tobe Hooper would conjure for Poltergeist some four decades later.

This is a strictly studio picture, and the lack of Cornish location shooting (it was filmed in California) limits the sense of place, thus the sense of isolation. The accents are all over the place (where Stella picked up her American accent is never explained), and the performances are quaintly mannered. But the double act of Rick and Pam in particular is good fun – it’s refreshing to see horror victims not taking their ordeal too seriously. Indeed, the tone is light and good-humoured throughout. The film is briskly paced, with little time wasted on disbelief – there’s a baseline assumption amongst all the locals that the house is haunted.

If you’re looking for something to scare your socks off this Halloween, keep walking. The Uninvited is as mild as it comes in terms of horror imagery. We’ve seen this story – or variations thereof – recycled a hundred times, but rarely with such wit and briskness, and rarely with such assurance of craft. It’s the ideal Sunday matinee for a spooky seasonal marathon.

Extras:

  • “Giving up the Ghost”, a 2013 visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.
  • Radio play adaptation from 1944 and 1949
  • Trailer

The Uninvited is out on Criterion Blu-ray on 15th October 2018.

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