Ghost Movie of the Month: The Uninvited (1944)

Based on the novel, The Uninvited, by Dorothy Macardle (1942), originally entitled Uneasy Freehold

Screenplay: Frank Partos & Dodie Smith

Starring: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Gail Russell, Donald Crisp

Turner Classic Movies (now, simply, TCM) saved classic movies. The channel bought huge numbers of old films and, through their commercial-free broadcasts, introduced new generations to acting, screenplays, cinematography, directing, and music that came out of big and small studios, in the U.S. and abroad, that otherwise might have decayed within their cans in forgotten vaults.

I have long admired the moviologies made available on the TCM website. Men and women who love movies present information that enhances my own enjoyment of old favorites and new discoveries. It’s not often I take exception to the opinions shared in these, but the other day I found one.

“While it might have chilled audiences of its era,” writes Jeff Stafford, “The Uninvited is not a frightening film by contemporary standards.”

Tsk.

Actually, I should add a disapproving click of the tongue after rereading Stafford’s sentence. And a sneer.

Stafford is wrong. Wholly wrong. Utterly wrong.

The Uninvited is one of the most enjoyable and genuinely frightening ghost stories ever committed to film. It made me jump at least a foot when I first saw it, a number of years ago, and it still conjures pleasant frissons of creepiness when I watch it now . . . which I do, each Halloween season.

The story is simple. A brother and sister, Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald, search England for a home to share while he writes his symphony. They find a beautiful, abandoned house atop the cliffs of Cornwall’s southern shore. On impulse, they buy the house from its owner, a crusty ex-military man, Commander Beech, despite the objections of Beech’s granddaughter, Stella, who cherishes the house as the former home of her deceased mother, Mary Meredith.

The Fitzgeralds move in, and the fun begins. For viewers, anyway.

Pamela hears a voice sobbing in the night, a voice that seems to be everywhere and nowhere. A studio on the second floor feels gloomy and produces a sense of deep depression, which begins to affect Rick. The housekeeper feels a draft on the stairs, and her cat refuses to go anywhere near these. Even the Fitzgerald’s scrappy little terrier, Bobby, is affected by the eerie atmosphere of the house, eventually decamping to the home of the kindly country Doctor Scott.

Stella visits the house and instantly is convinced her mother’s spirit inhabits the house. She stays the night, in a small guest room on the bottom floor, where she is visited by a small, comforting light and the delicious scent of mimosa . . . a scent Stella’s deceased father had written, in a letter, was her mother’s favorite scent.

Something else, however, inhabits the house, a cold, terrifying presence that seems intent on destroying Stella. Rick and Pamela, aided by Dr. Scott, seek answers to who—or what—is the source of this presence which, as it grows stronger and bolder, threatens to overwhelm everyone who dares enter the house.

Martin Scorcese rates it among the top 11 scariest movies of all time, as you can read here:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/10/28/martin-scorseses-top-11-horror-films-of-all-time.html.

And 70 years after it was released, it retains an 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and none of these reviewers is an ancient:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1038526-uninvited/

Take that, Mr. Stafford!

It is true The Uninvited is devoid of the props, tactics, and tropes that seem endemic to the majority of today’s horror movies. For example, there are no:

  • Chainsaws, machetes, axes, chippers
  • Masked madmen terrorizing babysitters and other teenagers
  • Blood
  • Torture porn
  • Heads twisting 360 degrees atop the head of a child
  • Children screaming in terror
  • Children, period
  • Tortured animals
  • XBox Kinect gaming system tie-ins
  • Loud bangs or screeching music that announce the scary bits, and while I have the chance, let me heap curses upon the screenwriters and directors who inflict these things up on us in the apparent belief I, along with other members of modern audiences, am too stupid to figure out what’s scary without these acoustic barrages
  • Crazy staring people
  • Skeletons, zombies, vampires, werewolves, angels, gods, demons
  • Grossly diseased bodies
  • Sex
  • Profanity
  • Exploitation
  • Ancient burial grounds
  • Stupid characters who do stupid things and thus deserve to fall off a cliff

Not that The Uninvited is devoid of clichés! Nope. A long-abandoned house set near the edge of a cliff. A damsel in distress. Cold spots. Animals who cringe away from areas of the house. A long-lost diary that reveals a critical plot point. A decidedly weird family friend who lets slip a bit too much family history.

The Uninvited even has a character too stupid to live, both in the novel and the movie. She is portrayed, in the movie, by an actress so woefully outclassed by those around her  she should have jumped off that cliff.

She is, however, the only blot in an otherwise lovely ghost story.

What The Uninvited also has is a terrific screenplay written by Dodie Smith (I Capture the Castle; One Hundred and One Dalmatians) and Frank Partos (The Snake Pit and other films), based on a book written by Dorothy Macardle and originally published (in the UK) as Uneasy Freehold.

Ogarita gives this a Big Five on the 0-5 scale and recommends you get it from Netflix, buy it, or beg a friend to lend their copy to you.

Oh, and read the book! There are a few significant differences—the book has a larger cast of secondary characters, many of which were wisely dropped by the screenwriters—and the prose occasionally gets a bit purple (all the women faint at some point, while the men flex their protective muscles), but the scary bits are done quite well. It’s hard to find anywhere but on ABE Books, and like websites, but it’s worth the read.

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