On this edition of Criterion Corner we take a look at one of the first attempts at taking ghosts on film seriously. 1944’s The Uninvited takes us into a haunted house without the hilarious hijinks of Abbott and Costello. Instead we get Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) touring the London countryside when they come across an abandoned seaside home. After exploring the home, the pair impulsively decide to pool their funds and buy the house. They negotiate with the owner Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) who is rather suspicious at his eagerness to sell the house. All this against the wishes of his granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell) who wants to hold on to the home that belonged to her mother before she met a tragic end.
After the first night in the house Roderick and Pamela discover that the house may be haunted as they hear sounds coming from downstairs even though there is no one down there. While Roderick uses humor as his defense mechanism Pamela goes into detective mode with the help of local Dr. Scott (Alan Napier). Then as Roderick begins to fall for young Stella, she begins to come under the spell of the ghost that haunts the house. As things escalate bringing danger closer to all involved, secrets are revealed and the haunting may not be as typical as it appears.
What stands out the most in The Uninvited is why it’s not a classic like a Hitchcock film or one of the Universal Monster Movies. It’s tone jumps around quite a bit. Again coming from a time when all films with a ghost in it would be classified as a comedy, director Lewis Allen injects humor throughout the film. Some of it is misplaced even as Ray Milland does his best to balance it out. And some of the acting is quite stilted in Pamela (Hussey) and Commander Beech (Crisp), though there is an especially creepy yet slightly over the top performance by Cornelia Otis Skinner as the wicked Miss Holloway.
Still, what is impressive to me watching in 2020 is the atmosphere and brilliant cinematography by Charles Lang. He would go on to shoot films like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Ace in the Hole, and The Magnificent Seven. Here he does an impressive job utilizing shadow with his black & white pallet. He goes from utter darkness to a candle spot light revealing a character you didn’t know was there.The setting also benefits the film as haunted house on the edge of a cliff did not become a troupe but it really works to carry it through to the end. There is even an early visual effect that Spielberg completely lifted for the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
One of the supplemental materials is a video essay about the film, its actors and director. It alone serves as a great piece of cinema history. The Uninvited is a great film to watch late at night in the dark, and watching alone with headphones would certainly enhance the experience. It’s a solid step of a film that would lead us in the direction to the haunting classics to come, where there is zero humor and utter scares. Over all it does indeed deserve the Criterion treatment.