In case you were locked in a closet for the past several years, you undoubtedly know that 2009's sleeper hit was something called “Paranormal Activity”. Filmed on a budget so small you could tattoo the zeros in the production costs on a fly’s ass and have room left over, the film raked in the moolah at at the box office. It wasn't the highest grossing film of the year of course, but it was easily one of the more profitable projects to hit the multiplexes.
But we’ve been down this road once before with an over hyped mess of a micro-budgeted film called “The Blair Witch Project.” Just twelve short years ago it was supposed to scare the crap out of me. It didn’t, I yawned, never understood what the hell the fuss was about, and I still would like the studio to give me my money back. I know, fat chance. And if I’m wrong about Paranormal Activity it wouldn’t be the first time that I've been, although it is a pretty rare occurrence and only happens about as often as a total eclipse of the sun in Oshkosh.
I have to admit that it is difficult to make a really creepy ghost story these days that would send chills up my spine. As Helen Hayes once told Dean Martin in Airport (1970), “When you get to be my age, there isn’t a whole lot left to be scared of.”
Oh, there are films out there that can make me squirm or put me on edge. However, this is an effect often achieved with very little plot and a whole lot of pointless torture, maiming, vivisection, slicing, dicing, chopping, and raping, but not necessarily in that order.
And to be honest, it’s not like Hollywood has done a terrific job with some of their pure haunted house offerings. Instead we get crappy ridiculous hammer you over the head with special effects film retreads like 13 Ghosts or The Haunting. The original low budget film 13 Ghosts by William Castle wasn’t that great to begin with but it did have its charming moments. The remake? How can I put this delicately? It sucked.
In the case of The Haunting, not only did the special effects ruin the psychological premise of the original, it mucked Shirley Jackson’s novel up in ever other way possible, morphing a real thriller into a dumbed down CGI snooze fest in surround sound. But it did have Catherine Zeta-Jones so at least that was some consolation. Let’s face it, Haunted House movies are not only hard to get made, they’re almost impossible to get right.
Think about it for a moment. Frankenstein and Dracula had been haunting the back lots of Universal Studios for well over a decade before a major studio decided to invest in the first honest to goodness haunted house spooktacular complete with cold clammy rooms, flickering candles, wails in the night, unexplained scents, ghostly apparitions, séances, and an honest to goodness mystery to go right along with it. Before The Uninvited, haunted houses were either a laugh house built for the antics of Abbott & Costello, Bob Hope, or consisted of fake hauntings manufactured to keep others out of a house being used for nefarious deeds by mere mortals, most of them in the criminal profession.
But back in 1944, Hollywood finally got its act together and produced their first serious haunted house movie complete with eerie rooms, strange happenings, and floating ghostly apparitions and called it The Uninvited. So, how did they do in this initial effort? Let’s let Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) invite you into Windward House with the opening narration:
"They call them the haunted shores, these stretches of Devonshire and Cornwall and Ireland which rear up against the westward ocean. Mists gather here, and sea fog, and eerie stories. That’s not because there are more ghosts here than in other places, mind you. It’s just that people who live hereabouts are strangely aware of them. You see, day and night, year in year out, they listen to the pound and stir of the waves. There’s life and death in that restless sound, and eternity too. If you listen to it long enough, all your senses are sharpened. You come by strange instincts. You get to recognize a peculiar cold which is a first warning. The cold which is no mere matter of degrees Fahrenheit but a draining of warmth from the vital centers of the living.
