The Uninvited (1944)
★★★ / ★★★★
Most refreshing about the classic dark house picture “The Uninvited,” based upon the novel “Uneasy Freehold” by Dorothy Macardle, is its lack of overt elements designed simply to scare the wits out of those watching. Rather, we are asked to believe that within this particular story, the paranormal exists as if it were air we breathe. Characters wake up in the middle of the night due to strange noises, pets are shown to be afraid of particular rooms, objects move on their own, and an apparition appears by the stairwell.
But these are handled with class—certainly patience—and so our attention is almost always on the mystery rather than our reactions to images we see. This type of storytelling within the horror genre is rarely seen nowadays—most unfortunate because it is a chance to tell a ghost story in a different way, making the experience more personal. Those who wish to encounter gore and ceaseless jolts are best advised to adjust their expectations.
At times it functions as a screwball comedy. There is plenty of amusement to be had from the siblings’ decision to purchase a house by a cliff overlooking the sea. Roderick and Pamela are played by Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey and they share great chemistry as Londoners hoping to get away from city life and toward something new, more grounded. Notice the energetic dialogue as Pamela attempts to wheedle her brother into agreeing to buy the two-story residence even before they learn of the current owner’s asking price… and the rumors surrounding the place. The playfulness of the script captures what siblings say and do and so we buy into the strength of their relationship almost immediately. We wonder whether it would stand strong once they finally learn the house’s secrets.
Another comedic angle involves Roderick and Stella (Gail Russell), the latter a twenty-year-old who moved out of the house that Roderick and Pamela now own when she was only three. She has been living with her grandfather, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), ever since. The commander is selling the house at a significantly reduced price, arousing suspicions from buyers. Take away the horror and mystery elements and we are left with an interesting romance between a music composer/critic and a young woman who wishes to experience more in life. In other words, as a potential couple, they are intriguing divorced from the machinations of the plot.
The picture is at its best when characters are discovering for the first time that their house is indeed haunted. Humor is never completely taken out, but at the same time images are created in order to provide the audience a creepy experience. The black-and-white photography is beautiful, particularly during scenes set at night when a candle is the only source of light. It invites the viewer to take a look around a once familiar place, formerly bathed in daylight due to the rooms’ large windows, and anticipate what might appear in a shadowy corner of a room. The door is slightly ajar—is there something behind there? It is suddenly silent—the scare is certain to follow soon… but it doesn’t.
“The Uninvited” is directed by Lewis Allen and it presents an amusing conundrum. On the one hand, it is certainly not made for the modern audience—a crowd that, in general, expects thunderous scares sprinkled throughout. On the other hand, I think that the same audience will enjoy the picture given that they keep an open mind. You go to it with a certain set of expectations but it provides something else entirely. I just wished that screenwriters Dodie Smith and Frank Partos had tinkered with the answers to the mystery just a bit as to not come across so melodramatic. It is best when serving light touches on top of rich subtext.