The traditional literary ghost story has endured alternating cycles of ascendant and waning popularity ever since it developed a cinematic form, but even at its lowest ebb it never quite goes away completely -- as we’ve recently been reminded with the unexpected success bestowed upon the resurgent Hammer Films and its latest adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella and stage play, “The Woman in Black” (a work that itself was originally conceived with one eye on recreating the feel and mood of the traditional MR James cast of supernatural tale). Ghosts by definition remind one of, allude to, or often symbolically represent, the past; and the murkier and more baleful the contents of that (often forgotten) past, the more successful such screen presentiments of the supernatural often are in casting their miasma of unease upon a willing audience. When paranormal phenomena crop up in stories that take place in a contemporary urban location, it’s the clash between the ‘now-ness’ and the modernity of these settings and their relationship with the timeless, numinous qualities borne by the occult manifestations incongruously positioned within them, that works to unsettle the viewer, and produces that sensation (often found attending the domestic and the familiar when it becomes distorted by an element of the strange) once identified by Freud as defining the essence of what he called the uncanny.
There is a form of ghost story though – and “The Woman in Black” is a recent example of such a type – which qualifies its chills with the comforts of nostalgia: a Victorian or Edwardian setting often brings with it a distancing, wraparound mantle of ‘period charm’ to insulate against the worst of the terrors that the traditional supernatural tale might once have wrought upon its audience. These conservative trappings of antiquity preserve themselves in the seams of the Dickensian costuming or the oak wainscotting lining the rambling manors so often found providing a home for such ghostly phenomena -- and end up converting any real horrors to a non-confrontational heritage industry form of spookiness, more suited to a museum. There’s inevitably a warm-hearted, ‘brandy-glasses-by-the-fireside’ cosiness attending to the unquiet spirits and gothic terrors of the night who roam in these familiar environs: here they are always and forever likely, it seems, to be kept safely locked outside in the dark, beyond the shuttered windows of a distant historical past, where they can do no real lasting harm.
Cinema took a surprisingly long time to find a viable way of accommodating the ghost story at all. Whether its initial ambivalence was rooted in the vocal disapproval of the religious groups who disapprovingly monitored it, or whether such tardiness was simply the result of a general climate of distaste when it came to the idea of blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality, the studios at first attempted to find a middle-ground for the supernatural by undercutting any overt ghostliness with comedy. Haunted house mysteries invariably turned out to have a comfortingly rational explanation at the end -- or else the scares always came neutered by comic business that seemed to harbour an apologetic subtext that ran along lines that seemed to say that there’s no need to take any of this stuff remotely seriously beyond the magical confines of the darkened auditorium.
This situation continued for some time: while ‘unreal’ monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster (and countless other fantastic variations of the outré) had been looming across screens since the 1930s, ghosts and the supernatural remained either confined to the sort of comic fantasy material deemed too outlandish to warrant serious consideration, or else a cause for general mockery. Paramount’s glossy 1944 outing “The Uninvited” was one of the first Hollywood productions to tentatively attempt bringing its down-to-earth characters’ experience of being haunted by a genuine supernatural entity centre-stage, into a realistic setting -- using the concept as a motivating factor in the core drama of the story. Half-way through this movie, for instance, the female lead, played by Ruth Hussey, blithely suggests a séance as a means of uncovering the truth about the pretty little clifftop house she and her brother, played by Ray Milland, have recently bought, insisting that ‘not all such things are faked’ before going on to give a brief summary of how such an event should be staged (presumably for those members of the audience uninitiated in the practice). Even here, though, the still very effective scare scenes which occur periodically, are deliberately tempered with an air of windswept romance; while light comedy intrudes regularly, usually taking the form of a facetious quip or two from Milland. And there’s a liberally applied sheen of reassuring chirpy Hollywood glossiness here, that might at times seem smothering to modern audiences given how familiar and at ease we all are these days with the haunted house concept. Nevertheless, even after applying these aesthetic precautions, the film found itself regarded wearily by some of the guardians of public morality that were much active during the mid’40s: regarding the aforementioned séance Jonathan Rigby quotes from a report on the film made by the Legion of Decency in his survey “American Gothic: sixty years of horror cinema”: ‘The spiritistic séance sequence is so constructed as to convey impressions of credence and possible invitation to spiritistic practices,’ warns the reviewer, pointing out that: ‘in certain theatres large audiences of questionable types attended this film at unusual hours.’
