Horror films were popular in the United States in the 1940s, in spite of the Second World War and the feel-good stories Hollywood brought to the silver screen to distract the people. Russian-born writer and producer Val Lewton, in particular, managed to attract a cult following with masterful B-movies such as Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, or Isle Of The Dead, but other greats like Alfred Hitchcock also dabbled with the genre when arriving stateside. Some of these films from that era also featured A-level talent and not just Boris Karloff and other genre-specific stars. The Uninvited by director Lewis Allen based on a bestselling novel by Dorothy Macardle belongs to that category.
Composer Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) fall in love with an abandoned house on the Cornish coast. They are overjoyed when they are able to obtain it for very little money from Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), despite his granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) insisting on them keeping the building. Soon after, the siblings begin to learn why they were able to buy it at such a bargain price – the house is haunted. The Fitzgeralds hear stories about the previous owners from the villagers and mysterious noises inside their new residence.
It doesn’t take long until Roderick is head over heels in love with the charming Stella, whom the incidents at the house are related to. Her mother, Mary Meredith, once jumped off a cliff near the house and plunged into her death. As the Fitzgeralds attempt to solve the mystery surrounding the building, strange things happen. The supernatural activities hit a peak. Stella is exposed to life-threatening danger, so that they must involve the local physician Dr. Scott (Alan Napier) and the Commander sends his granddaughter into the sanatorium of Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) – who herself shares some past history with Mary Meredith.
Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited vastly benefits from the gorgeous Cornish seascape for both a number of beautiful shots and the uncanny atmosphere it provides. After all, as Ray Milland’s Roderick Fitzgerald narrates in a voiceover at the beginning of the movie, ‘They call them the “haunted shores,” these stretches of Devonshire and Cornwall and Ireland which rear up against the westward ocean. Mists gather here, and sea fog, and eerie stories.’ Visually portrayed like a nice beach resort at the beginning, the territory soon turns into quite the reverse, as if only to match Roderick’s description.
That an American production would set the scene for such a horror story in Europe comes as no surprise. It stands in the good tradition of one Edgar Allan Poe, whose “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” (as The Alan Parsons Project dubbed it for their debut album based on his works) all take place in the ‘Old World.’ Oddly enough, however, The Uninvited was actually filmed in California and Arizona and most of the female talent came from the United States, while the director and all of the male stars originally hailed from the British Isles. Lewis Allen’s first feature film is therefore another proof as well as a reminder that Hollywood’s studio system used to be able to create an awful lot of universes at and around the American West Coast.
Oscar-winning The Uninvited leading man Ray Milland was very involved in the machinery as a workhorse for Paramount Pictures in the 1930s and 1940s before moving on to his probably most famous role ever in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder alongside Grace Kelly in 1954. Some may criticize his and fellow star Ruth Hussey’s acting in The Uninvited as being a little wooden or stiff at times, but that’s likely just to show the stark contrast between the upper-class city-dwelling Fitzgeralds and the simpler seaside locals. In that context, their performance possesses a more engaging, or even natural, tone.
Ray Milland, for starters, has good onscreen chemistry with the ingénue Gail Russell, who seemed to be destined for more when she stormed the scene with The Uninvited. Instead, Lewis Allen’s movie proved to be the beginning of a rather tragic career and life for the beautiful young woman. Never feeling too comfortable while acting, Russell resorted to alcohol to overcome her stage fright and finally succumbed to it. She died all alone in her apartment surrounded by empty liquor bottles at age 36. The Uninvited thus serves as a reminder of a career cut short by personal demons and all that could’ve been.
Gail Russell’s ethereal beauty as well as the wonderful Cornish panorama provide a polar opposite to the chiaroscuro lighting that Lewis Allen uses here. Hollywood frequently employed that technique borrowed from the German expressionist silent films of the 1920s, and the director does a masterful job incorporating it into The Uninvited to good effect. Light and shadow, however, are not the only antipodes in the movie. Despite being essentially a spooky story, it has its joyful moments, such as the romance between Roderick Fitzgerald and Stella Meredith.
The lovely instrumental theme “Stella By Starlight” by Victor Young has become a staple of many famous singers, having been covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra over the years. The Uninvited may not be the best scary film ever, but it’s still a fantastic watch even after seven decades. Call Martin Scorsese a fan. The grand seigneur of American cinema recently named Lewis Allen’s debut feature one of his ten favorite horror movies of all time. There’s no reason to disagree with the master in this instance. The Uninvited certainly has its merits.