The directorial debut of Lewis Allen, 1944's The Uninvited stars Ray Milland as Roderick Fitzgerald, a composer and piano player who, along with his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey), and their terrier Bobby, is exploring the remote English coast. When the dog goes after a squirrel, the chase leads through an open window into a massive old home that seems to be abandoned. The two head in after their dog and explore the place and when they find out that it's for sale, naturally they are interested. Pamela notes that this would be a great spot for Roderick to work on his music and as he agrees, they set out to talk to the owner, an older gentleman named Commander Beech (Donald Crisp). Upon their arrival they're greeted by his granddaughter, Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), who tells them that the house is not for sale and tries to usher them out as quickly as she can. The Commander arrives just in time, however, and they sit down to negotiate. The Fitzgerald's offer him a ridiculously low price figuring he'll never take it but he does, and then warns them that there are stories that the house is haunted. He assures them, however, that these are just that… stories, and nothing more. After all, the winds of the Atlantic Ocean can make some eerie noises inside a big, old house.
After Roderick and Pamela move in, they spot Stella out on the front lawn, her behavior makes them a little suspicious. It turns out she had just come by to apologize, and soon enough she and Roderick are becoming more than just acquaintances. This is much to the dismay of the Commander, who makes it quite clear that he wants her kept far away from that house. After the arrival of their superstitious Irish housekeepr, Lizzy Flynn (Barbara Everest), they start to hear a woman sobbing in the middle of the night, though the house is empty save for themselves. As things start to get stranger around the house, Roderick takes it upon himself to uncover the truth about what really happened here and quickly realizes it ties into the Meredith family's past. The town physician, Doctor Scott (Alan Napier), assists them and soon enough they realize that the involvement of a woman named Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), who runs a mental hospital named in honor of Stella's mother, may hold the key to the truth.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Charles Lang (whose work on this picture was nominated for an Academy Award), The Uninvited holds up remarkably well almost seventy years since it first unspooled in theaters. A large part of the picture's success is due to Lang's work, as he really manages to make the most of the old house where so much of the story unfolds. Shadows hide eerie detail until the light of a candle illuminates things and interesting angles are used to help build tension and unease throughout the story. The lighting is excellent and the locations couldn't have been better. This really is the perfect place for a ghost story to be told.
Of course, this would all amount to style over substance if the storyline and the acting weren't up to par but thankfully this is not the case. Milland is great as the leading man here, he's quick with a quip to diffuse a tense situation (in fact, much of his dialogue is surprisingly comedic, an aspect of the script that would seem at odds with the straight way in which the scarier parts of the story are delivered) and likeable enough that we can see why Stella would be intrigue by him. Ruth Hussey as his sister isn't give quite as much to do but she's good in her role here too. Gail Russell, who had only two bit parts to her resume before being cast here, does a great job in her part. Her work here is infamous in that it was widely reported she was so nervous on set that she started drinking to calm herself, which would sadly lead to an alcohol abuse problem that would claim her life in her thirty-sixth year. She's convincing enough in the part and quite beautiful. It's also amusing to see Alan Napier here in a supporting role long before he'd be immortalized as Alfred in the sixties live action Batman TV series, while Cornelia Otis Skinner manages to steal every scene she's in.
The story unfolds at a good pace, not so fast as to push character development in the side but quick enough that at an hour and forty minutes it's never dull. The supernatural angle of the subject matter is treated seriously and with enough respect to make it work. While the film does sometimes deal in comedic elements, these don't crossover into the scenes involving the haunting. The end result is a well-made and very creative movie, one that is not only beautiful to look at but which properly exploits what its talented cast is able to bring to the table as well.
Criterion brings The Uninvited to Blu-ray framed at 1.33.1 in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Given the age of the movie and the fact that so much of it takes place inside and in the dark, the transfer here is excellent. Contrast looks very good, it never blooms, while black levels stay quite deep. Detail remains strong even in the darker scenes where shadows seem to be encroaching from every corner of the frame. Watch the scene where Milland's character plays on the piano for Gail Russell's character, as the candle dims the image obviously gets much darker but you can still very clearly see what's going on. Some minor specks and scratches are evident on the image but overall the movie looks very good on Blu-ray.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD Mono track. Optional closed captioning is provided in English only (you can't select it from the menu screen but it's easily enabled through your remote). Quality of the track is pretty solid. It's a little limited in range, which isn't surprising given the age and limitations of the original source material, but the single channel mix sounds authentic enough. Dialogue stays clean and clear and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. The score sounds nice and some of the sound effects used have nice presence to them, the most obvious example being the film's infamous ‘crying' scene. All in all, a nice effort from Criterion here.
The main extra on the disc is a twenty-seven minute ‘visual essay' from filmmaker Michael Almereyda entitled Giving Up The Ghost. This is a well edited piece that includes loads of stills and clips from not only the feature but also a few other titles related to the cast and crew that worked on the film. We get some great background information on Milland as well as on Russell and on Allen and throughout all of this Almereyda makes the case for the film's historical and artistic value. There's good flow to this. What could have very easily come across as stuffy and too academic for its own good turns out to be a very accessible piece that manages to strike just the right balance of interesting and informative trivia and insightful criticism. It makes for a great primer on the film and those who made it.
The disc also includes two different radio adaptations of the source material, one from 1944 and the other from 1949, both clocking in at just shy of a half an hour in length and both starring Ray Milland. Obviously these are much shorter than the feature film version and so they inevitably have to cut out bits and pieces but they do make for interesting alternate takes on the source and their inclusion here is quite welcome.
Outside of that, we get the film's theatrical trailer, menus and chapter stops. As is the norm with Criterion's releases, inside the case there is a nice booklet of liner notes containing an essay on the merits and historical significance of the picture written by film critic Farran Smith Nehme and an interesting interview with director Lewis Allen conducted in 1997 in which he shares some stories of working with the cast and crew he assembled for this picture.
Lewis Allen's The Uninvited is every bit the classic that its reputation would have you believe. It's a remarkable debut for the then first time director and a great showcase not only for some rich and often times very spooky atmosphere but also some excellent performances from a talented cast. More than just a ghost story, this is ‘classic Hollywood' at its best with all the romance, drama and comedy you could want to sit alongside some effective moments of horror. Criterion's Blu-ray release is a strong one, offering the movie up in excellent condition and with some solid extra features as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.