Local people tell me they would have felt it, even outside that locked door. We didn’t. They can’t understand why we didn’t know what it meant when our dog wouldn’t go up those stairs. Animals see the blasted things it appears."Pretty cool narrative if I do say so myself. So while vacationing on the English coast, Roderick (hereafter known as Rick) Fitzgerald, music critic and composer wannabe, and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey), occupation unknown, just happen to come across a long abandoned mansion sitting forlornly up on a cliff. When their little Toto-cloned dog (aka Bobby) chases the wicked witch of the east…I mean the wicked squirrel of the tree in the front yard into the house, they chase after him through a window which was conveniently left partially open so that they could retrieve the dog and save the squirrel and get our ghost flick underway. After dispensing with the squirrel business and making sure the local constable isn't around to arrest them for breaking and entering, Rick and Pam begin exploring the dwelling. It's pretty much your typical abandoned mansion by the sea except for the prerequisite haunted house locked room that they can’t get into. But other than that, the house seems normal in every other aspect. Well, almost.
There is the matter of the bathroom. It has a fireplace a bathtub, a sink, but no toilet. This may seem strange at first until you remember that this is the forties and toilets were banned from appearing in cinemas. And since fireplaces weren’t generally used for relieving one’s self, they could appear on screen which is why there may be one in the bathroom. Or more explanation is maybe that's the way rich old bastards built their haunted houses. Or maybe they just held it until it was time to put the fire out. The possibilities are endless. Okay, so sometimes when watching a movie I do think of some weird crap like this that even Robert Osborne never consdered for no reason in particular.
But despite the lack of a commode, Pam falls in love with the house and convinces Rick that they just absolutely have to buy it, right now, right this minute, no questions asked. And Rick, oddly henpecked by sis Pam, finally agrees to look into acquiring the house, although he’s probably thinking that it would be a terribly long walk down the cliff to the ocean if he wanted to take a quick leak somewhere other than in the fireplace. You know, I bet it was a real bitch carrying firewood up to the second floor. The owner, as it turns out is one Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) who is only too happy to sell Windwood in order to provide a nest egg for his granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) and because previous tenants had spread rumors about the house being haunted by the Commander's deceased daughter, Mary Meredith, who met an untimely death near the castle. It is my personal contention however that death is inconvenient, annoying, and untimely for most people, so in that regards Poor Mary was no exception. As for Stella, she ain't too hot to trot for dear old Grandpa to let go of Mama's Family Mansion, and when Rick and Pamela inquire about the house, she no longer wants to be the friendly helpful neighbor she was when she thought the Fitzgeralds were just out looking for a place to urinate. Okay, no more potty jokes from here on out. But with or without Stella's input, Grandfather Son of a Beech unloads the house on the unsuspecting but more than willing brother and sister act, Rick and Pam. Rick, being the smart composer and movie critic that he is, returns home to pack their belongings, tie up some loose ends, and bide his time while Pam cleans up and gets the house decorated for some brother and sister cohabitation. Coincidentally, this also enables Rick to have his sis be the one to make sure there isn't some deadly apparition waiting to throw her over the cliff or down the stairwell. Or, worst yet, for Stella to punch her lights out for having the audacity to buy her long dead Mother's mansion. But before he heads back to London, Rick and Stella actually end up becoming quite cozy and cuddly in between Rick's bouts of nausea on a sailboat. Maybe his change of heart was from finding out that when Stella was 3, her Mother died by committing suicide via taking an Olympic sized dive off the cliff outside Windwood. In fact, he invites her up to Windwood to keep Pam company, and to negotiate a peace treaty with her dead mother if she should happen to come around. When Rick finally returns along with the housekeeper, Lizzie Borden..... I mean Lizzie Flynn and her cat, Whiskey, things appear normal, but only on the surface. It seems that the toto-dog Bobby has proclaimed his independence by running off to live the remainder of his doggie days elsewhere rather than at Windwood. This is a move that the Fitzgerald's treat kind of nonchalantly which tells you that people must not have been that attached to their pets back in 1944. It also turns out that despite the fact that Stella had promised him she would visit Pam, she was a no show. Then again, maybe Pam wasn’t her type just because Stella’s ghostly (or is that ghastly?) mom possibly maybe could have had a thing. We’ll get to that.
