Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:
THE UNINVITED. Paramount Pictures, 1944. Ray Milland, Gail Russell (debut), Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Alan Napier, Corneila Otis Skinner, Dorothy Stickney, Barbara Everest. Screenplay by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, based on the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle. Music: Victor Young (“Stella by Starlight”). Cinematography Charles Lang. Directed by Lewis Allen.
First a a huge SPOILER WARNING in flashing red lights if you don’t know the film or the novel. Things are given away here you should see the first time in the film or read in the book.
The Uninvited is a whodunnit — at least a whohauntedit, a murder mystery.
The Uninvited is a romantic comedy.
Parts of the beginning certainly and there are light touches throughout.
The Uninvited is a psychological thriller.
The Uninvited is a modern gothic.
The Uninvited is a ghost story.
No, that’s an understatement, The Uninvited is the film ghost story.
Robert Osborne, hosting an episode of the Essentials on TCM with Drew Barrymore that featured Robert Wise’s The Haunting, put it best. The Uninvited is the best ghost story ever filmed. It was then, it is now. All the special effects, all the pyrotechnics, all the leap out of your seat and scream movies made before or since pale beside this simple little tale of love, jealousy, and murder beyond the grave — with a human assist.
Because The Uninvited has something no other ghost story has, something as uncomplicated as this: The Uninvited has absolute unshakable conviction. These are ghosts you will not laugh at. Whatever your beliefs, however rational you are, this movie will do its damnedest to at least convince you for its short running time that Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) is under siege by a spirit beyond the grave eager to take her life in an act of other worldly revenge. And for most people, viewers and critics alike, it succeeds — it more than succeeds.
Is it Stella’s goddess-like mother, Mary Meredith, or the foreign model, and her father’s mistress, Carmel comforting Stella, threatening Stella? Which spirit weeps for Stella Meredith, and which wants to drive her to suicide? You will care if you watch this one.
And you will consider sleeping that night with the lights on.
I suppose this film won’t mean much to the gore and goo fans, there is nothing in it to make you throw up or gag, but its scares are deep and real, the frisson they induce a deep soul chilling hair on the back of the neck crawling kind of fright that for me has only been approached a handful of times on screen — the final moments of Hitchcock’s Psycho, the ending of John Farrow’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Robert Wise’s The Haunting, The Innocents, Val Lewton’s best, and too few others; it is the genuine fright and nerve chilling presence of supernatural evil the inexplicable, the hidden, the uninvited. It’s a stunning debut for both Gail Russell and director Lewis Allen.
It is the best ghost story ever filmed, and that opinion is shared with no few critics. Critics who don’t like anything anyone else praises love this film because it is so unpretentiously and perfectly exactly what it wants to be — a chilly tale of ghosts to follow by a warm fireplace with the lights left on.
I saw this for the first time at age ten (the same age I saw Ghost Breakers, a good year) on the late movie on a Friday night with my mother after a stormy night had passed and neither of us could sleep. When my father got home the next day he wanted to know why we were sleeping so late and every light in the house was turned on.
Rick (Ray Milland, Roderick in the book) wants to write music, and with his sister, Pam (Ruth Hussey), and their dog Bobby, he spies an old cliff side house on the rocky moody Devon coast. They could never afford it of course, but it turns out the Commander (Donald Crisp) wants rid of it at a price they can just hope to pay. He’s unfriendly and downright hateful, and apparently a snob as well, for he wants his grand-daughter Stella — a moody fey girl who lies to Milland and Hussey to keep them from buying the house — to have nothing to do with the new tenants — and to stay away from the house at all costs. He is selling it in hopes of keeping her away.
You know that won’t work. Ray Milland is going to London to arrange the move while Hussey stays behind, and feeling pity for Stella, whom he took an instant dislike to, he tries to cheer her up falling in love with her as he does. He, at least, is haunted by Stella Meredith, no matter who haunts Stella.
Milland comes back with their housekeeper Lizzie (Barbara Everest), her cat in tow, and there is something Pam has learned she has to tell him.
The house is haunted. And that night he hears the weeping of the ghost.
Milland: “Does it come every night?.”
Hussey: “No, just when you start to think you dreamed it, it comes again.”
A haunted house, what a lark, but not to Hussey There is something. Maybe that’s why the housekeeper’s cat is freaked out. Maybe that’s why their loyal dog runs away, maybe that’s why the housekeeper won’t stay in the house overnight and frets over the two young people she virtually raised living in such an evil place.
Or maybe it’s that beautiful room with the north light, Stella’s artist father’s studio, now Milland’s music room, maybe it’s because it gets so cold sometimes, or the way it depresses people and seems to drain them. Neither Milland or Hussey notice the first time they sit in the room that they suddenly become depressed, or the flowers that wilt while they aren’t looking.
And then it might be the weeping woman who keeps them up all night. Maybe it’s just a depressing old place and that’s why Milland can’t quite finish his opus, “Stella by Starlight,” written for Stella Meredith, but suddenly so sad and so haunting when that wasn’t what he meant at all. Maybe it’s just them.
