An old home on a windswept cliff. Rumors in the village about why it’s been empty so long. A reticent old military man and his impressionable granddaughter.
Then comes a young, bright, and confident brother and sister eager to freshen up the home and escape the city. They are enamored with the house—despite its quirks—and convince the Commander to sell it to them. It doesn’t take long before odd occurrences begin… and they start to wonder if there is something to the ghost stories, after all.
What The Uninvited does so well—both book and film—is strike the perfect balance of spookiness, mystery, humor, and romance. It is, at its heart, a ghost story, but Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as brother and sister bring a grounded presence to the adventure. They aren’t doubtful, but they apply logic to the haunting and try to figure out what might be bothering the spirit.
The novel was written by Irish author Dorothy Macardle in 1942. Europe was fully embroiled in World War II at the time, but the story is set in the late 1930s. Trouble is brewing, and there are hints of the unrest to come. The dramatic tension is ratcheted up as the reader and audience knows what is coming.
The innocence of the characters and their ability to focus on what is happening in their personal lives, versus the scope of global war, also makes the story special. These ghosts may not matter in the grand scheme of things, but they mean an awful lot to the locals directly affected by them.
The film follows the book closely, with only minor changes. Instead of a playwright, Ray Milland’s character is a music composer in the film, so his ethereal song, “Stella By Starlight,” can be featured. The song was a hit, and would be recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and more.
This was director Lewis Allen’s first feature film and one of his more atmospheric. He uses the black and white palette, and dark and light values, to great effect. He even employs minimal special effects to add just the right amount of ghostliness. There is both a gauziness and a richness to his style. After this, Allen would go on to direct a series of films noir. The cinematographer, Charles Lang, Jr., was nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Uninvited.
The casual humor interwoven into the creepy mystery is what lends the film to multiple viewings. There is a sort of blunt, modern realism coming up against Gothic romance that is jarring, but it works. It brings a freshness to the genre.
Milland and Hussey trade quips even while they are standing on a balcony, listening to a ghostly presence. They do not mock the spirit, but instead themselves for their single-mindedness. Their characters’ ability to experience, investigate, and change over the course of the story blows away the cobwebs of the genre, and it’s believable.
Author Dorothy Macardle wrote a rich, interesting, fresh-faced ghost story that provided a bewitching foundation for a delicate film that is splendid nearly eight decades later.
Originally written for DVD Netflix