Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she discusses the terrifying allure of The Uninvited.
We don’t usually turn to very old films to be scared. The classic Universal Monsters movies are creepy and entertaining and were groundbreaking for their time, but modern viewers have been conditioned to much worse images than what appears in, say, Dracula or Frankenstein. Still haunting viewers to this day, however, is Paramount’s 1944 feature The Uninvited, which broke the boundaries that horror films were confined to in Hollywood at the time.
By the 1940s, studios no longer needed to rely on elaborate makeup to transform actors in order to frighten audiences. Myths and otherworldly creatures of the past decade became campy in comparison to the frank and personal horror of The Uninvited. This film is the predecessor to the numerous paranormal-driven movies we consume year after year. And its craft and story remain the blueprint for lesser attempts to terrify moviegoers.
The movie begins as most ghost stories do: two people find a gorgeous old house lying empty and wasted. They buy it despite inklings that there’s a reason no one lives there. Soon, they regret not believing their gut feeling and the possibility of something evil in the house.
Siblings Rick (Ray Milland) and Pam (Ruth Hussey) find the Windward mansion while on vacation at the English seaside. They approach the owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), with an offer to buy the house on the spot. But his granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell), refuses to allow the house to be sold. Her mother, Mary, died there when Stella was a girl. And despite her being forbidden to visit, Stella is still protective of the house. The Commander ignores Stella’s wishes, though, and sells the house anyway.
As they settle in, Rick and Pam feel uneasy about their new home. The attic room is freezing no matter the weather. Their pets refuse to go upstairs. Other tell-tale signs of spirits in the house go ignored until one night they hear a woman sobbing. She wails until the sun rises, but they find no one else in the house. The cries “come from everywhere and nowhere.”
While they continue to experience unusual happenings, Rick falls in love with Stella. He learns more about her mother and what went on in the house years ago. Everyone assumes Mary’s fall off the cliff behind the house was an accident, but soon two ghosts begin to haunt the home. Rick and Pam learn of Stella’s father’s mistress and begin to suspect that foul play resulted in Mary’s death as well as the mistress’ shortly after. Through seances and all-nighters, the siblings find that Stella’s mother is longing to reach her, but she’s not the mother Stella believed she was.
Ghosts were not new to Hollywood films in 1944. Characters from beyond the grave were featured in comedies like Topper and Buster Keaton’s The Haunted House, but a serious horror ghost film had not yet succeeded in Hollywood. What set The Uninvited apart was its simple yet mostly believable story. Human hurt and traumatic loss are aspects that all of us can connect with. And they were what so many people were grappling with during World War II when this movie came out. Many of the horror movies that predated The Uninvited also tackled the fears of society at the time, but they were often buried deep within metaphor and spectacle. In this movie, those themes are right on the surface.
In reviews from 1944 and in retrospective essays about The Uninvited, writers tend to describe it as sophisticated, intelligent, and high-brow. Immediately, the movie held a reputation for being above other horror films — it was basically an early example of “elevated horror” (or “higher bracket horror pictures” as Jack Cartwright wrote at the time — and that reputation is still intact today.
But what exactly separates this ghost story from other horror and supernatural films? Director Lewis Allen employs the trusted tactic of keeping the scariest images off-screen. However, The Uninvited also differs from the monster movies that used that same idea. The ghosts that haunt Windward are scariest when we cannot see them and their terror doesn’t lie in their monstrous looks. Allen refrains from showing the ghostly women too much, but the misty apparition we do see is just enough to confirm our fears.
There’s also a romance to this ghost story that allows for it to have comedic and sentimental reprieves from the creepy scenes. Rick feels for Stella and the sad life she’s been dealt, leading him to want to save her from the tragic fate she seems to be destined to. In one of the best scenes in the film, Rick serenades Stella with a song he writes for her, aptly titled “Stella by Starlight.” It’s dreamy and romantic while leaning into the dissonance just as the ghosts seem to make their presence known. Love and fear exist in the same space in this scene, which feels rare in horror.
“Stella by Starlight” ended up becoming a massive hit in popular music after the release of The Uninvited, testifying to its ability to woo the audience even during a frightful scene. Famous singers including Anita O’Day, Miles Davis, and even Frank Sinatra covered the song with lyrics that were added later.
As we think about The Uninvited today, its production tells us a lot about why it remains so culturally significant. When producer Charles Brackett bought the rights to Dorothy Macardle‘s 1941 novel, he had Alfred Hitchcock in mind to direct. Hitchcock had made Rebecca a year earlier in a similar fashion to what Brackett imagined The Uninvited could be: moody, gothic, and haunting. Brackett met with Hitchcock, who read the book but could not direct due to scheduling conflicts. Hitchcock did give some suggestions to Brackett, but whether or not he used those suggestions is unknown.
After the first grueling revision process on Dodie Smith‘s original script, Brackett recruited Allen to direct his very first Hollywood film. The script would continue to be worked on even after Allen signed on, which shows that to achieve a screenplay like that of The Uninvited, there needs to be a lot more work than many horror films receive.
On top of that, Allen approached the film from a down-to-earth and honest perspective. In a 1997 interview he said of his approach: “Well, I think the whole point when you’re making a scary movie is to try and be honest and as straightforward as you can. And not be a phony. I treated The Uninvited as though I believed in it.”
Allen was not going for what he believed would get the most scares out of his audience. He went for what he believed in. As a result, he directed a movie we could believe in, too, and that made it much scarier than movies that came before.
Since The Uninvited was released in 1944, its story has been redone in different forms. We can see glimpses of The Innocents, The Amityville Horror, The Changeling, and Crimson Peak in the standard that The Uninvited set. Those are the most successful versions of the ghost and haunted house story Allen brought to the screen. Even the bad renditions seem to be popular with audiences still, perhaps because we are searching for the feeling The Uninvited originally gave us — the feeling we can’t find anywhere else.