The Uninvited: Spirits by Starlight

“It seems to me harder to get a fright than a laugh, and I experienced thirty-five first-class jolts, not to mention a well-calculated texture of minor frissons.”

James Agee’s admiration for the seductive shudders of The Uninvited had plenty of company among his fellow critics—although only he, in his inimitably droll way, felt compelled to quantify his every twitch with such precision. Lewis Allen’s 1944 beauty is an early example of a true cinematic ghost story—one that doesn’t pull away the curtain at the end, Toto-like, to reveal a human manipulating the levers—and it has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest films of that genre to come out of Hollywood in the forties. It works the nerves slowly, delicately. The fear plays out against a literate and witty script, with several romances, both open and covert, going on simultaneously. The jokes may be telegraphed, but never the jolts. Paramount gave the production an upper-tier budget and cast and emerged with a hit, and a film in which Agee’s frights and frissons can still be felt almost seventy years later.

The Uninvited works with the trope of urban sophisticates confront­ing a sinister countryside, a device audiences would have recognized from at least as far back as 1932’s The Old Dark House. Within that convention, the film deftly achieves its chills, unlike many later and far bloodier movies, by way of moments that are plausible, even familiar. People do not, as a general rule, encounter chain-saw-wielding cannibal families when they go too far outside the city limits. But how many have been alone in a strange and isolated house and lain awake, hoping that the sound outside the bedroom door wasn’t footsteps?

Based on a novel by the Irish author Dorothy Macardle called Uneasy Freehold (it was renamed The Uninvited for its U.S. publication), the film concerns Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland), a composer and music critic, and his sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey), who stumble across the magnificent Windward House while vacationing on the wave-tossed Cornish coast of England. Pamela convinces her brother to make an offer to the owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp). Rick lowballs to what he considers an absurd degree, but the commander accepts, and with such alacrity that Rick becomes a bit suspicious.

Too late: the house is theirs, much to the chagrin of Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), the commander’s granddaughter, who did not want it sold. Stella lived in the house as a toddler with her artist father, called only Meredith; her mother, Mary, who was Beech’s daughter; and her father’s mistress, a Spanish gypsy named Carmel. All of them are now dead. Mary Meredith died in a plunge off the cliff near the house, and Stella believes her mother haunts the place.

Windward is in fact haunted by the ghosts of both women, and in no benign way. Certain rooms are cold no matter how warm the day, and the scent of mimosa wafts through the house even though those fragrant trees are nowhere to be seen. Sobbing, coming “from everywhere and nowhere,” keeps the new owners awake; “I’ve searched,” says Pamela. “There’s never anything there.” When Stella visits, she nearly runs off the cliff herself, and later babbles in broken Spanish during a séance. Her grandfather, afraid for Stella for reasons we must wait to discover, contacts Mary’s old nurse, Miss Holloway, who, in her devotion to the dead woman and her sinister attitude toward Stella, recalls Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. Rick falls in love with Stella, and ridding the place of its lurking evil becomes a question of saving Stella herself.

The Uninvited was the English-born Lewis Allen’s first film as a director. His background was in theater, with more than thirty West End productions under his belt and a number of Broadway successes as well, until he went to Los Angeles and joined Paramount to learn the craft of filmmaking. His credits would eventually also include The Unseen (another Macardle adaptation, made the year after The Uninvited and usually viewed as an attempt to capitalize on the success of that debut), Desert Fury (1947), the splendid gaslight noir So Evil My Love (1948), and Suddenly (1954). But when Allen died in 2000, this film was cited as his best, with one word recurring: atmosphere. It’s there from the start, in the boiling surf shown while Milland narrates: “They call these the haunted shores . . .” (The Northern California coast is doubling for Cornwall.) Allen glides over to a long shot of two figures, brother and sister, climbing up a cliff toward the empty house, symbolically oblivious to the danger. When their terrier, Bobby, chases a squirrel inside, the two enter through an open window and linger to admire the place.

It’s striking how often The Uninvited works by going against what’s expected from a haunted-house movie, adding humor, sprightly music cues, and quite a bit of sunshine. The setting is not stormy autumn but warm and gentle spring; the opening gives an oddly precise date, the tenth of May, 1937. The rooms are airy, and the huge windows overlook breathtaking ocean views. Naturally, Rick and Pamela don’t yet suspect a thing, but after the setup in the narration, already it’s possible to wonder what sort of spectral gusts keep the chandeliers cobweb-free—and the dog won’t go up the stairs.

The script, by Frank Partos and Dodie Smith, demands a peri­lous balance from Allen between down-to-earth suggestions, outright humor, and otherworldly fright. A doctor, played by Alan Napier (who went on to TV immortality as Batman’s butler), offers sensible advice that no one heeds. Usually, the jokes come from Milland, the handsome city slicker determined to defuse every situation. His theory about the nighttime crying is that “a loose aerial” is picking up a woman in the village. When Pamela points out that the old tenants heard the sobs too, he says, with no conviction whatever, “Maybe she has a sad life.” Hussey also gets an occasional dry line. When, after purchas­ing Windward, Rick and Pamela unlock the one door that wouldn’t open before, Pamela observes tartly that it’s no wonder the artist’s studio revealed behind it was Bluebeardishly inaccessible: “It’s the one ugly room in the house.” By modern standards, the studio is stunning, but the wall of windows reminds her of “a cucumber frame”—and, of course, the room is unaccountably cold.

