I’m not so sure the movie itself has aged as well as its fervent supporters insist. It remains an interesting early genre exercise, but tonally the film seems all wrong. For a while it comes off like a mild comedy, complete with light, cute music cues courtesy of Victor Young. The year is 1937 and the setting is England. Rick (Ray Milland) and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ruth Hussey)—brother and sister, not husband and wife—are looking to buy a house together when they find a steal in Windward House. The coastal property seems perfect for the pair. Why a couple of 30something siblings are planning to buy a home and live together is beyond me. It might just be the freakiest thing about The Uninvited, come to think of it.
It’s not long before the Fitzgeralds realize why Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) was so quick to offload Windward. Some rooms are drafty no matter the temperature in the rest of the house. Disembodied crying is heard by the house’s new inhabitants. And Beech’s granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell) is deeply depressed about losing the house to this new couple. She has quite an unhealthy attachment to the home, which is where her mother died. Stella turns up at the house, nearly throwing herself off a cliff in a seemingly possessed state. Clearly whoever’s haunting Windward has some attachment to the young lady. Could it be her mother’s spirit? At any rate, Rick falls for Stella (a better companion for a single man than his own sister, even if she’s clearly disturbed).
In addition to the jarring comic intrusions, the acting is mostly stiff. Only Russell brings much life to her role (the alcoholism that claimed her life in 1961 reportedly began during this production, brought on by nerves). The storytelling, courtesy of co-writers Frank Partos and Dodie Smith (adapting the novel Uneasy Freehold, by Dorothy Macardle), is more muddled than it need be. There are some interesting twists in the third act, but their secrecy prior to that could’ve been more neatly handled. Simple special effects make the ghosts visible, even though director Allen didn’t want them seen (he was probably right, but the studio insisted). Arguably the film’s greatest lasting legacy is the introduction of Victor Young’s tune “Stella by Starlight,” which quickly became a jazz standard.
In her otherwise excellent essay (found in the DVD booklet), film critic Farran Smith Nehme attempts to make the point that The Uninvited is scarier than things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre because people know they aren’t likely to meet a family of psycho killers if they drive through a rural area. On the other hand, everyone can relate to hearing things that go bump in the night. Yeah, that’s probably true. But in reality it’s ultimately far more likely you’ll be murdered by a psycho than haunted by a ghost. Because crazed killers do exist, while ghosts do not. The Uninvited may have scared the pants off movie viewers of past generations, but it’s now a rather quaint curiosity piece.
While Criterion’s release isn’t packed with features (they’re the same on both DVD and Blu-ray), the 26-minute “Giving Up the Ghost” is an informative and entertaining “visual essay.” Filmmaker Michael Almereyda packs an impressive amount of info into what amounts to a condensed version of an audio commentary. There’s also a pair of half-hour radio adaptations, one broadcast in 1944 and the other in ’49. Both star Ray Milland, reprising his role as Rick Fitzgerald (the earlier one has Ruth Hussey as well). In addition to Nehme’s essay, the booklet also features a 1997 interview with director Lewis Allen.
Whether you feel The Uninvited remains a classic chiller or something a little clumsier, everyone should certainly agree it makes for harmless family viewing at this point. The production values are still impressive and Criterion Collection’s restoration makes the most of that.