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With: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Dorothy Stickney, Barbara Everest, Alan Napier, Gail Russell
Written by: Dodie Smith, Frank Partos, based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle
Directed by: Lewis Allen
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 99
Date: 10/22/2013

The Uninvited (1944)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Grown-Up Ghosts

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Lewis Allen's The Uninvited (1944) lays claim to being the first serious movie ghost story, and I believe that is true. The best horror films of the 1920s and 1930s had been chiefly monster-based. And Val Lewton's remarkable string of nine horror films made between 1942 and 1946 were often about horrors of the mind and spirit rather than ghosts. So, yes, The Uninvited gets credit, especially now that it has a spiffy new Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray release.

Based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle, the movie begins with a brother and sister -- Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (played by Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) -- on vacation together. The movie never makes mention of this pairing. Two grown siblings, both single, choosing to hang out together? Curious, but no matter. They spy an abandoned house and fall in love with it. They inquire as to its availability and soon find themselves the proud owners.

Unfortunately, the house has ghosts. The house's owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) warned them, but did not go into details. Beech's granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell) did not want to sell; it's her childhood home and she's attached to it, even though she hasn't been inside in years. Stella and Roderick become acquainted with and fond of each other, and she visits the house for the first time. She's astonished by the feeling inside the house, the feeling she assumes is her mother. Unfortunately, she's suddenly compelled to run outside and try to jump off a cliff. (Roderick saves her.)

The movie makes the most of these ghostly opposing forces, and the mysteries behind them. Most of the key players from that time are dead, so our brother and sister don't have much to go on, except for an old friend of Stella's mother, the sinister, chilly, Mrs. Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), who now runs a girls' home.

As a director, Allen did not make much of a mark on cinema history. He didn't even merit a listing in Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema. His only other movie of note is the Frank Sinatra thriller Suddenly (1954), which probably owes most of its reputation to being in the public domain. But his no-nonsense, stiff-upper-lip direction is perfect for this kind of movie. Even when visual effects are required, which is not often, they come across as perfectly logical rather than cheesy, or tacked on for shock value. And whereas his approach is businesslike, the two leads provide a spark of life with their characters' devil-may-care humor. Milland is funny by himself, but his banter with his Hussey feels warm and charming.

Perhaps the only drawback here is the score by Victor Young, an otherwise skilled composer (Shane, The Quiet Man, etc.). His themes borrow heavily from "As Time Goes By" from the hit Casablanca two years earlier. But perhaps worse is that he tends to enhance Milland's comic delivery with weird little musical doodles, almost like the classical equivalent to a "da-da-dum" on drums. However, he does get down to business in the film's second half.

The Uninvited is not really a visceral experience -- you don't need to cover your eyes -- but it's one you find yourself drawn into. It has a certain grace and respect, and it doesn't invite snickers or jeers. It may be the kind of horror film that both horror fans and non-horror fans can get behind.

There's not much more for me to do other than to quote the great James Agee's review from the time: "an unusually good scare-picture. 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 frissions."

The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray comes with a striking black-and-white transfer, with a delicate balance of shadows and light, and a fine uncompressed soundtrack. Filmmaker Michael Almereyda provides a short video essay on the movie, which is as good as any commentary track. Also included are two radio shows and a trailer. The liner notes booklet comes with an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme and a 1997 interview with director Lewis Allen.

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