Based on the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle, 'The Uninvited' is far from an original take on haunted houses and visions of ghostly figures seen by mortal eyes. There are times when this spooky tale of the abandoned seaside home called Windward House feels quaint and a bit on the silly side, with a light comedic touch, mostly coming from Ray Milland's exceptional performance as scaredy-cat skeptic Rick Fitzgerald, and all of it is intentional. Movie audiences of the time would be familiar with such fare, but they usually came in the form of a slapstick comedy that would always reveal a human conspiracy behind the scares. By today's standards, the classic film is rather conventional and largely antiquated.
And yet, most of our favorite terror tales dealing with the paranormal can essentially be traced back to the influence of this particular film — not to discount the equally important impact made by Victor Sjöström's 'The Phantom Carriage.' In spite of its more humorous moments, 'The Uninvited' marks the first time a major Hollywood studio treated the supernatural and ghostly hauntings with any real seriousness, as a more straightforward horror film. Recognizable tropes abound as siblings, Rick (Milland) and Pamela (Ruth Hussey), instantly fall for the empty, cobweb-infested house and are able to purchase it from Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) at a price far below market value. As the narrative moves, the pair learns of its history and the tragedy of its previous owners.
Moviegoers of 1944 would also recognize this rather basic blueprint for any story having to do with haunted houses, but since audiences at the time were accustomed to laughter instead of scares, the filmmakers did something different by bathing the plot with a great deal of atmosphere. Arguably, the film's most striking and beautifully haunting aspect is the rich, sumptuous cinematography of Charles Lang, playing with expectations as well as going against them in several brightly-lit sequences. He engulfs the frame with intensely dark, cavernous shadows that make it difficult to see what lurks behind characters. We don't ever see a ghost suddenly jump from the darkness, but it's a surfeit of gothic, spine-tingling chills that's creepily effective, especially when the source of light is a candle, creating a cool, iris-wipe-like image in the center.
Another interesting twist is having much of this spooky atmosphere not only attached to the Windward but also centered around one character: the young, lovely and largely melancholy Stella Meredith (Gail Russell). As Beech's granddaughter who doesn't like the idea of selling the house she grew up in as a toddler, which is also where her mother died, Russell brings a somber, sympathetic presence that counters Milland's witty farce. There's a genuine sense of concern for the character's well-being and safety because as the story progresses, we discover a deep spiritual connection between her and the property. Stella's convinced it's the spirit of her mother trying to communicate during a creepy séance, but when the girl is suddenly possessed and mutters Spanish gibberish, we understand something more sinister is afoot, a dark secret everyone wants to forget.
After years of working on various stage productions, Lewis Allen made his feature-length debut with 'The Uninvited,' and while many of his subsequent films are grossly underrated or largely forgotten, this bona fide classic of supernatural horror is rightly recognized as his masterpiece. Although having limited experience, Allen proves a natural talent behind the camera, showing restraint in scenes where cheap jump scares would be expected. In fact, he shows admirable patience by slowly building the tension and suspense — the dog refuses to go upstairs and the art room mysteriously fills with a chilling breeze. By the time we finally hear the crying sobs of a woman echoing through the house, we're already feeling an uncomfortable strangeness, made all the more terrifying by Lang's pitch-black shadows hanging over characters like a wraithlike specter.
The real beauty in 'The Uninvited' is not only in it being one of the first major productions to treat the supernatural as other than a source of comedy, but in Lang's lush cinematography engulfing the tale with a darkly creepy atmosphere and Allen's masterful direction that makes the unseen spirits feel like real entities threatening the living. It's a genuine classic of the genre which sparked a change in horror cinema and paved the way for future horror films tackling the paranormal. And in spite of its quaint, sillier side, it will continue to be cherished and enjoyed because it remains an effective spine-chilling piece of spooky entertainment.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of Lewis Allen's 'The Uninvited' comes by way of The Criterion Collection (spine #677). The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside the distributor's standard clear keepcase. Also included is a 24-page booklet featuring an insightful essay entitled "Spirits by Starlight" by critic of classic films Farran Smith Nehme and an interview excerpt with Allen conducted in 1997 by Tom Weaver. There are no trailers before being greeted by the standard menu screen with static photo.
'The Uninvited' haunts the gothic halls of Blu-ray with a stunningly beautiful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that really demonstrates the evocatively gorgeous cinematography of Charles Lang. According to the notes inside the accompanying booklet, the high-def transfer comes from a 2K resolution scan of "a 35mm safety duplicate negative made from a nitrate composite fine-grain."
The end result is a presentation with inky rich and luxurious black levels that provide the picture with a good deal of depth and dimensionality. Shadows penetrate deep into the screen with a haunting creepiness, though the tiniest object in the background remains visible throughout. Contrast is comfortably bright and very well-balanced, and definition is exceptional, as fine lines around furniture, buildings and clothing are distinctly sharp. The only soft scenes are the intentional ones where diffusion lenses were used for photographing the female cast. Sequences with rear-projection are also a tad on the blurry side, but that's understandable as the expected effect of the process.
All in all, this classic supernatural horror film is a thing of striking beauty on Blu-ray.
As also cited in the booklet, the original uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack was remastered from a 35mm optical print, which, like the video, is really terrific. Only point worth mentioning is the original design seeming a bit flat and drab at times, as if much of the background activity suddenly goes missing or silent. This is more apparent when the whispers and weeping of the ghost are heard, restrained to the center of the screen, always coming from the same spot. There's not much in terms of dynamic range, but imaging exhibits a nice sense of presence. Dialogue reproduction is precise and detailed, allowing for every nuance and intonation in the performances to be heard with excellent clarity. In spite of one very minor, and admittedly silly, grumble, this lossless mix of the classic film is really wonderful and satisfying.
Based on the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle, 'The Uninvited' marks one of the first major Hollywood productions to treat the supernatural and ghostly hauntings with any real seriousness as a more straightforward horror movie. Starring Ray Milland, Gail Russell and Ruth Hussey, the film is immersed in an eerie, gothic atmosphere that effectively builds the tension and suspense thanks to the masterful work of Lewis Allen and cinematographer Charles Lang. The Blu-ray arrives with a stunningly beautiful high-def video presentation and excellent lossless audio. Supplements are sadly a bit light, but enjoyable and welcomed nonetheless, making the overall package a recommended buy for fans of tales of the supernatural and classic horror films in general.