A city-dwelling brother and sister (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) on vacation, fall in love with a gorgeous old British countryside house overlooking the sea. Pooling their finances together, they buy the house from a nearby landowner (Donald Crisp) who sells against the wishes of his granddaughter (Gail Russell) who, as it turns out, was born in the house. Once the siblings move in, they discover it's haunted. Really haunted. It harbours several tragic secrets and not one, but two ghosts. The intrepid couple begin a horrifying journey into the very soul of this diseased domicile to discover the truth and hopefully exorcise the thing that possesses it.
|GAIL RUSSELL - Tragic Unsung Talent|
Dir. Lewis Allen
Starring: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell,
Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner
Review By Greg Klymkiw
During the very tail end of cinema's first half-century point, no major Hollywood studio production featured a genuine supernatural ectoplasmic phenomenon until Paramount Pictures unleashed director Lewis Allen's The Uninvited in 1944. Previous films utilizing ghosts presented them within the context of chicanery at the hands of corrupt sideshow-style mediums or as faked incidents to inflict madness, confusion or scams upon certain characters or simply real (or imagined) entities in comedies with macabre settings. Based upon a novel by Dorothy Macaradle, Allen's haunting picture is indeed a haunting yarn of a bonafide haunting within the walls of a truly haunted house. "Haunt" is the key word here.
Though decades have passed since the picture was unleashed (and how, in recent years, shocks and special effects have gone completely over the top), the movie still has the power to give an audience considerable gooseflesh and does so with a stately dignity and mutedly, shuddering horror.
What strikes the viewer at the beginning of the film, is that the two house-owners-to-be have been enjoying a gorgeous, sun-drenched day and whilst still in the thick of a far-from-nocturnal romp, they enter the beautiful old house that is as benign in its interior as it is out-of-doors. It's a bit dusty and un-lived-in to be sure, but warm light beams through every window and casts a lovely glow over all the usual nooks and crannies that normally (in such pictures) are dark with portent.
The other thing that hits us in the early going is that this is going to be a movie imbued with a genial sense of humour - not tongue-in-cheek, by any means, but rooted firmly in character, action, situation and narrative. The twosome are clearly urbane and witty - tossing off nicely-timed quips in each others' direction - and their entire discovery of the house occurs after their teensy idiot white dog goes tearing after a squirrel and disappears into the home's interior. The fact that the bantering brother and sister don't merely retrieve the dog, but use it as an excuse to snoop around is also amusingly light-hearted (and a telling touch in terms of character).
The element of natural comedy also comes into play with the romantic subplot involving Ray Milland's attraction to Donald Crisp's granddaughter. It's not quite a meet-cute, but upon her first appearance, the stunningly radiant Gail Russell does everything in her power to dissuade the couple from seriously pursuing their interest in the house. (Russell, by the way, was a lovely actress, but suffered from alcoholism that limited her participation in films and eventually killed her tragically at the age of 36. She remains still, a great unsung talent.)
Russell's combination of vulnerability and camera-loving sex appeal hints very strongly at the wonderful performances she would deliver in subsequent movies - albeit too few and far between. The character's sense of "unfinished business" with both the house and the mother she really can't remember pervades much of the latter half of the film and a great deal of why we do care is rooted in the delicate performance of this young actress who was barely out of her teens when she made the film. One of the more disturbing subplots to which Russell handily acquits herself is when her grandfather packs her off into the clutches of an especially diabolical psychotherapist (played with reptilian flourish by the great Cornelia Otis Skinner).
The relationship that does eventually blossom between Milland and Russell, however, is extremely fun and genial, though always tempered by the young lady's obsession with the house and her long-dead Mother. That we get a very funny sea-sickness sequence as Milland attempts to seduce the fetching young lady that's bizarrely buffered by some clearly disturbing events is for me, and always has been, one of the things I loved about the movie.
There's very little here that feels by rote. Perhaps so much of it can be attributed to the movie being the first of its kind, but I also feel that Lewis Allen's direction is sharply intelligent. It's an early work in his career - a first feature after a couple of documentary/propaganda shorts - and one senses a youthful exuberance in his play with the medium. As well, there's no denying that when the film delivers up the scares, Allen plunges us into a kind of overdrive in the sinister department.
Oddly, Allen never really attained the artistic success his work here might otherwise predict. His followup was an entertaining, but inferior thriller from the same studio the following year (1945's The Unseen) and of the fifteen or so features he delivered, his only real exceptional work was Suddenly. The latter title is especially well-directed by Allen from an excellent Richard Sale screenplay that rather unpleasantly foreshadowed the Kennedy assassination and, in fact, offers a super-scary parallel to Lee Harvey Oswald in fedora-adorned star Frank Sinatra's performance as a would-be presidential assassin. The bulk of Allen's career was spent in the early days of television as a camera jockeying director on some of the better genre series (Perry Mason, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, The F.B.I.). That said, two exceptional features and a wealth of tersely enjoyable T.V. dramas is a pretty decent output.
If anyone doubts Allen's direction in The Uninvited, though, one needs only to experience the various scenes involving requisite bumps in the night, sickeningly urgent footsteps padding amongst the halls and the utterly horrendous moans and wails of a voice belonging to a woman cannot be located. If anything is amiss in the film, it might be the odd screenplay which includes back-story elements that seem far less interesting (and even a tad convoluted) to us than the visceral scares. God knows, however, that most contemporary films even more clumsily bear this flaw. The Uninvited is clearly, in most ways, well ahead of its time.
Finally, this is a movie all about creeping us out against the backdrop of psychological turmoil mixed with uncanny metaphysical gymnastics and after so many years, it has any number of moments that continue to deliver the goods and to reiterate, ever-so emphatically, Lewis Allen's direction seldom disappoints. The actual physical appearances of the ghosts (which are admittedly pretty fleeting, though aptly grotesque and very nicely rendered by good, old fashioned optical effects), were not even part of Allen's mise-en-scene and had to be added at the studio's insistence (rightly). In spite of this, though, one needs only recall how the film's director approaches the very first entrance into a top-floor artist studio in the old house that's been mysteriously locked. Sun blazes into the room and yet we, along with the characters cannot help but feel the chill in the air and the shudders created by the huge windows overlooking the rolling grounds, steep cliffs and roiling waters of the open sea.
Oh, how the sea beckons. So strangely and beautifully.
"The Unseen" is available on a newly restored Blu-Ray transfer from the Criterion Collection. There is, for those who love cinema, and particularly classic genre cinema, absolutely no reason NOT to add this package to their permanent movie collection. The disc has any number of nice supplements: A 2K digital film restoration, with a wonderful uncompressed monaural soundtrack, an interesting but strangely critical visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, the requisite trailer and booklet, plus the always delightful late night aural treats of a radio adaptations - though in this case featuring not one, but two different broadcasts from 1944 and 1949, both starring Ray Milland. The movie is also available on DVD, but why you wouldn't own a Blu-Ray player and HD monitor is beyond me.