No Sleep October: “The Uninvited” (1944)
Musician / writer Roderick (Ray Milland) and his sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey), buy Windward Manor, an abandoned house on the coast of England with unbelievable view of the ocean. The old owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), sells it to them for an unbelievable cash price. Too good to be true? Sure thing. The damn house is haunted.
Shortly after purchasing the home, Roderick and Pamela begin to notice strange signs of the supernatural. A room that is always cold. Doors opening and closing when nobody’s there. The disembodied wailing of a woman, nightly, from dusk to dawn. Pamela’s pretty nonplussed, but Roderick is scared shitless – although he projects it onto the women, of course. Things take a turn for the dangerous when Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), Commander Beech’s granddaughter and former resident of the house, visits the house, only to learn the hauntings are all centered around her. And they might just prove fatal.
“The Uninvited” was first movies to feature ghosts as an actual presence. It’s based on the novel “Uneasy Freehold” and really feels like the prototypical cinematic ghost story. I wrote in my 2013 piece on “The Orphanage” that I found my entryway into understanding – without – fearing ghost stories by understanding them as love stories, and that’s absolutely, explicitly the case here. With a twist! There’s a mystery in Stella’s history, you see, involving murder, more murder and not a little bit of deception out at Windward Manor.
Anyway, it’s a well-told story, with special effects that even now look a little creepy and boost great atmosphere to augment them. I was surprised and delighted by the comedy, particularly Milland’s performance of the big bravado in Roderick, who is actually a weak-stomached scaredy-cat. He’s the scream queen in this one, while Pamela takes it in stride and Stella actively engages with the Ghosts. I empathized with Ray. He is me watching horror in microcosm: I’m brave when opening the case, when the first scenes roll, but as the movie continues and the story becomes more and more involved, well, I can hardly take it.
Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) take the character cake, though. She’s the former nurse at Windward and the person who holds all the secrets, and Skinner takes the role so over the top she never comes down (her last scene just escalates, escalates, escalates in personality until – it ends, and she’s never seen again).
While watching horror movies all month, “The Uninvited” felt like the single most essential. It’s the grandmother of all the other ghost movies I watched, and its use of atmosphere and special effects, humor and indirect scares is a lesson in how it all works.