Pam then informs Rick that she had sent Stella a personal invitation herself, but had been rebuffed by the Captain. And then there's the cat, Whiskey (don’t hold me to the cat’s name, I wasn’t sure if they were saying Whiskey or Pissy or just Pussy), who like dog Bobby, throws a kitty fit when asked to take a walk up the stairs. The fun really begins later that night when Rick is awaken by the sounds of a sobbing woman filling the darkened house. Thinking it might be Pamela or Lizzie, he heads out into the pitch black hallway armed with nothing but a candle and is met a moment later by his sister who assures him that the crying is not coming from the housekeeper. In fact, the scene played to perfection by both Milland and especially Hussey, will be creeping you out and sending a chill down your spine as well.
Eventually, Stella does come to visit Rick and Pam at Windwood, and things quickly go from bad to worse. Stella begins to "feel" the presence of mama mia, Mary Meredith, but at the same time the spirit seems to want her to take a flying leap off the same cliff that Mommie Dearest had flown off of some 17 years previously. There are moments when The Uninvited is a rather conversation laden film, but I mean that as a compliment. There are many conversations that take place but they are not here just as screen filler. You have to be on your toes and listen carefully as each clue unravels some deep dark secrets of the past. Pay attention, and you can earn your Nancy Drew merit badge before Rick and the gang practically get hit over the head with the information near the end of the movie. Complications ensue when Roderick begins falling for the young Stella, who is drawn to the house by the ghost of her dead mother who may or may not have good intentions. Should Rick let her stay or convince her to leave for her own good, perhaps losing his own chance at romantic bliss? If ever there was a reason for black and white films The Uninvited is it. The stark cinematography by Charles Lang perfectly captures the eeriness of the house, especially in the dimly lit night scenes which are highlighted only by candles. Candles flicker when they shouldn't; the house is filled at night by the uncontrollable sobbing echoes of an unseen entity. A flower inexplicably wilts in a matter of seconds. Anyone who enters the studio where Stella's father painted her mother is overcome by a huge sense of dread and depression. While playing a love song for Stella, the now famous Stella By Starlight on the piano, the music Rod is playing turns haunting, surreal, and if you could describe music that way, almost vicious. There is not one single headless, rotting guts hanging out corpse that makes an appearance. Instead we get a continual foreboding atmosphere and a sense of dread that hangs over each frame of the production. Yes we do see the ghosts, which were added by the insistence of the studio, but by using the simplest of special effects, they are more haunting than any amount of CGI could ever hope to duplicate. It is what we do not see that scares us, and the anticipation of what we might see that fills us with dread. As sort of the icing on the cake, it is all topped all off with what I consider to be is one of the best séance sequences ever put on film. A film like The Uninvited will probably not appeal to many of today's youthful film watchers who have to be hammered over the head with 3D Imax CGI extravaganzas. For a serious film viewer, who wants to see what a true haunted house film should be, The Uninvited is a must see. It's a genuine puzzling mystery film that will leave you guessing until the end and a truly chilling ghost story with just enough romance and a few light comedic touches thrown in to top things off. The casting here is perfect.
Although I had a bit of fun in regards to Rick and Pam being siblings, the fact is that their performances often compliment each other. Pam is the no nonsense sister, who takes things a bit more seriously than Rick who puts on a brave front but is a timid mouse underneath. Milland brings enough of a light hearted touch to his Rick so that we don't get too bogged down in the seriousness of the story. And Gail Russell is simply stunning as Stella.
We may initially view her as milquetoast, but we later find out that there is much more to her than that and that Stella is not beyond being defiant to her overbearing grandfather when the occasion calls for it. And despite the 19 year age difference between her and Rick, they somehow manage to make the romance work in a believable manner.
About midway through the film, Cornelia Otis Skinner shows up as Miss Holloway, who runs a home for mentally ill women. And oh yeah, the place is called The Mary Meredith Retreat. It turns out that back in the days when she was just plain old lowly Nurse Holloway, she was quite an admirer of Mary Meredith, not to mention being her best friend and confidante as well. She was so obsessed with Mary that there are only two possible explanations: Either Holloway and Mary Meredith were closet lesbians, or Holloway is off her rocker to the point where she should be a patient in the Mary Meredith Home instead of running the joint.
