‘The Uninvited’ Could Be the Nucleus for all American Narrative Horror Cinema

A narrative of an artist who moves to the countryside in order to concentrate on his music, whose only notes conjure up sudden chills and sighs echoing throughout his new house. He lives there with his sister, who joins him at the banister on the first night he hears the sobbing. She has been hearing it for weeks and accepted the presence of something supernatural; as the man, he must insist for a while that a loose radial is transmitting some widow’s sobs from the neighboring village. Still, he doesn’t sit at his piano very often in the days and weeks to come.

The Uninvited first sets up the building blocks of its narrative in a rather uninteresting shape, this pasty, snarky pianist and the sister who puts up with his eccentricities, urging him to take the leap and buy this majestic house by the shore. The haunted home here isn’t creaky or creepy in the light of day, but genuinely regal and respectable, the sort of enticing object that such a held-back artist could imagine changing his life for good.

The pianist, played by veteran leading man Ray Milland, ends up guiding us into the nascent horror genre in more ways than one. His personal ambition to become a real composer dissipates upon settling into the house which proves to have some sort of spell over the youthful Gail Russell, granddaughter of its landlord and an object of fascination for Milland as well. The last major scene in which Milland tickles the ivories also triggers the inciting incident of Russell’s arc, and he recedes to a supporting role in her story as he tries to piece together the relationship between the house’s curious nocturnes and the girl’s sudden fits of catatonia… or something more sinister.

Included with the Criterion Collection’s new DVD release of The Uninvited is an interview with director Lewis Allen, who gives Milland credit for mentoring the then 20-year-old Russell on set. This tidbit resonates throughout the later acts of the film, in which Milland’s unruffled demeanor proves a crucial balancing element to the ethereal performance demanded of his under-experienced co-star. Many critics have singled out Russell, who began a fatal drinking habit on the set of this picture, as a target of criticism for her uneven performance, and it’s true that the plot largely rests upon her believability; of course, she was being asked to play a character for which there was then little precedent in commercial American cinema.

The film can similarly, as Peter Labuza puts it, “live or die” on Milland’s performance, whose constant presence and frequent side remarks on the nature of the happenings seem a deliberately mediating influence on the then-uncommon subject matter. The knotty relationships of the supporting characters, many of whom are revealed in the second half, draw viewers along with Milland into a tawdry web of murder, voodoo, and adultery, the sort of material unbecoming for such a prestigious Paramount release. It was the studio’s fear of being too bold with its first serious supernatural drama that leads to some profoundly silly stuff in the conclusion, including a rare visual intrusion of an apparition solely to allow Milland an onscreen target of his scorn for the undead.

But the disparate influences, caginess, and behind-the-scenes difficulties of The Uninvited make for an intoxicating snapshot of a genre on the verge of popular acceptance, a steamy peek into history with the elegant, formal veneer of the ambiguous photograph that would bring The Shining to a close decades later. As well as journeying through a murky melodrama with Milland holding up a candelabra to lead the way, Allen’s film prods at many influences of the genre, the script by industry stalwart Frank Partos and English novelist Dodie Smith (of The Hundred and One Dalmatians) peeking into scenes of seance and mental asylum, hinting at other directions which this story could have taken. If one wants to make a case for it as the nucleus for all American narrative horror cinema, a close reading certainly shows the precepts of an argument ready at hand.

Still, it’s Milland’s Rick who gets the final word on the picture with a broad wink to the romantic comedy that’s been draped over the ghost story, finally, to let audiences leave with a comforting chuckle. That’s part of the frustrating amorphousness of The Uninvited, which seems to be a different, unsatisfying story when viewed from multiple angles. Daytime scares had not really been mastered by this point, and the frothy string soundtrack in driving scenes with Milland and Russell could belong to any number of disposable Paramount comedies. Watch it alone, though, holding up a candle during those chilly scenes when darkness falls, to see what pall has taken hold of its pretty face.

Perhaps the most invigorating extra in Criterion’s release of The Uninvited is the essay by Farran Smith Nehme, amateur Hollywood historian and recently appointed critic for the New York Post whose writing at her blog Self-Styled Siren has become essential reading for cinephiles over the past few years. A second piece of quality criticism is included courtesy of innovative filmmaker and critic Michael Almereyda, whose half-hour video essay doesn’t really reach the level of quality attained by web authors at Press Play, but nevertheless contains enough genuine enthusiasm and passion for the picture to provide food for thought on repeat viewings of this influential picture. A pair of radio adaptations of the script with Ray Milland round out the slim bonus material.

RATING 6 / 10