Just in time for Halloween, the Criterion Collection has done us all an enormous favor by releasing one of the screen's great ghost stories, Lewis Allen's remarkable The Uninvited, starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Donald Crisp. It's a supreme example of how black-and-white conjures danger, romance and the supernatural. The film is an object of veneration for its fans, which include Martin Scorsese and Guillermo del Toro. But for a long while it's also been condemned to a shadow world of bad copies made from questionable sources. Criterion has, as always, come up with a version that's worthy of the way it must have looked in 1944.
The author of the source novel for The Uninvited, Dorothy Macardle, was a most interesting person, born in Ireland to a rich Catholic family and growing up to teach English in a predominantly Protestant college until her Irish republican activities got her fired in 1923. Thereafter she did some time in prison during the Civil War, where she wrote some of her first ghost stories. Eamon de Valera was her friend and mentor, although they had a rough patch when Macardle objected to part of the 1937 Irish constitution pertaining to women. Macardle's fervent anti-Nazism led her to move to London during the war to work with refugees and with the BBC to help the war effort. When The Uninvited was released, according to the Irish Times, "among those who went to see it at the Savoy in Dublin was de Valera himself who, however, was not amused by the twist in the story"--one that doesn't exactly support a traditional view of pious womanhood. "Typical Dorothy," de Valera remarked. Macardle also wrote a famed history called The Irish Republic.
Meanwhile, rejoice at just how good The Uninvited is looking. Here's an excerpt from the Siren's essay.
The character of Stella is twenty; Russell was nineteen and looks younger. It was her first starring role, and she brings febrile intensity to it, moving from flirtatious humor to an orphan’s yearning for her mother to the desperation of a possessed woman. In real life, Russell wasn’t able to pull back. By all accounts an introverted and jittery person ill-suited to the Hollywood racket, she is said to have started drinking on the set of this movie in an attempt to calm herself between takes. Her very next film found her playing none other than Cornelia Otis Skinner, in the 1944 screen adaptation of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, the autobiographical best seller that Skinner had cowritten with a college chum of hers a couple of years earlier—also directed by Allen, and another hit. For a short while in the 1940s, Russell’s ethereal style gained her roles in films like Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1948). But by 1956, when she appeared in Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now, alcoholism had coarsened her wondrous looks, and her career was nearly over. She died in 1961, of drinking-related causes, age thirty-six. The Uninvited, then, also offers a glimpse of Russell at her hopeful start, photographed in a way that justifies the fan magazines’ comparisons to Hedy Lamarr.
Indeed, Allen’s most indispensable ally on The Uninvited was the great cinematographer Charles Lang Jr., whose work on the film was nominated for an Oscar. Windward House has no electricity; whether that’s because of its remote location or its having stood empty for years is never explained. In the event, this gives Lang an excuse for some of the eeriest lighting of the 1940s. Flashlights pierce the gloom, candles and oil lamps flicker, and the sea casts patterns of light on the ceiling.