May 07, 2013

THE UNINVITED (1944) - UK special edition DVD

(1944, USA)

Slick mainstream chiller with a light touch but serious ghosts

The Uninvited is an early example of a movie where haunting is taken seriously and investigated as a phenomenon, setting up many of the key traits of every ghost hunt ever since. The haunting is linked to location, its arrival heralded with a temperature drop and even a scent, it scares animals and possesses the living...

So many silent 'haunted house' movies of the 1920s reveal their spooks as human mischief in the last reel. Decades before before the tradition of Scooby-Doo, last-minute unveilings of wires, mirrors and masks, filmmakers portrayed spiritualists and ghosthunters as frauds and/or for laughs. There were many real-life mediums and spiritualists in work after the massive, incomprehensible losses of life during the first World War, but I'm guessing that as the decade wore on, scepticism replaced the belief that the afterlife was contactable.

Monsters, rather than ghosts, were more popular as supernatural beings at the start of the 1930s. But after the second World War began in 1939, it's no coincidence that ghost movies returned and, this time around, audiences were ready to believe. Again, a yearning that it was possible to contact loved ones who'd passed, and that death wasn't the end, especially for those who'd died young.

I'm thinking of the wartime British ghost stories that are more drama than horror, such as Thunder Rock (1942) and The Halfway House (1944). Then Dead of Night (1945) went for the throat with a clutch of stories so chilling that they still unsettle us today. In those films, the ghosts don't turn out to be faked, but neither are they particularly ethereal. They appear to be physical beings.

Similarly, in the US, there were ghosts in films before The Uninvited, like Topper and Topper Returns. But those ghosts are primarily a comedy device, also portrayed as very physical and non-transparent people. Added to this, the central character is unafraid of the phantoms. These comedies still have their eerie moments (like the murder in Topper Returns). See also Blithe Spirit (1945), the Noel Coward comedy where Rex Harrison is again plagued by his first wife, inadvertently called back during a seance.

Watching The Uninvited again after a long break, I was very taken by its modern approach to portraying ghosts as a series of phenomena, with characters who waste little time in taking it seriously, while being aware of the danger. Of course, this may not be a case of a film being ahead of its time, but rather one that is hugely influential. Guillermo Del Toro even rates it as one of his favourite fright movies.

It's also interesting to see that The Uninvited is very much an 'A' list picture, pitched as a follow-up to Rebecca (1940)! That is, a dark drama with a young woman trapped by the lure of an old house. It even strongly hints that one character is a lesbian, even less subtly than Hitchcock outed Mrs Danvers. For 1944, the backstory is remarkably rich with stuff that couldn't be shown in those censored times.

Oh yes, the story. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey play a brother and sister who stumble upon a solitary, clifftop house on the Cornish coast of England. Falling in love with it, they buy up and move in, only to discover a series of mysteries. Their pet dog refuses to go upstairs, there's a damp inexplicably cold studio up there and... noises in the night.

Once they realise that the sobbing in the night has no earthly cause, they soberly adjust to the idea that it can only be a ghost. They logically analyse the clues and psychological effects of the house to discover who it might have been. Meanwhile, Ray is getting involved with the young woman (Gail Russell) who grew up in the old house, though her father (Donald Crisp) forbids her to return to it...

Throughout it, I was thinking of Poltergeist, the long winding staircase leading up to trouble, the billowing ghost, and elements of the story, like the young woman caught in a tug of war between this world and the next... Maybe an unfair comparison to tease you with, because The Uninvited is more like a Thin Man mystery, with ghosts instead of criminals. It's not a bonanza of visual effects, but there are more on display than in, say, The Haunting or The Innocents.

Mistakenly, I started off convinced that this was actually a British film. The attention to detail and authentic accents puts the rest of Hollywood history to shame in its depiction of a small village in England. An RAC logo, signs for British beers in the pub windows, country lanes... all very convincing, but made in L.A.!

The cast are likeable, believable, though still playing it all with a dose of comedy and romance for a mainstream audience. Impressively, Ray Milland scored best actor Oscar with his portrayal of an alcoholic hitting rock-bottom, the following year with The Lost Weekend. Here's an actor on the top of his game.

Lovely to see Alan Napier getting a decent role, decades before achieving immortality as (Adam West) Batman's butler on TV.

I first knew of it as one of William K Everson's Classics of the Horror Film, who devoted a chapter to it with Dead of Night. It's about time it hit DVD in the UK. Exposure Cinema's region 2 release includes radio re-enactmants, an original trailer and a thick booklet filled with glossy reproductions of poster art, lobby cards, and essays on the film and its stars.

Moviemail have it on sale, with an informative page and some original publicity photos.

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