The Uninvited (1944)
At some point in its history, Hollywood decided that more eye-popping effects, blood, violence, and nudity were needed to bring more viewers to theaters and put more money into industry coffers. Unfortunately, this often led to a lazy, less-nuanced approach to filmmaking. Fans of the haunted house chiller, in particular, saw first-hand how the new, in-your-face angle negatively impacted their favorite horror sub-genre. Where you now see the ghosts and supernatural forces through optical and computer trickery, the ghost stories of filmdom's golden age relied on simple sound, lighting, and wind machine effects to get the viewer's already active imagination to scare the pants off them. One of these subtle gems of yesteryear is 1944's The Uninvited, a sumptuous-looking, superbly directed and acted hair-raiser of the highest caliber.
While on vacation in Devonshire on the coast of England, siblings Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald discover an old house that would be a perfect place of solitude for Roderick to continue his work as a music composer. The mansion is uninhabited but the owners, the retired Commander Beech and his granddaughter Stella, live in another home nearby. Roderick and Pamela purchase the property from Beech, much to the chagrin of Stella, who grew up there with her parents and is still drawn to the place nightly. The Fitzgeralds find out that Beech's daughter and Stella's mom, Mary Meredith, committed suicide when Stella was a very small child. Shortly after moving in, Pam and Roderick begin hearing strange noises. The pair decide to investigate further by talking more with Beech and meeting with Stella's one-time nurse, the mysterious Miss Holloway. They soon come to believe the house is haunted by the malevolent spirit of Mary and that Stella may be her target. They discover that Mary's death may not have been by suicide but by murder as part of a love triangle scandal. Does Miss Holloway hold the key to the puzzle? Can Roderick and Pamela solve the mystery and stop the spirit of Mary from claiming the life of Stella?
The Uninvited benefits greatly from the surprisingly sure-handed direction of then-newcomer Lewis Allen, who lights and stages each scene to provide the greatest impact of mood and atmosphere. Of the many great moments he has to offer, one of the best comes mid-way through the film when Roderick, returning from a weeks' long business trip in London, gets awakened one night by the sound of a woman sobbing. Thinking it's Pam, he hurries out of the bedroom to the landing, only to be joined by Pamela. She tells him she heard the same thing and that it's been going on for weeks. Allen plays the scene with a minimum of dialogue and drops the music interlude just long enough to offer the soft crying sound, providing an unnerving feeling as to who or what the crying sound belongs to. By offering the unseen rather than the seen, Allen conveys an air of creepiness.
Allen is helped immensely by the masterful cinematography of Charles Lang, Jr., who nicely enhances the mood set by Allen in each scene with the appropriate lighting, from outdoor bright to shadowy oppressive and muted interior light. His lighting expertise is most evident in the scene where the room candles dim by themselves after Stella listens in on Roderick playing Stella By Starlight on the piano. The lighting comes down at the same time the tone of the music turns somber, providing a quietly frightening and disturbing sequence.
The script, by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, survives the removal of some characters and events from the source novel, Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle, and actually improves upon the book by opening up the action as much as is possible for a mostly set-bound piece.The book confines most of the action to the Windward Mansion interiors, while the movie utilizes beautiful exterior footage of Devonshire and provides a rather lengthy boating excursion scene near the middle to expand things. In addition, Smith and Pardos manage to flesh out the story's main characters, providing multiple levels of character depth largely not often seen in horror films. Their Roderick is a stiff-lipped hero and protective brother who's given the added shading of love-struck boyfriend. Pamela, meanwhile, is equal parts strong-willed, adventurous, and scared out of her mind. Of the three, Stella seems to offer the most complex character type combination, that of the dutiful granddaughter/mother-obsessed daughter/doomed heroine type.
Though the entire cast is fine, the stand alone performances in the cast belong to Gail Russell, wonderful as the emotionally fragile Stella, and Cornelia Otis Skinner as the delightfully cold Holloway. Since the focus of the action is really on Stella, Russell is required to carry much of the film. If she doesn't deliver, the film suffers in a big way. Russell draws the moviegoer in by delving underneath Stella, pushing to the fore the character's fears that she may have caused her mother's death while also imbuing her with a surprising strength of will to somehow get through the strange occurrences. Long-time stage actress Skinner, meanwhile, makes a rare film appearance here, portraying Holloway as a symbol of icy-cold repression. She is the keeper of the Meredith family secrets and, though they are clearly eating away at her internally, she seems willing to protect the family name even if it kills her.
While a few films in the last decade, like Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001), do rely on subtleties such as mood, atmosphere, direction, story, and performance, it would be difficult to believe that a product like The Uninvited, with all of those qualities and more, could be remade today with the subdued elements kept intact. You're just as likely to see rampaging beasts in the house foyer or a dazzling light show preceding a spirit world portal opening once Stella By Starlight is queued, all done in a spectacular, big budget style that causes the viewer to be awed and dumbstruck at the same time. Well, here's one old-school fan who still thinks the best way for Hollywood to scare a moviegoer is to let their mind's eye do it for them.