Here Allen’s remarkable facility with tone becomes apparent. All at once, the amusement drains from Milland’s face. He sits down heavily and says, “I suddenly felt completely flattened.” Pamela has brought in a small handful of roses, and as she tries to convince Rick he can compose music in this chilly, unattractive chamber, there’s a cut to the flowers, withering within seconds—decay and malevolence, unobserved by either mortal.

Allen wanted the ghosts offscreen, leaving all supernatural apparitions to the imagination. He was vetoed by Paramount, however, and a ghost does appear late in the movie, a mist curling like opium smoke and topped by an indistinct face. (The effect is enough like the spirits that swirl through the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark to suggest that Steven Spielberg knows this film too.) The appearance isn’t a climactic bit of horror—the sobbing is, for me at least, the most frightening thing in The Uninvited. But like the rest of the film, the vision produces shudders through suggestion. Allen must have been amused when the British censors, who then as now had different priorities than their American counterparts, cut the ghost for the film’s UK release, and the director was congratulated by English critics for his tasteful restraint.

Other aspects drew criticism of a different sort. As enacted by Cornelia Otis Skinner and her underbite, Miss Holloway is the movie’s most unsettling earthly presence. Skinner was primarily an author and theater actor, and she gives Holloway a strong touch of Lady Macbeth: a deep voice, a daggerlike glance, a gliding walk, and a posture that suggests a two-by-four strapped to her back. Skinner dominates her scenes; even the redoubtable Donald Crisp seems to retreat before her. Her reaction to a gigantic portrait of Mary is this poetic flight: “Mary was a goddess, her skin was radiant, and that bright, bright hair . . . The nights we sat talking in front of that fireplace, planning our whole lives. It wasn’t flirtations and dresses we talked about. We were no silly, giggling girls. We intended to conquer life.” One doesn’t need a map to know where this speech is going, and neither did audiences in 1944. Film scholar Rhona J. Berenstein quotes a letter written that year by Father Brendan Larnen of the Catholic Legion of Decency to Will Hays, Hollywood’s head censor. “In certain theatres large audiences of questionable type attended this film at unusual hours,” said Father Larnen, drawn by “certain erotic and esoteric elements in the film.” The letter consti­tuted a stern rebuke and a warning, said Larnen, to in the future “guard against such subject matter on the screen.” From a later vantage, it’s rather delightful to imagine crowds of “questionable types” quoting Miss Holloway’s dialogue and latching on to emotions they recognized, even if those feelings had been drawn as malevolent caricature. It is, after all, Ray Milland fighting women for the heart of a young woman. Gail Russell’s performance makes it seem that, at least at first, the ghosts have a stronger pull.

The character of Stella is twenty; Russell was nineteen and looks younger. It was her first starring role, and she brings febrile intensity to it, moving from flirtatious humor to an orphan’s yearning for her mother to the desperation of a possessed woman. In real life, Russell wasn’t able to pull back. By all accounts an introverted and jittery person ill-suited to the Hollywood racket, she is said to have started drinking on the set of this movie in an attempt to calm herself between takes. Her very next film found her playing none other than Cornelia Otis Skinner, in the 1944 screen adaptation of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, the autobiographical best seller that Skinner had cowritten with a college chum of hers a couple of years earlier—also directed by Allen, and another hit. For a short while in the 1940s, Russell’s ethereal style gained her roles in films like Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1948). But by 1956, when she appeared in Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now, alcoholism had coarsened her wondrous looks, and her career was nearly over. She died in 1961, of drinking-related causes, age thirty-six. The Uninvited, then, also offers a glimpse of Russell at her hopeful start, photographed in a way that justifies the fan magazines’ compari­sons to Hedy Lamarr.

Indeed, Allen’s most indispensable ally on The Uninvited was the great cinematographer Charles Lang Jr., whose work on the film was nominated for an Oscar. Windward House has no electricity; whether that’s because of its remote location or its having stood empty for years is never explained. In the event, this gives Lang an excuse for some of the eeriest lighting of the 1940s. Flashlights pierce the gloom, candles and oil lamps flicker, and the sea casts patterns of light on the ceiling.

The peak for Lang’s cinematography, as well as for the full-rigged fantasy of Victor Young’s score, comes in a scene in Rick’s studio. He has taken Stella up there before dinner, and they talk in silhouette until he says tenderly, “It’s getting almost too dark to see you.” He lights the candles and plays the serenade he’s named “To Stella by Starlight.” (Later, with words added, the tune became an American standard.) He pauses, she sits next to him, it seems they may kiss, but instead he picks up the melody again. The angle shifts to look through the candles, and he tells her that his fingers are much too clumsy to capture her, “but you’re in it somehow.” And on that line, the candles go almost dark, and Rick’s playing shifts to a minor key. Stella’s pale, dark-rimmed eyes look up over the candelabra. Two intangibles, romance and evil, seem visible at once. Like The Uninvited itself, it’s haunting in all the right ways.

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