Not in this movie. Unlike Robert Wise’s The Haunting, these people aren’t haunting themselves. What walks in this house does not walk alone. There is never the least hesitation about it: ghosts are real, and not merely psychological interpretations of impressionable minds.
Then there’s that cheap scent, lovely, but nothing the elegant and perfect Mary Meredith would have worn, mimosa …
Old houses, they have drafts, funny noises, there are cliffs and they are on the sea, winds blow, there are caves, there are stories …
Commander: “Stella will never enter that house!”
Milland: “Great Scott, you believe it’s really haunted!”
And there is Stella, drawn to the old house by forces and needs she can’t explain, but somehow so vulnerable in that old place as if the house itself was both a warm loving mother inviting her and a cold murderous bitch trying to destroy her.
After they have to send for the local doctor, Alan Napier, when Stella is overcome after running blindly toward the cliff where the old dead tree stands, where her parents both died, they learn Bobby is now living with him, and find a new ally in solving the mystery of the house and Stella Meredith.
There was a scandal, the doctor explains; Meredith had a model, a fiery foreign type named Carmel, a Spanish gypsy. Carmel died a week after Mary Meredith was killed while trying to prevent her husband’s suicide on the cliff. Meredith was a scoundrel it seems and poor Stella has art in the blood, something she seems relieved about compared to the perfect Mary Meredith.
Stella: “Between you and me and the grand piano father was a bit of a bad hat.”
When Stella is better, and against her grand-father’s wishes, they invite her back for a seance. Milland and Napier plan to control the seance and convince Stella there is no spirit. Not as good an idea in practice as it may have sounded in theory. Again they sense the strange scent of mimosa, again Stella feels nurtured and warmed — and again something attacks.
Whatever, it is clear now, the house is haunted — by two ghosts, one Stella’s loving mother, the other a vengeful spirit who is a real threat to her.
But when the Commander discovers what they have been up to he decides to send Stella away to a home run by her mother’s closest friend and companion, a formidable and cold woman who worships the ground Mary Meredith’s angelic feet hardly touched, Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner who ironically Gail Russell played in the film version of her book Their Hearts Were Young and Gay and its sequel) who created the Mary Meredith Home for Women.
She worships Mary Meredith a bit too much perhaps because there is a hint of lesbianism you could drive a semi through, never exactly said. They hint the hell out of it though. Big fairly explicit lead booted hints, yet maintaining the perfect balance that is the reason this film is great.
Miss Holloway: “… her skin was perfect, and her bright bright hair, she was lovely …” Anyone who doesn’t figure out this relationship is painfully naive.
Just by coincidence the trained nurse caring for Mary Meredith and Stella the night of the tragedy was a certain Miss Holloway.
Stella hates and fears her.
Milland and Hussey visit Miss Holloway and hear her version of the story. Carmel tried to kill Stella, Mary Meredith saved her but fell to her death. Meredith killed himself.
And then in the strangest of coincidences, the wind just happens to blow open the journals of the old doctor Napier replaced to the notes on Mary Meredith and Carmel, a quite different tale than the one they have been led to believe. Mary Meredith was a cold murderous bitch, who the old doctor suspected murdered Carmel by leaving windows open so the pregnant woman caught pneumonia — while she was pregnant with Meredith’s child, Stella.
Mary Meredith wasn’t murdered by her husband. They fell to their death while he struggled with her to keep her from throwing herself and Stella off the cliff in a fit of vindictive and murderous jealousy. Mary Meredith is a monster of epic proportions. Miss Holloway murdered Carmal as far as the old doctor was concerned.
Don’t screen this one on Mother’s Day.
This is the secret the Commander has held all these years. The secret Miss Holloway would kill to protect, the secret of the old house, Mary Meredith’s secret. Stella isn’t really his grand-daughter, and the goddess Mary Meredith was a murderous harridan, but the old man truly loves Stella, he gives his life trying to save her.
Mary Meredith wants to finish what she started.
Compel Stella to throw herself from the exact spot where she fell, she has already tried once, the cliff by the dead tree.
Revenge from beyond the grave.
Murder from beyond the grave.
And only Carmel, her real mother, stands between them, and Mary defeated her once already; all she can do is comfort and try to warn her child.
Not really enough standing against Mary Meredith.
Thank God Stella is with that monster Miss Holloway. But she’s not. Skinner has gone mad as a hatter and sent Stella home, home to the embrace of Mary Meredith. Mary wants her, and Mary shall have her. And when Stella finds the Commander dying of a stroke at the house, by the sea he tries to tell her, warn her, but too late. Mary Meredith has the hated child within her grasp alone at last, and Stella flees her, running in blind fear towards the very place Mary and Meredith fell to their death.
Stella: I’m not afraid of anything here.
Commander: “Then be afraid, be very afraid!”
Skinner gives a finely tuned performance with an impressive scene of madness. No wonder she was one of the great ladies of the stage and American theater.
