Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Uninvited (1944)

The Uninvited (1944). Directed by: Lewis Allen. Starring: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Everyone knows that October is the spookiest of all months. So, every year, we here at the Vault of Secrets try to bring you something a little bit special for the Halloween season. This year, I think we have something very special indeed.

The Uninvited is considered by many to be one of the best ghost stories ever filmed. In spite of its reputation, it has been hard to get ahold of until now. Just in time for Halloween, the always-reliable folks at Criterion have released a stunning edition of The Uninvited onto Blu-ray and DVD. I watched the Blu-ray version, which looked as sharp and clear as you could ask for a movie from 1944 to look. (It also includes two radio play adaptations of the story, both also starring Ray Milland, one from 1944 and one from 1949.)

To a large extent, the reputation of The Uninvited rests on its serious treatment of the central ghost story. Cynicism was already the de rigueur reaction to the haunted house genre by the 1940s and movies from the era with actual supernatural elements are thin on the ground. The Uninvited is considered to be one of the first Hollywood movies to portray a haunting as a genuine supernatural event, as opposed to playing it as a joke or as subterfuge to cover some other activity.

But simply being a story about an actual ghost wouldn’t be sufficient to secure a legacy like The Uninvited‘s. It’s also a remarkably subtle and restrained treatment of a haunting. The best effects are achieved with guttering candles, cold spots, and sobbing in the night, coming from “everywhere and nowhere.” Ghosts do visibly show up before the film is finished, though director Lewis Allen didn’t originally want them to, and they were ironically cut by British censors. Even then, though, they’re subtle and understated, just wisps of fog topped with a vague human face.

The best special effects in The Uninvited are its actors. Ray Milland is incredible, selling shifts in mood and tone with little more than a facial expression or a gesture. His character starts off as a scaredy-cat, pretending skepticism while pawning his fears off on those around him. He also provides what is probably the film’s most effective ghostly moment. The first time that he and his sister (played by Pamela Hussey) enter the “Bluebeard Room,” his entire demeanor suddenly changes. The energy drains from his face and he sits down, saying he “suddenly felt completely flattened.” Meanwhile, the roses that they’ve brought in with them wilt unseen behind them.

The other actors all bring equal measure to the work. Gail Russell, who would shine brightly for a short time before burning out at a young age from alcoholism, brings intensity to her role as the haunted young girl whom Milland’s character is ultimately trying to save. Author Cornelia Otis Skinner plays the film’s human villain as something colder and more frightening than the ghostly presence in the house. (She’s also often seen as an early lesbian caricature, a topic which gets mentioned in the booklet included with the Criterion edition and which has seen some scholarly work, including suggesting the title of a book on the subject of “lesbian representability” in classic Hollywood films.)

There is a tangled network of relationships going on in The Uninvited, some of them obvious, others more subtle. I found the understated romance between Ruth Hussey’s character and the town doctor, played by Alan Napier, who would go on to fame playing Batman’s butler Alfred in the 1960s Batman TV series, to be more interesting than the main romance between Milland and Russell.

Though delicate and restrained, The Uninvited touches upon everything we’ve come to expect from a cinematic ghost story or Gothic chiller. There’s a closed-up house on the cliffs. There are unsuspecting city folk who purchase it for a song. There’s a locked door, a family secret, even an ominous painting that is the only physical presence of a dead woman. There’s an inevitable séance scene, in which a wine glass and some anagram tiles stand in for a Ouija board. The movie is seldom what you would call scary – though there are moments in the climax that are chilling (including an attempt at murder-by-haunted house) – but the spectral ambiance is handled so maturely that it retains its effectiveness.

What’s probably most surprising about The Uninvited is how bright and airy it is most of the time. Comedy relief is no oddity in horror films from the period, but the opening of The Uninvited is almost sprightly, with a comedic sequence of a dog chasing a squirrel through the old house. The house itself is bright and welcoming most of the time. The story takes place in spring, rather than autumn. There’s lots of sunshine and no cobwebs to speak of.

When the night does come on, though, the cinematography makes ample use of the candles and flashlights that the characters use to light the frames. One moment in particular, between Milland’s character and Russell’s in the “Bluebeard Room” that Milland has turned into his studio, features a beautiful use of lighting as the day dies away and Russell’s character gradually fades into silhouette, until Milland says, “It’s getting almost too dark to see you.” Cinematographer Charles Lang Jr. received an Oscar nomination for the film. In no place is it easier to see why than in that moment.

That’s it for tonight’s program, but be sure to join us next time when we unearth another hard-to-find ghostly treasure from the same era.

Orrin Grey

About Orrin Grey

Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters. His stories of ghosts, monsters, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies and been collected in Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings and Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts. He can be found online at orringrey.com.

Orrin GreyColumn: The Vault of Secrets: The Uninvited (1944)