‘The Uninvited,’ more than just Paramount’s ‘Rebecca’ styled ghost story
Directed by Lewis Allen
Written by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos
Starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp & Gail Russell
USA , 99 min – 1944.
“If you listen to it long enough, all your senses are sharpened. You come by strange instincts. You get to recognize a peculiar cold that is the first warning. A cold which is no mere matter of degrees Fahrenheit, but a draining of warmth from the vital centers of the living.”
The Uninvited is a supernatural film that is more mysterious than it is horrific. Spirits are taken to be a real possibility in the film, which after the success of Hitchcock & Selznick’s haunting, Rebecca (1940), must have been a necessity. The people who laugh at the notion of the supernatural are quickly proved wrong (as the early voice over suggests) and the film introduces ghosts with both kind and malicious intentions. Ultimately, The Uninvited’s use of the supernatural reveals a society with interesting views on perfection and bent on keeping the uglier truth under wraps.
The Uninvited follows the story of Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey), a brother and sister. While on the English coast, the siblings fall in love with Windward, an old sea side house that reminds them of their childhood. They impulsively buy the house. Upon doing so, the two meet Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) and his granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell), whose mother used to live in the house. Stella is drawn to Windward, but Commander Beech refuses to let her go there. Soon, Roderick and Pamela understand why. There is a spirit haunting Windward and it may want to harm Stella.
Much like its famous predecessor, The Uninvited deals with the notion of ghosts haunting the living, keeping them stuck in the past. In Rebecca, the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) is constantly plagued by the ‘ghost’ of her husband Maxim’s (Laurence Olivier) first wife, Rebecca, who is supposed to have been the epitome of perfect. The Uninvited deals with this notion of perfection in a different way. Stella is not the protagonist and nor is she telling the story. Thus, the film presents a less psychological study of a ghost’s effect on the living – at least on the surface.
The plot of the film focuses on searching for the truth behind the mystery of the house. All Roderick and Pamela know at the start is that Stella’s mother, Mary Meredith, died by falling off its cliff twenty years prior. Throughout the film, the characters learn details that unravel the common myth of Mary Meredith. Was she murdered? Who was there the night of her death? Is Carmel, the Spanish mistress kept by Mary’s husband to blame? Was Mary really all that she has come to represent?
The Uninvited goes deeper when it introduces the character of Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), Mary’s former friend, who now owns a peculiar sort of mental institution named after Mary. It is apparent in her physicality and cold ‘perfection’ that Miss Holloway is hiding something (she is this film’s Mrs. Danvers). Commander Beech wants her to help Stella, whose marked introverted personality seems uncharacteristic for a twenty year old girl. Ironically, he wants her to be more like Mary and to keep this supposedly innocent nature rather than enjoy life (most likely in fear that she will become overly emotional).
Miss Holloway’s introduction, though heavily done for plot purposes, raises the question about Mary’s perfection and what this society believes that to be. It seems that perfection is synonymous with extreme discipline (if Stella cannot be as beautiful as Mary, at least she can be as disciplined) to the point where any feelings are under control. Miss Holloway is representative of this; she is Mary’s living counterpart. Her undoing comes, when this discipline is questioned by the Fitzgerald’s, and she lets her control slip.
Of course, The Uninvited does not market itself as an in depth discussion of 1940s English society’s views of perfection. It is first and foremost a ghost story. However, this ghost story and the notion of perfection are intertwined in the film. The supernatural elements of the film are what push the living to deal with the past. Frighteningly cold feelings that come with the ghost’s entrance in a room and the endless wailing Roderick and Pamela hear in the night prompt them to find out what really happened in the house. The ghost’s unfinished business and its persistence in seeing it through allow for the truth to eventually come out. This truth lets Stella move on and have a life with Roderick (Hollywood must have its romance) and it also makes for an overall realization that the dead do know a lot more than the living.