From the moment I heard the score by Victor Young play during the credits of The Uninvited I suspected I was in for a romantic ghost story more in the realm of Rebecca or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir than the creepy haunted house story I was expecting. It’s not creepy, though it does have some genuinely chilling moments, but what makes it so good is the excellent way it blends and layers its many elements of romance, horror, mystery, ghosts, and family secrets, all played with a light touch and a surprisingly uplifting ending.
Brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) are on vacation in Cornwall and come across Windward House, which they fall in love with instantly and purchase cheaply from Commodore Beech (Donald Crisp), who is eager to be rid of the house. His granddaughter, however, is not so eager and tries to prevent the sale. Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) is an orphan raised by her grandfather and feels an attachment for Windward because it was her mother’s, Mary Meredith – a woman whose memory everyone respects and admires.
But Roderick and Pamela move in anyway, despite the fact that their dog refuses to go up the stairs to the second floor and that one of the rooms has a cold, clammy feeling about it. Soon, their dog even deserts them for the local doctor. Worse still, they hear sobbing and moaning in the night, which they cannot explain. There is that traveling coldness, the sudden smell of mimosa. They learn that Mary Meredith died in the house, as well as another woman, Carmel, who was the mistress of Mary Meredith’s husband.
Meanwhile, Stella is still attracted to the house, despite the commodore forbidding her to go near it. He fears the house is only evil for Stella while Stella believes that there is love there, from her mother. The commodore desperately turns to Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) for help, who runs a sanitarium and has a massive Mrs. Danvers-complex about the deceased Mary Meredith. Meanwhile, Roderick (who has fallen in love with Stella) and Pamela are determined to cure the house and find out what is going on.
Its an unique attitude, because most people would have left the house as soon as they knew there were ghosts there, but not Roderick and Pamela. They certainly find it disconcerting, but they seem to have no fear for themselves. The fear is all for Stella. It is as if the ghosts have no means of hurting them; there is no opening. Only Stella, who feels a connection with the house, is open to any influence or harm.
The movie unfolds more as a mystery than a horror story, as Roderick, Pamela and the local doctor, Dr. Scott (Alan Napier – a solid, comforting and rational presence in the film) investigate, both naturally and supernaturally. But what is revealed, and the threat and hatred directed at Stella, is where the horror comes into the story. It’s also an effective ghost story, though somewhat unconventional, The ghosts begin to take on distinct personalities, to become human with specific purposes, and the more human they are, the less frightening they are.
But however sordid and twisted the past, the present is kept light, especially through the character played by Ray Milland, who seems, even near the end, as if he still can hardly believe he’s landed in a ghost story (which, perhaps, is a very natural reaction). Ruth Hussey’s Pamela, on the other hand, hardly bats an eye and is determined to fix everything. The Uninvited was the film that introduced Gail Russell and she has to carry the heart of the film as the vulnerable girl who is becoming a woman, but is still tied to the past. Cornelia Otis Skinner gives us a flesh-and-blood villain to compliment the evil in the house and is extremely effective.
Spoilers…sort of! And how do they ultimately defeat the evil and free Stella? With the truth – which causes the ghost to lose her hold over Stella and the entire house. No one fears her and she now has no power. There is a twist at the end of the story and a surprisingly uplifting ending, as if now that the truth is known, it can be laid in the past. Everything is swept clean, simply by knowing the truth. And the secrets were festering. The relationships in the house between Stella’s father, Mary Meredith, Carmel and Miss Holloway (nurse and friend to Mary Meredith) were so dysfunctional and poisonous that certain of them couldn’t rest until they had destroyed even Stella, who lived in the poisonous atmosphere until she was three.
I was rather intrigued by the ending because I am currently reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables, which deals with the theme of how the sins of the fathers are visited on that of the children and how the Pyncheon family line (and house) seems to have been cursed by the original sin committed by the original Pyncheon. The curse seems to follow the family down the generations as the house and inhabitants become increasingly decayed. The Uninvited is slightly different, but there is a kernel of similarity. Once again, the sins of the father (really mother and even enemies of mother) are being visited on the child, but this time through active malevolence. The hatred was so strong that the spirit of the dead woman stayed behind in the house to ensure that Stella participated in the destruction. But by learning the truth (and Miss Holloway is invested in maintaining deception), Stella is freed from it. She is not obliged to pay for the sins of her parents. And neither is the house.