There’s nothing better than an old fashioned haunted house story. Whether they’re sublime, as in The Haunting and The Innocents, or completely visceral, like The Amityville Horror and The Legend of Hell House, movies about haunted houses are always enjoyable, as long as they’re done right. In 1944, an unusual kind of hybrid ghost-house movie was made, a kind of comedy-romance-noir thriller called The Uninvited.
The Uninvited begins with a songwriter named Roderick “Rick” Fitzgerald (Ray Milland from Dial M for Murder and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes) and his sister, Pamela (The Philadelphia Story’s Ruth Hussey), exploring along the English coastline when they come across a beautiful deserted estate. After falling in love with the house, Rick and Pamela track down the owner with the intention of purchasing the property. Upon arriving at the owner’s home, they are greeted by a young woman named Stella (Gail Russell from Angel and the Badman), the granddaughter of the house’s owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Stella tries to talk the Commander out of selling the house, but to no avail; in fact, Commander Beech seems all too eager to unload it, and gives it to Rick and Pamela for a song. Not long after they move in, Rick and Pamela begin to notice strange things. First off, their dog, Bobby, will not go upstairs. Then they start hearing ghostly crying in the night, all night and every night. Meanwhile, Rick starts to woo Stella, and learns through her that the Commander’s daughter, Stella’s mother, died on the property that he and his sister now possess. The strange occurrences only get worse as the spirit in the house seems to want only one thing – Stella.
The Uninvited was directed by Lewis Allen, who would go on to make a few more films like The Unseen and So Evil My Love before settling in as a television director for the rest of his career. The screenplay, adapted from the Dorothy Macardle novel Uneasy Freehold, was written by Dodie Smith (101 Dalmations) and Frank Partos (The House on Telegraph Hill). The film is very wordy, with exposition unfolding more often than not through conversations and dialogues, so that the plot develops much like a mystery film. It also has comedic elements to it; leading man Ray Milland in a natural ham, and he plays the part of Rick with charismatic humor. There’s also a touch of romance in the film, with plenty of natural chemistry existing between Milland and Gail Russell, who plays Stella. Indeed, The Uninvited’s rom-com mystery film-noir style makes it a difficult film to pin down.
As lightweight as the movie may seem at times, The Uninvited is a horror film at heart, and there is no shortage of frightening moments. The film subscribes to the less-is-more attitude, and the ghost is only shown a handful of times. Instead of visualizing the spirit, Lewis Allen announces its presence through off-screen sound effects, either with moaning and crying or with bumps and crashes. In one standout scene, the group is holding a séance in order to contact the spirit with a homemade Ouija board. The moving glass spelling words escalates to Stella channeling the spirit, culminating in all out panic among the group. It’s a little silly, but it’s also scary; in fact, it’s one of the more terrifying sequences in the film. The actual materialization of the ghost is pretty frightening as well, making use of an effect that is achieved through a freaky double exposure overlay camera trick.
And speaking of the photography, there is nothing cute or comedic there, either; cinematographer Charles Lang (Wait Until Dark) uses plenty of high-contrast lighting and murky shadows to create a very noir-like atmosphere for the film. The house itself is shot from the typical low angle that is used to show most Hollywood haunted houses, giving it a spooky and ominous quality. The Uninvited has the look of a hard boiled noir mystery, and that fact offsets the winkingly humorous elements of the film and never lets the viewer forget that they’re watching a horror movie.
The soundtrack to The Uninvited is somewhat atypical of a horror movie score. The music was written by Victor Young, a Hollywood stock music composer whose works can be heard in movies with titles like Radar Men from the Moon and Zombies of the Stratosphere, so it has a certain generic quality to it. The score for the film is both playful and spooky, helping the movie walk the line between horror and comedy. There is one popular song in the film, a tune written by Young and performed by Ray Milland on piano called “Stella by Starlight,” that also serves as the main theme to the film. A bit reminiscent of “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca, the song has gone on to have a nice little life on its own as a pop standard, having been recorded by jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others. The Uninvited may be a forgotten gem, but “Stella by Starlight” is anything but.
There is a sad postscript to The Uninvited, one that involves the young actress Gail Russell. The Uninvited was Ms. Russell’s second movie, with her being a very shy 19-year-old girl at the time of production. To cope with her lack of confidence, she drank on the set. She didn’t have trouble finding work after The Uninvited, but alcoholism had taken a firm hold of her life, to the point where she was once photographed by a paparazzi minutes after drunkenly driving her car into the front of a coffee shop in Los Angeles. Russell died in 1961 from malnutrition and liver failure, direct results of years of alcohol abuse. She was 36.
Haunted house movies can be serious or they can be fun. Although the more solemn ones tend to be scarier, The Uninvited is proof that this is not always the case.