The commercial success of Val Lewton’s recent low-budget horror pictures for RKO, particularly the box office enjoyed by the first of them, “Cat People” -- which was the first of Lewton’s films to demonstrate a new, much more subtle method of scaring audiences with poetic suggestion and a hint of something hidden in the shadows rather than lumbering on-screen monsters -- in retrospect also paved the way for a more serious consideration of the supernatural and the paranormal in Hollywood pictures of the day. “The Uninvited” simply lulls any reservations a mainstream audience might have had about such subject matter by using the ingeniously sly method of couching the material in conventions that were already very familiar to cinemagoers … those of the windswept gothic romance of a mystery genre popularised by the fiction of Daphne Du Maurier, and given their Hollywood due by Alfred Hitchcock’s sumptuous adaptation, a few years earlier, of the novelist’s best-known work, “Rebecca”. Tropes such as the lonely mansion full of dark secrets from the past and the repressed and the guilty parties who dwell inside such places in the present, and who try unsuccessfully to keep their ‘ghosts’ barricaded and buried inside, are major elements in the standard narrative formula for such works. “The Uninvited” merely takes such metaphorical ghosts and turns them into real spectral entities. Otherwise, the film shares the appearance and the elegant romantic style of the gothic mystery fiction it imitates, right down to the typically Du Maurier-ish setting of a picturesque Cornish village on the wind-swept southern coast of England. The film is set about a decade earlier than its release date, for no apparent reason other than to drive the ghostly subject matter even farther away from any association with present reality (there seems to be no other apparent relevance to the given date of 1937 for when the events in the film are meant to have taken place) and the British setting no doubt helps to further disassociate this stateside production from such controversial shenanigans.
Paramount’s movie was adapted from Dorothy Macardle’s popular novel -- originally titled ‘Uneasy Freehold’ but later republished as ‘The Uninvited’ to tie-in with the film’s release – and the Manchester-born playwright Dodie Smith (who was later to find fame as the author of “101 Dalmatians”) wrote the smartly scripted screenplay, which quickly establishes the requisite atmosphere of intrigue from the earliest point possible with Milland’s opening monologue, with its talk of the ‘haunted shores’ and the ‘swirling eddies of current’ to be found as a matter of course around the region’s mysterious coast: ‘mists gather here; and sea fog … and eerie stories’, intones the film’s star, against a seascape montage composed of evocative imagery in which mighty waves are caught by jagged coastal rocks which then form themselves into violent, churning currents. This turns out to be the poetically affecting view from the windows of the locked artist’s studio at the top of Windward House: a perpetually damp, benighted room where a peculiarly gloomy mood prevails.
London music critic and failed musician Roderick Fitzgerald (Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) discover this empty but apparently charming little property while on holiday in the pleasant Cornish village of Biddlecombe and immediately fall in love with it after their scotch terrier, Bobby, chases a squirrel through one of its open ground-floor windows. Discovering the residence is up for sale at the local post office, the couple pay the current owner – the upright Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) -- a visit, and find him oddly eager to get shot of the place for the derisory sum of £12,000; while the pretty young orphaned Granddaughter under his guardianship, Stella Meredeth (Gail Russell), is equally keen to scupper the sale and even initially lies about the house’s availability when Rod and Pamela first encounter her at the Commander’s door.
