Friday, January 11, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Uninvited (1944)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

While out in the country on vacation, music critic and composer Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) stumble over a house they immediately fall in love with as it reminds them very much of their childhood home. Pamela's more open about it, so she's the one to decide she and Rod will attempt to buy the house and leave their London life behind.

As luck will have it, Winward House, as it is called, is indeed for sale. Its owner, one Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), offers the siblings a surprisingly low price, even though his granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), is quite set against selling the house at all.

As so many horror movie characters before and after them, Rod and Pam soon learn that a cheap new home can only mean one thing: said new home is haunted. Consequently, there are curious occurrences in the house. Its studio room where Stella's father once painted her mother, is colder and more damp than it should be and has a certain air of dread about it. Pets don't approve of the house's upper floor, and some nights, just before dawn, a woman's voice coming from nowhere can be heard crying.

On the positive side, after first misgivings, Roderick and Stella begin to fall in love. The Commander is dead set against this, but it's not so much the romance he seems to disapprove of, as the thought of Stella putting even a single foot into Winward House. Given what actually happens once Stella does step into the house, the Commander's fears aren't exactly unfounded.

In the end, if Roderick and Pamela want to have a nice, spook-less home, help Stella grow independent of the shadows of a past she doesn't even remember, and get a bit of romance in trade, they'll have to delve into Winward House's and the girl's past, and thwart not only a supernatural menace but also a rather more worldly (yet thematically appropriate) threat.

Lewis Allen's The Uninvited is that most curious of things, a 40s horror movie made by a major studio that doesn't explain its ghosts away with some evil uncle in a gorilla costume. Apart from taking its supernatural menace seriously, the film also talks rather directly about some things films made under the iron rod of the production code did not usually dare talk about that way. It's as if the film were made by grown-ups with a grown-up audience in mind and just didn't feel the need to coddle anyone.

Not that The Uninvited sets itself so apart from the film mores of its time that it's afraid of a bit of deeply Hollywood-like sentimentality, especially since it is not only a horror movie but also a romance that transplants a handful of Gothic tropes into the contemporary 1940s, with a deft understanding of how to use them properly in this context. The characters here are after all modern people, so their reactions to the things going on should be modern too, however old-fashioned the tropes these dangers are based on are. In a really curious development, the merging of the gothically inclined romance and the ghost story elements works perfectly, with both sides of the genre equation strengthening each other, and nary a moment when the horror lover will gasp "oh no, they're romancing again" nor one for the romance lover to sigh "now with the ghosts again". This isn't a film of two genres grafted together like Frankenstein's Monster (or Bob, as I call him), but one that happens to belong to both and would make little sense - emotionally, thematically, or otherwise - if it restricted itself to just one of them.

While the script's (based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle I now really want to read, and not just to see how large the differences between original and adaptation are) fusion of ghost story and romance is very strong, a strong script alone does not always make a good movie. Hauntings can easily become ridiculous instead of haunting, and romances cloying instead of charming. Fortunately, Allen is quite capable of handling both sides of the film with equal verve. Allen is in general quite an interesting director. Once the mid-50s came around, he began a nearly absurdly fruitful career as a TV director, but among the films he made before that and - somehow - in between are some fine examples of filmmaking in various genres. It's this adaptability Allen makes great use of here, still very early in his career, showing a fine sense of how to develop a haunting mood through shadow and sparse light, and especially noise, as well as a knowledge of how to be romantic without turning kitsch.

Allen makes particularly good and subtle use of his actors to deepen the feeling of the house's haunting, with many a scene where Milland and Hussey are trying to joke away their fears (they are modern people living in the modern world, after all) yet their faces show how out of sorts they really are. It's always wonderful to witness the young dapper Milland in films of this age, when a guy who'd later turn into the perpetual old grump in front of the camera was allowed to bring the type of charming, slightly roguish characters to life that can become so annoying in the wrong hands but are really rather loveable when done right.

Thematically, this is of course a rather romantic (in various meanings of the word) film about a dapper young man who - with the help of his very competent sister who'll win herself her own grown-up romance in the process - has to rescue his lady from the shadows of the past, shadows that in this particular case haven't quite allowed her to grow up or to reach her full potential as a person, which in turn will probably help him with the same problem for himself. Despite the whole set-up not exactly providing Stella with much agency, the film also makes it clear that Roderick wants to help Stella not just because it's difficult to marry a dead woman but also to help her to actually grow up and reach that potential. We can argue about how progressive this can be when Rod is the one party of the relationship actually active here (though I'd really rather not), but we can hardly argue that a guy applying himself to help his romantic partner become a whole person instead of a pretty cipher isn't romantic in concept.

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