Milland, Hussey, and Napier have gone to take Stella from Miss Holloway. They are rushing back, but can they reach Stella in time?
The final confrontation with the hated Mary Meredith remains the single best scene of its type ever filmed. Milland, alone on a darkened stairway confronting a murderous spectral form with nothing but a candle for protection, is an image you won’t forget and the final reckoning with Mary Meredith the perfect ending. But don’t be too surprised if your courage cracks a little the way Milland’s voice does. Mary Meredith is something else.
And, by a narrow squeak, it’s a happy ending. But as Wellington said of Waterloo, a near run thing. As a shaken Milland points out, he might have had Mary Meredith as a mother-in-law. Stella’s relieved too, she’d much rather be the illegitimate daughter of Meredith and his mistress, Carmel, than have Mary Meredith’s cold blood running in her veins. Spanish gypsy beats the cold murderous Mary Meredith by a mile.
I can’t say as I blame her.
The title has multiple meanings. Milland and Hussey are uninvited intruders; Stella is uninvited at the house and uninvited into the world; Carmel, the Spanish mistress ,was uninvited,; the Commander is uninvited to the seance and at the end to the house, his death uninvited at that moment; he is clearly uninviting to Milland and Hussey; Milland’s attentions to Stella are uninvited, even their dog shows up uninvited at one point and chases a squirrel who is himself uninvited; the doctor treats Stella and investigates uninvited; Bobby showed up on his doorstep univited; death was uninvited; the spirits dwelling there are uninvited. About the only people actually invited in this film are the viewers.
If at any moment in this film there had been a single misstep, a single false moment, the whole delicate intricate facade would have collapsed on its own weight, but that mistake is never made. The Uninvited never takes itself too seriously, it never takes itself too lightly. It is never merely heavy, the humor is never just thrown in; it is vitally needed, or this film would be unrelentingly depressing.
The spirits are just distinct enough to perceive as more than just light and shadow, but never more, they are a presence, but never quite of this world. They have influence over the living, but their power is that of suggestion and mood. At best they can make a rooms atmosphere change, close a door, cry in the night, fill a room with warmth and scent, or with malevolence, turn the page of a vital book at the right time. Even at the end you could just explain them away. Not easily, but if you needed to convince yourself…
And you might.
The cast, direction, effects, and script are uniformly perfect with a particular nod to Milland, Hussey, Russell, Crisp, and Skinner who all outdo themselves; especially Milland who does this so effortlessly you may miss how much of this films success depends directly on his performance, his connection with the audience, and his perfectly keyed emotional responses.
Milland’s timing as light comic actor, his more substantial talents, and his ability to play the hero are all on display. The finale of this film would not work if not for Milland’s ability to effortlessly switch from light comedy to intense fear in the same scene, virtually the same moment — making his defeat of Mary Meredith ironically perfect. Watch also for Dorothy Stickney, one of Miss Holloway’s patients, Miss Bird; it is a great bit part.
This was a major hit, though a follow up based on another Dorothy Macardle novel, The Unseen with Russell and Joel McCrea, isn’t anywhere near as good despite a Raymond Chandler screenplay, and the same director and production team.
Do yourself a major favor and find a copy of McArdle’s novel Uneasy Freehold (published in the US as The Uninvited). The film is very close, and the book is also one of the best of its kind ever written. I’ve seen too many ghosts to believe in them, but this movie and the novel always make me think about leaving a nite-lite on. There are more things in heaven and earth than Horatio, or I, care to think about.
And as frosting on the cake, “Stella by Starlight,” the haunting number Milland’s Rick is working on, was a major hit, much like “Laura” from that film. It is still a beautiful piece, and runs through the movie as a subtle musical cue leading the viewer to that cliff by the house and those final moments on a darkened staircase confronted with pure malevolence.
Cinematographer Charles Lang won a well deserved Oscar for this. His work is impressive.
Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Wolfman, they have nothing on Mary Meredith. Mary Meredith would unsettle Hannibal Lecter, the demon in The Exorcist would have been possessed by her. Mary Meredith like Du Maurier and Hitchcock’s Rebecca haunts this film even though you never see her save in a cold and forbidding portrait. She is a palpable presence; beside her Norman Bates mother was mother of the year, Joan Crawford was just a little strict, and Medea was having a bad day when she ate her children.
It is no easy trick to do that with a character who never fully materializes on screen.
The Uninvited is without question the finest ghost story of its era and for my money the finest ghost story ever filmed.
This isn’t Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, V. C. Andrews, or Anne Rice. There are no vampires, there is no CGI, no fake blood is let on screen, no green pea soup expelled, nothing leaps off the screen at you. The Uninvited, just wraps it’s chilly hand around the base of your spine with frisson after frisson as visceral as a gut punch. Like Mary Meredith herself, once it has you it won’t let go long after the silver shadows on the screen have faded to nothing.
I have never watched this alone in the house at night. and quite frankly, I don’t intend to.
If that isn’t a tribute to a ghost story, I don’t know what is.
And try walking upstairs with only a candle to light your way when you have finished watching it.