Or maybe she's both a closet lesbian and a nut case as well. A guest brought this idea up on Turner Classic Movies once and host Robert Osborne pooh poohed the very thought. But hey, who knows what really lurks in the minds of screenwriters. You can watch the video below captured from that particular broadcast (the fact that I was watching again tells you how much I like this film) and decide for yourself whom you agree with. Frankly, having viewed the movie several times, I don’t think you can come up with any other rational explanation for such a deep emotional attachment. So despite their millions of other shortcomings as human beings, at least Ms. Meredith and Ms. Holloway were what they were and I say, go for it. Sorry, Bob.
The remaining major cast member, Alan Napier, shows up as Dr. Scott, the local medicine man. You might remember him from another gig he had back in the 60’s (See picture with insert)
There is no doubt that The Uninvited is one of the best Ghost Stories ever to be put on celluloid. It has everything you could want in a film with romance, mystery, suspense, chills and a few thrills, and at times even a little comedy intervention. And if you can combine all those elements together so successfully to win me over for so many years, then I have no choice but to give you a highly spirited A.
So how does one see The Uninvited? It runs occasionally on Turner Classic Movies so keep a look out for it there. It is one of the top movies requested to be put on DVD, but unfortunately whoever has the rights hasn't felt compelled to release it in that format in the good old USA. It is not even available in the Warner Archive Store, which makes no sense at all. You can order a region free copy on DVD at Amazon. Do so at your own risk. The film is a treasure, and I hope you'll dig around and look it up. All you really need is a little luck and a little initiative. My copy is one I burned from the Turner Classic Movies broadcast. UPDATE!: Criterion has finally released this wonderful film on DVD and Blu-ray. Use the links in the ads at the top of the page. You know, the ones you can’t see unless you give a hard working guy a break and turn your ad blocker off. Thanks.
Beginning with this review and hopefully with future reviews we offer up an opinion and perspective from one of today’s more youthful moviegoers. (Edit: It didn’t work out. Josh has left the building. The position is now open. No, you don’t get paid, same as me.) Josh hopes someday to be a writer, loves video games, and will be all of 20 years of age this March. Currently the plan is that he won’t read my review before writing his review, although Josh may offer up some comments afterwards. Full disclosure: “Josh, I am your Father.” “NOooooooooooooooooo!”The Uninvited is what most young people today will probably think of as a long-forgotten movie. They’re probably right, but just because the movie is old doesn’t necessarily make it bad. Remember this children.
This was the first black and white movie I had ever seen, and while the acting was top-notch and the plot was entertaining, I still find that there is a big problem with the pacing.
As much as I enjoyed this movie, I couldn’t help but notice that it took the better part of 90 minutes for things to finally start happening. The moaning, wailing, miserable woman crying loudly in the night proved entertaining…for a while. But they spent a vast majority of their time introducing characters that you love to hate, and asking more questions than they answered. I know it is supposed to be a mystery, and they do a good job of setting things up for the final scenes, but during that time there is little to no advancement.
Bad pace aside, everything manages to pull itself together during the movie’s final moments. The big, mysterious truth is finally revealed, and the scenes begin to blur together as you find yourself eager to know how the story is going to end. :
Most of the actors that starred in this movie are probably unfamiliar to most of you, but I urge you to look into any other movies they’ve performed in, no matter how old. The three main cast-members (Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, and Gail Russell) present a spectacular performance, and they have a talent for acting that is rarely seen in Hollywood these days. The Uninvited is one forgotten movie that is an inviting change from the jumble of remakes currently spewing out of Hollywood. This movie is definitely worth the watch.
My score for The Uninvited (1944):
(This review originally ran on my Clyde’s Movie Palace blog. It has been re-edited and update to be included here)