Brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) while on vacation in Cornwall, decide to purchase a large cliffside house. The place is lovely, eminently classy and full of light. Better yet, its owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) is willing to part with the place for a song. All seems fine, great even. Except for one room on the second floor. It’s oddly cold in there, even when the sun’s shining in. It gets more frigid, perhaps even…menacing, when local girl Stella Meredith (a luminous Gail Russell) stops by for a little flirtation. An old village hag lurks around glaring ominously, and it’s clear Commander Beech knows more about the house than he’s letting on. It isn’t long before even stranger things start happening…
This is the set-up for Paramount’s 1944 stab at classic ghost story creepiness, The Uninvited, directed by Lewis Allen (who would go on to helm few features, but tons of Bonanza episodes), and sadly unremembered in most quarters. Some call The Uninvited the first Hollywood attempt at the haunted house genre (remember that most famous horror of the thirties revolved around the appearance of some kind of physical creature), and while I can’t validate this claim, I can attest to its effects on me: The Uninvited was the first film that raised the hackles on my neck and set my stomach roiling with queasy anticipation of scares to come, a far different, more pleasing sensation than that created by the teen splatterfests more prevalent in my youth. And all The Uninvited needed to fully freak me out: an empty room.
This kind of thing may sound perfectly rote now (films like The Others and The Orphanage surely owe a debt), but for 1944, even in the wake of the somewhat similar Rebecca, an Uninvited was something of a rare bird. (You might not be surprised to find that it was produced by Val Lewton.) There are the requisite seances, some terrific wind-on-candle and wind-on-curtain action (porn for ghost geeks), and an intractably complex genealogical backstory to explain the malevolent presence ensconced in that room on the second floor—but what The Uninvited perhaps excels most at is striking that oh-so-fine balance between mood and character. Perhaps better put: it never lets its atmosphere overwhelm the people populating it, and the folks working their way to untangle the air of mystery always seem suitably in awe (yet still pluckily adventurous) of their surroundings and the potential dangers therein.
It’s amazing how often the old dictum that giving audiences folks to care about only increases rather than detracts from the scares gets ignored. Most people don’t shed tears over where their burgers come from, so parading the meat puppets into the abattoir yields a definitely diminishing return—can anyone name the protagonists of the last four Saw movies? Allen’s stellar cast works The Uninvited’s script, and hard (Victor Young, of Written on the Wind fame, provides an able assist on the score). But still, even after all these years, it’s that room I come back to. Empty, full of light, utterly terrifying. Proof positive that all you need to conjure good scares are big old houses and healthy doses of empty space. I’m creeped out just thinking about it.