It turns out that Windward House has been in the Beech family for generations, and was once lived in by the Commander’s daughter (and Stella’s mother) Mary Meredith. A woman with a saintly reputation during her lifetime, Mary nevertheless met with a tragic end in mysterious circumstances, as did a Spanish gypsy called Carmel: an artist’s model, described as ‘crafty’ and ‘cruel’, with whom Mary’s no-good husband had apparently been conducting an open affair, causing embarrassment and terrible scandal in the village. Both women fell from the abrupt clifftop drop in front of the house within a week of each other, and Mr Meredith later died abroad; apart from some tenants who rented the abode twelve years previously (and who left because of what they called ‘disturbances’) Windward House has been empty ever since -- a shrine to Stella’s mother, but one to which the girl (who was only three-years-old at the time of Mary’s death) is forbidden to go anywhere near by her devout, church-going guardian.
Roderick and Pamela soon make a bright and happy home of the property -- the domesticated Pamela transforming the place with the help of her homely furnishings and the imported presence of the couple’s Irish housemaid (Barbara Everest). Yet all three occupants are soon aware of unusual goings-on: doors open and close by themselves; flowers taken into the former artists’ dreary studio wilt in seconds; the family dog now refuses to stay in the house at all; and the scent of a phantom Mimosa flower somehow fills the air inside the house. At night the mysterious sound of a woman’s sobbing echoes through the moonlit rooms, only fading come the dawn. When Stella falls for Roderick and pays him a home visit without her Grandfather first consenting, an ectoplasmic apparition emerges from the portrait studio upstairs and takes on the form of a gaunt-faced woman -- and Stella starts to behave as though she’s possessed and somehow compelled to throw her-self from the stormy cliff-top at the exact spot at which her mother perished.
A helpful local doctor -- the tweedy but amiable Dr Scott (Alan Napier) -- is on hand with background on the history of the house, and is even up for taking part in a séance when Pamela suggest it, in the hope of determining which of the two dead women is haunting the premises and what they actually want. It soon becomes clear that the entire mystery revolves around the relationship between these two very different former residents of Windward House, hinging in particular on their conflicting attitudes towards the young Stella, since both of them are, it seems, still present in spirit form -- the one apparently to guard against the maleficence of the other. Of course, things turn out to be a great deal more complicated than they at first appear, and the officially recorded history of many of the events that have previously taken place in the house do not, it transpires, quite relate the whole truth of the matter.
With the inclusion of a flowery, romantic orchestrated score by Victor Young (“The Wizard of Oz”), which incorporates a syrupy love theme – ‘Stella by Starlight’ – that was later to be recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra in vocal versions, the film's eeriness seems to come swaddled in neutralising layers of glossy sentiment. Milland makes for perfect leading man casting given the conflicting aims of the piece in that regard -- providing cute gags in the slick comedy sections of the movie and matinée idol dreaminess when courting the doe-eyed Stella for its more mainstream romantic content. But the actual on-screen manifestations of paranormal activity are delicately calibrated by first-time director Lewis Allen (who would graduate from gritty noir thrillers to a comfortable career in US TV, directing episodes of “The Fugitive” and “Mission Impossible”) to make their carefully spaced appearances all the more effective when they do come forth. The ghostly sobbing in the night (a scene lifted from the Val Lewton flick “I Walked with a Zombie” and later appropriated in an early storyline on the Gothic TV series “Dark Shadows”) is well done, and even something as simple and familiar as the sudden opening of a door by itself or the smashing of a levitating glass during a séance are far more startling when they come surrounded by a heavy dose of otherwise conventional Hollywood schmaltz. Farciot Edouart’s process photography during the sequences in which the ghost finally makes its presence visibly felt is what really provides the film with it most memorable images though: the tendrils of crawling misty ectoplasm which gather themselves to take on the blurred image of a phantom woman (allegedly played by Val Lewton’s recurring actress mascot Elizabeth Russell, although her features are so indistinct it could be anyone) become the accompaniment to a genuine air of chilled menace percolating through some well-staged and beautifully shot set-pieces.
