Complete with cold rooms, unexplainably drafty stairs, and doors that shut on their own, British director Lewis Allen‘s The Uninvited is a truly groundbreaking horror film. Until The Uninvited, the supernatural was largely written off in film, portrayed as either psychological delusion or as played for comedic effect. Lewis Allen changed this with The Uninvited, embracing the supernatural as something terrifyingly real. Portraying a séance in which someone is possessed by a spirit, ghostly voices in the night, and actual appearances by apparitions, The Uninvited is a daring film that doesn’t just introduce ghosts as a legitimately scary antagonist. It goes all out creating the blueprint for countless supernatural horror films to come while standing on the shoulders of the gothic horror films before it.
Set in a quaint seaside English town, The Uninvited opens quite ominously as Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) delivers a voice-over about the town. Speaking about the surrounding ocean, he touches on the dangers and mysteries it holds within its waves. It is not unlike a speech delivered a year prior in Jacques Tourneur‘s I Walked with a Zombie, in which a character speaks about the death beneath the ocean’s surface. In both films, the ocean serves to set the tone for the death and mystery found on land, which in The Uninvited promptly arrives as Roderick and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) climb up a cliff onto the yard of a large home. Their dog Bobby sees a squirrel and goes tearing after it, breaking into a seemingly unoccupied home in the process. Falling in love with its gorgeous interiors, its perfect bannister, and the way in which it reminds them of their childhood home, Roderick and Pamela immediately decide they want to buy the house. However, as they will soon learn, the home- known as Windward House- hosts many ghosts within its walls as the site where a woman, Mary Meredith, had died after falling from the nearby cliff. Now, her younger daughter Stella (Gail Russell) lives with her grandfather, but feels drawn to something inside the home.
In setting up the film with a gorgeous locale alongside the shore surrounded by a cute little town, Allen tears down the peaceful illusions right away. Not only does the mystery of Mary’s death take hold, but so do crying ghosts and cold rooms that immediately send a chill down the characters’ spines. Allen never downplays the threat of these ghosts, in fact building them up as something truly malevolent that, for some reason, want to harm Stella. Using Windward House as a sort of battleground for this war between opposing spirits, Allen maintains a constant threat while bringing Stella into consistently dangerous situations- both humans and supernatural. It is a truly chilling film, one that makes you hear footsteps behind you while swearing there is an odd breeze in the room.
The work of both Allen and his collaborators in creating the film’s serious approach to the ghosts is exemplary. As doors move on their own and other supernatural effects transpire, the film does a wonderful job actually paying off its tension. It forces an audience to come face-to-face with ghosts, which for its the time was unheard of in horror. Characters do more than just hear weird noises that they try to rationalize. Characters cannot write off the cold room as a room that is just drafty or odd. No, Allen and company force the characters to see the apparitions. The effects are brilliant, especially as they slowly begin to take the shape of a real, identifiable person while they float ominously in doorways or at the top of the stairs. While one could find some of the dialogue a bit goofy – Pamela definitely pours it on a bit thick in trying to piece together what is happening even when it is obvious- but it is hard to understate just how terrifying these ghosts had to be in 1944 and still are today. Allen captures a wicked presence around them as they writhe in the air, floating about with great menace.
What further elevates this is the work of DP Charles Lang. Even before the film shows a ghost, Lang helps to create a truly unsettling atmosphere. Relying on candlelight and available lighting- there are more than a few scenes in which the characters are entirely in the dark and cannot really be seen- for the vast majority of the film, the film captures the incredible darkness of this home. As characters move about at night, their towering shadows looming over them create not just striking images, but also ominous visual cues as these characters are followed. The film’s dark imagery is further bolstered by its strong framing, especially one scene in which Roderick plays the piano with Stella sitting next to him. Cutting to a two-shot, a candelabra is positioned right in front of Stella’s face, creating the visual symbolism that she is somehow trapped. As the flames flicker out and the characters’ faces disappear into darkness and terror, The Uninvited is able to both the set mood for the scene and deliver a chill up the viewers spine. Coupled with the film’s great gothic designs, the lighting really pops as it captures the intricate designs of these old-school homes that hold so many secrets in their walls.
Director Lewis Allen never loses sight of the task at hand: how to convince the audience that the ghosts are really there. With audiences at the time accustomed to believing them to be mere hallucinations or tricks, Allen had no easy task. The film starts off with some classic British dry humor, made all the more enjoyable with the considerable chemistry between Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey (who both capture so much emotion in their vocal inflections and physical reactions). Both play this one a bit aloof, writing off the ghosts while making jokes in the process, only for them to come face-to-face with an apparition being unable to rationalize it any longer: the ghosts are really there. The same journey is undertaken by the audience, with Allen playing to the audience’s rationality only to then convince them that this rationality has no place in a home haunted by a vengeful spirit. A thrilling and remarkable journey, The Uninvited may be the first of its kind, but its scares have hardly diminished in the decades since its release as a spine-tingling blast from beginning to end.