Lewis Allen’s 1944 horror The Uninvited, is a near perfect haunted house movie. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and want to avoid spoiling your enjoyment by over explaining the plot twists and dramatic scenes. To that end, I’m going to give a spoiler warning here and suggest that if you can, go watch The Uninvited before reading this review. I don’t imagine my influence is significant enough for this warning to matter but if one person experiences the unsullied thrill of The Uninvited because I begged them to drop my blog and watch it, then it’s worth the embarrassment.
Writing a haunted house story is like baking a cake. You can follow the instructions with the most basic ingredients and still end up with a formless mess. The Uninvited starts with those same basic building blocks, a spooky gothic manor set on an English country cliffside, abandoned for two decades. Unable to retain tenants due to unexplainable disturbances within the residence, the owner eagerly sells the property to a pair of wide-eyed siblings from London who’ve no inkling of either the estate’s nightmarish history or its permanent residents. The former owner’s surviving daughter resents the sale and sets out to voice her objection known to the homes new occupants. This boilerplate haunted house set up is precisely what makes The Uninvited such an enjoyable film.
Somehow The Uninvited strikes the balance of humor and spookiness perfectly. Ray Milland’s character Roderick Fitzgerald is open carrying smart-ass quips that kill in most rooms. He’s a quaint kind of everyman from this era. His goofy sensibilities remind me of Quinn K. Redeker’s wholesome character from Spider Baby or Dick York in Bewitched. But the writing is smart enough to keep the jokes and the scares separate, allowing one to build to the other. The disembodied late night sobbing coming from everywhere and nowhere in the house vanish with the coming dawn not unlike a joke relieves tension. The mystery even unfolds like an episode of Scooby Doo directed by Jacques Tourneur. The opening sequence is a dog comically chasing a squirrel through the abandoned mansion for goodness sake. None of this silliness detracts from the way The Uninvited distills the fear of staying in an unfamiliar creaky old house in the country where every gust is a geist.
At nearly 80 years old it’s difficult to compare The Uninvited to the films of its era. Without the necessary resources and unlimited time to exhaustively research how it compares to its contemporaries, I’m left to do the same with the more modern films it no doubt influenced.
Of all the haunted house movies I’ve seen The Uninvited reminded me most of Peter Medak’s The Changeling. Both Ray Milland and George C. Scott play professional pianists reestablishing their careers in the seclusion of an enormous old haunted house. Both films incorporate music into the story one way or another. Milland’s character Roderick improvises the crooning classic ‘Stella by Starlight’ early in The Uninvited as a romantic coup de gras that sweeps the doe-eyed Gail Russell off her feet. Scott’s feature is much darker and his music is more of a way to justify him having audio recording equipment that helps him record EVPs but it’s a noteworthy similarity.
The flaws making The Uninvited merely ‘near perfect’ are actually pretty bad. The mystery plot get’s convoluted, character’s motives and rationale get mixed up and reassigned as the audience is exposed to the muddy truth of the situation. One of those issues is the out of place allusion of a lesbian romance that may or may not clue the audience to the answer to the mystery. It is enough for me to comfortably count The Uninvited among Cat People and The Lost Boys in the storied ‘Gay Horror’ sub-genre.
Most haunted house movies deal with one or more spirits whose sole motivation seems to be angrily driving people away. That’s Poltergeist and Casper in a nutshell. That’s not the case in The Uninvited. I really don’t want to be responsible for spoiling the twists of this movie for you, convoluted as they may be, because I enjoyed them so much. What I can say is when the movie was over I empathized with the dead as much as with the living.
Above all else, The Uninvited is a supernaturally enjoyable film. It’s predictable but not boring. It’s routine but not rote. It’s an exemplary archetype of its class. It’s like a Frank Lloyd Wright house, you could live in it like any other little box on the hillside but you’d be missing out on a masterfully unique experience leaving your spirit bereft with unfinished business. If ghost movies have taught me anything, that’s a fate worse than death.