It is May 1937, and on the last day of their holidays from London to “the haunted shores” of Cornwall, siblings Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald catch sight of a magnificent mansion perched high atop the rocks; the house empty, when their dog Bobby rushes through an open window in pursuit of a squirrel they follow and realise this could be their dream home away from the city.
Over two hundred years old, Windward House is the property of Commander Beech who has lived in the nearby village of Biddlecombe with his granddaughter Stella Meredith since the death of his daughter Mary, Stella’s mother, seventeen years previously; against Stella’s wishes the Commander agrees to sell it to Rick and Pamela for the modest sum of £1,200.
Moving in and making the place their own, composer Rick works in the top floor studio with the vast windows overlooking the ever-shifting sea, but there are other things which do not rest in the house. Crying is heard in the night, freshly cut flowers wilt within minutes, the housekeeper’s cat Whiskey will not go upstairs, and their enquiries piece together the broken story of Mary Meredith and Windward House.
The feature debut of the former Broadway director Lewis Allen, The Uninvited starred Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as Rick and Pamela, both well established in their careers with Hussey having received an Academy Award nomination for The Philadelphia Story, while relative newcomer Gail Russell played Stella.
Released in early 1944 and now restored on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection, The Uninvited was a herald of a new genre of cinema, a ghost story told in a serious manner with the supernatural presented as a genuine phenomenon experienced by the characters rather than a comedic romp or a ruse followed by a “Scooby-Doo” reveal of a more mundane explanation.
Played with impeccable manners and diction by the ensemble, Charles B Lang’s crisp monochrome cinematography is presented magnificently, capturing the scenes on the sea, in the village and the many moods of the house in night and day, in well-lit celebration and sinister shadowed séance, demonstrating why he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1945.
A melodrama of character rather than a horror irrespective of the subject matter, despite being first to witness the noises in the night Pamela is presented as confident and capable while it is her brother who is more shaken by events, while Commander Beech is more pragmatic in his approach, suggesting the sounds may be the result of erosion of the cliffs beneath the house.
Adapted from Dorothy Macardle’s 1941 novel Uneasy Freehold by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, the script is intelligent as it considers the psychology of grief and the psychology of attempting to reconcile the conflicts of a wounded psyche as Stella and the Fitzgeralds try to piece together the tragic events of that night seventeen years before even as the restless spirit haunts their nights.
The cast also including Cornelia Otis Skinner as the flawless but frosty Miss Holloway, Mary’s former best friend and Stella’s childhood nurse and Alan Napier as local physician Doctor Scott, two decades before he played Alfred Pennyworth for Adam West’s Bruce Wayne, the atmospheric soundtrack is by Victor Young, another multiple Oscar nominee though his only win was posthumous, for 1956’s Around the World in Eighty Days.
On the disc is a video essay by Michael Almereyda who at times is almost disdainful of aspects of the film despite his admiration and affection for it; though detail on the production of the film itself is sparse in the shapeless piece it does provide interesting information on the lives and careers of the cast, Milland’s continuing another forty years whereas Russell’s slumped even before her early death in 1961.
Two half-hour radio adaptations are also included, one from 1944 and one from 1949, both again starring Milland as Rick; both are faithful though drastically abbreviated, the first following the structure of the film, the second approaching the story from a later starting point and filling in the background through dialogue.
While perhaps not as well known as the recognised masterpieces of the genre, Night of the Demon or The Haunting, The Uninvited stands comfortably alongside them as an elegantly constructed supernatural thriller and its influence can be seen in films as diverse as The Changeling and Beetlejuice, the voices of the ghosts still echoing decades later.
The Uninvited is available from Criterion on Blu-ray from Monday 15th October