More than anything, the narrative emerges as a contemporary conservative, 1940s Hollywood endorsement of that era’s accepted cultural norms regarding the socially ‘correct’ heterosexual forms of romantic love. The film starts with a brother and sister living together while leading resolutely single lives, and a young woman who has been shut off from any involvement with other people by her authoritarian Grandfather, and who is therefore forced to dwell on the carefully preserved image of her perfect, deified mother (‘Stella suffers from a general delicacy that makes it impossible for her to make new friends,’ stonewalls the Commander – which is a mode of address Stella herself tellingly always uses when addressing her patrician guardian). By the end of the film, both of the Fitzgerald siblings are to be found happily engaging in firm romantic relationships: the struggles of Roderick and Stella to overcome the layers of accumulated history – a great deal of it false history – that are bound up with Windward House’s past, and which Commander Beech attempts to use to cement the starchy social conventions and snobbery that enables him to lay claim to his Granddaughter’s affections, form the main backbone of the story; but even Pamela ends up falling into the tweed-clad arms of the kindly (and much older) Dr Scott in the final scenes.
Meanwhile, Beech’s attempts to thwart the romantic intentions of Stella and Roderick are aided by Windward House’s former governess, Mrs Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), who is prevailed upon by a worried Beech to confine the girl to her ‘asylum for ladies’ in order to ensure that she is removed from the friendly influence of the Fitzgerald household. Clearly conceived as a Mrs-Danvers-from-“Rebecca” surrogate, Stella’s former governess turns out to be so devoted to her former employer, the deceased Mary Meredith, that she’s clearly reached the point of attaining an entertainingly over-the-top form of obsessive hysteria: Mary’s portrait fills an entire wall of Mrs Holloway’s sombre study and the deranged spinster speaks of the dead woman as though she were a goddess, dreamily expounding on the ‘radiance’ of her skin and ‘that bright, bright hair’ while sitting in contemplation of her former friend’s image. The unspoken undertones of Sapphic desire, here, are obvious, and equally inescapable is the not-so-very-subtle linking of lesbianism with insanity: Holloway’s asylum is not only named as a memorial to Stella’s mother (‘The Mary Meredith Retreat’ – Health through Harmony!) but all of its patients (‘not patients, just guests,’ coos the loonier-than-her-charges founder) turn out also to be middle-aged spinsters -- institutionalised and infantilised by their exclusive devotion to Holloway, and conspicuously unattached. When Mrs Holloway tells the Fitzgeralds how she and Mary developed an intense bond of friendship when Meredith was alive, based ‘not on girlish flirtations’ but on a shared ‘desire to conquer life’, the implication is that female independence is a one-way road to loneliness, madness or lesbianism -- or some unholy combination of all three!
“The Uninvited” is steeped in splendid Hollywood Golden Age charm and the quality of the script and the cast performances help immensely in keeping the show on the road, even when the film’s somewhat compromised mainstream treatment of its supernatural subject matter threatens to tip it into overt twee-ness. The enjoyment to be had from the film’s cosy nostalgia for the tropes of Gothic fiction is perhaps magnified further by our equally attractive yen for the inherently reassuring nature of this style of classy, snappily scripted and crisply delivered high-gloss black & white Hollywood melodrama, but the film includes enough moments of genuine interest and atmosphere to make it worth a spin for those who wouldn’t normally be drawn to such windswept romantic tidings. Exposure Cinema deliver a robust presentation here, with the inclusion of a fine DVD transfer as part of a dual-layer, high bitrate release that even comes with a few worthwhile extras in the form of two radio play adaptations, a trailer and a stills gallery. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are included and the accompanying booklet turns out to be a very worthwhile and informative read, featuring a diverse collection of related articles and biographies, plus many colour reproductions of posters and lobby cards.
A beautifully made picture from the 1940s, “The Uninvited” will undoubtedly interest those who enjoy the work of Val Lewton and this debut on DVD makes a nice enough release to ensure it's required viewing for that audience.