One of the horror genre’s most profound and inexplicable mysteries is why The Uninvited has yet to rate a US DVD release. It’s a classic that in places is capable of holding its own against the 1963 The Haunting; beautifully shot, gorgeously candlelit, and utterly creepy. If it has a flaw, it’s that the romance plot is weaker than the ghost story and has a tendency to arrive on the doorstep as a distraction just when the fear factor is starting to ramp up.
But that’s if you concede that the film has flaws. Which I do not, because: Flawless.
Siblings Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) fall in love with a mansion off the coast of Cornwall and buy it more or less on impulse. The owner is a crotchety old bastard named Colonel Beech (Donald Crisp) whose one redeeming feature is his granddaughter, the adorable and dorky Stella (Gail Russell, reminding me weirdly of Shanna Collins in last night’s disaster-of-the-week, The Haunting of Molly Hartley). It was Stella’s mother who owned the house, until she took a header off the cliff. Stella hasn’t been back since because her grandfather pitches twenty kinds of assfit every time she goes near the place.
Rick goes back to London to make his telecommuting arrangements and returns to find an AWOL dog and a freaked-out sister. Also, the housekeeper’s cat refuses to go upstairs and nearly takes Rick’s arm off when he tries to push the issue. Soon enough, Rick finds out that the reason his sister is a bit on edge is the ghostly weeping that echoes through the house right before dawn.
The scenes with Rick and Pam standing at the top of the stairs looking down into all that dark, listening to someone crying in an empty house, are remarkably effective considering that (or because) the only special effect involved is some sort of echo around the audio. I love those scenes because the two of them are so clearly at a loss. They do pretty much what any of us would do under the same circumstances – stand around going “Um, I feel I should be doing something about this. I just don’t know what.” You can’t quite believe it’s a ghost, and yet; down there in the dark, something is crying.
Inviting Stella over for dinner proves disastrous. She gets upset in the creepy studio that depresses everyone and nearly flings herself off the cliff. She comes out the other side convinced that the ghost haunting the house is her mother.
Of course, it isn’t quite that simple, because The Uninvited is gothic horror from start to finish. There are deep secrets about some sort of strange menage a trois between Stella’s parents and one of her father’s models. There’s Stella briefly being shunted into a sanitarium run by a batshit insane former nurse with a creepy obsession with Stella’s mother. And there’s a seance scene that all other movie seances could benefit from studying, because it is seriously unnerving.
The Uninvited is one of the classics of the haunted-house genre for good reason, and more filmmakers should study it. You can watch the 1999 remake of The Haunting by the hour and never be more than vaguely impressed by the sheer level of effort that must have gone into the CGI, but The Uninvited has only one thing that even looks like proto-CGI: the ghost, which is only seen a handful of times and is weirdly reminiscent of the things that came out of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders. The rest comes from the viewer’s imagination and a handful of trick shots. Candles gutter for no reason. Flowers wilt before your eyes. Pets want nothing to do with the upstairs. Something keeps making the rooms smell like flowers – or making them cold as ice.
I’m not going to lie, The Uninvited was made back before everyone in the country needed Ritalin, so if you prefer fast cuts and jump scares to slow builds, this movie might not be your speed. But if it is, and if you have a chance to catch it on TNT at Halloween, don’t miss it.
So what’s the verdict? Five stars. Gorgeous, creepy, flawless. I feel all restored and ready to jump back into the gauntlet of iffy indie movies and craptacular big-studio releases. Now how about a digitally remastered DVD release?