Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Monday, October 21, 2013

Things That Go Bump In The Night

Some business to see to first off. Go on over to Norma's blog, where yesterday she wrote a film review for Gravity, now out in cinemas near you. And some other blogs to check out: at M.R. Pritchard's blog a few days ago, she poked fun at internet trolls. Meanwhile, Joanna over at Up On Haliburton Hill has been travelling in Europe for a little while (and her recent blogs are all photoblogs reflecting that); this particular post really caught my attention. And check out Annette's blog, where Chicago has had a weekend open house.

Now then, we're getting on towards Hallowe'en, and so I thought I'd turn my attention to a classic ghost story of the film world. If you haven't seen this one yet, you really need to. With the lights off and your nerves on edge. That would do splendidly....

"They call them the haunted shores, these stretches of Devonshire and Cornwall and Ireland which rear up against the westward ocean. Mists gather here, and sea fog, and eerie stories...that's not because there are more ghosts here than other places, mind you. It's just that people who live here about are strangely aware of them. You see, day and night, year in, year out, they listen to the pound and stir of the waves. There's life and death in that restless sound. And eternity too. 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 matter of degrees Fahrenheit, but a draining of warmth from the vital centers of the living. Loads of people tell me they would've felt it. Even outside that locked door. We didn't. They can't understand why we didn't know what it meant when our dog wouldn't go up those stairs. Animals see the blasted things..."

So begins The Uninvited, with a narrative introduction by Ray Milland, playing Roderick "Rick" Fitzgerald. He and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) are up from London on vacation in this hauntingly told tale of the supernatural. They're wandering the shores with their dog when they come across an old house, one that's not lived in, but which catches their interest, particularly Pam's. The pair are both single, get along well, and at Pam's urging, decide to look into buying the place, a rambling seaside house known as Windward House. They track down the present owner, Commodore Beech (the character actor Donald Crisp), a gruff retired military officer who gives them a bargain, wishing to sell the place where his late daughter and her husband had once lived so that his granddaughter's future is secured. There's a standoffish quality about him, as though he's holding back details. His granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) is unhappy about the sale, having had grown up not being allowed near her childhood home. The commodore has forbidden her from entering the place. Rick finds himself taken with Stella, and in fact the pair share some sparks.

Rick and Pam soon move in, with Rick fetching their maid Lizzie (Barbara Everest) from London, along with the last of the furniture. We've already seen that all is not quite well with Windward House- the dog has run off, the cat seems hesitant about going up the stairs. A studio upstairs seems to have a depressing atmosphere. And Rick wakes up late in the night to the sound of a woman's crying in the house. He and Pam listen from the upper floors to the tears of a grieving woman; Pam tells him she's heard it each night since she first moved into the place, that there's no one there to be found, and yet the sound is there. The two have themselves a haunted house. And the reasons for the haunting are connected to Stella, and secrets about her family.

Director Lewis Allen helmed this movie, and there are many good reasons it's a classic. The story, adapted from a novel by Dorothy McCardle, treats the theme of the supernatural seriously. Where ghost stories on film had earlier been used for a joke, this is not the case with The Uninvited. Yes, there is humour to be found here, but the matter of ghosts is taken seriously. Allen was limited with the technology of the time, yet conveys a story that gets under your skin. There are glimpses of spectral beings (apparently the studio insisted), and perhaps because of the limitations on technology, they actually look like you'd think ghosts would look- misty and shadowy. Beyond that, Allen makes full use of the other senses in conveying the presence of the spectral realm. Animals respond to things that people do not see. Pages turn in books by an unseen hand. There are drafts where there should not be drafts. Rooms have a way of draining the energy out of a person. Sounds are heard in the night. The scent of a perfume can be detected in the air when no woman in the house uses it. And a presence can be felt from time to time. By giving the audience hints of the ghostly presence, it proves to be more effective than what we'd see in the current day, with no sense of the subtle at all, in favour of as graphic a ghost story as you can get.

Allen uses all of these qualities through the film, and he and his crew shoot the entire story in ways that really build the atmosphere. The lighting Allen uses in particular contributes to this, with a house that seems one way in the day, and another in the deep dark shadows of the night. The end result is a beautifully rendered and yet foreboding kind of film that leaves you looking over your shoulder, wondering if there's someone- or something- watching you. The score by Victor Young is gorgeous, romantic, and well tuned to the themes of the story, and spawned a hit tune in the day, Stella By Starlight, which remains a standard today. 

The adaptation of the novel into a screenplay gives us a smart narrative. It takes the ghostly side of things seriously, but also emphasizes strong characterization. And the dialogue is clever, and has a dry, fun side to it at times. We particularly find that in the flirtation between Rick and Stella, but it's common throughout the film, perhaps giving us a bit of levity while the film keeps getting under our skin. And the writing pushes the envelope for what was acceptable at the time. A friend of Stella's late mother, Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), currently running a mental hospital, has her own part in the secrets of Stella's family past, and a subtext lesbian relationship in her past. It's obvious to the contemporary viewer, and back then was practically screaming it out without saying so.

Casting is ideal in this film. Donald Crisp is thoroughly gruff and disapproving, just the way you'd think a retired military officer would be. He comes across as permanently scowling at the world, and entirely too protective of his granddaughter-though as we learn, there's a good reason. As a character actor, he inhabits the role just right. Cornelia Otis Skinner rarely appeared in films as an actress, but her turn here as the enigmatic Miss Holloway has a very creepy, unhinged quality to it, particularly as she goes along. There are secrets beneath that cold exterior. Barbara Everest has a good turn as Lizzie; she's something of a motherly figure to Rick and Pam, and she's very wary and superstitious of the notion of messing around with the spiritual world. 

Alan Napier- who decades later would be cast as Alfred in the Batman television series- turns up in the sympathetic supporting role of Doctor Scott, who like the Fitzgeralds is an outsider in the area- he's only lived there for a few years and is still considered a newcomer. He proves to be an ally in their efforts to get to the truth, and he and Pam have a warmth to their scenes. Gail Russell plays Stella in one of her first roles- and would later end up meeting something of a tragic end. She conveys the qualities one might expect of Stella- the overprotected granddaughter chafing for some freedom, and some answers about all of the things her grandfather has kept from her. She's quiet and pensive at first, but in some ways as the story goes along, and as it becomes clear how central she is to the events in the house, she has more of a sense of what's happening than Rick or Pam. 

It's the two leads who bring so much of the heart to the story. Ruth Hussey never quite attained the stardom that she deserved, which is a shame. A few years earlier she was bantering with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story. She was a gifted actress, with a good sense of timing, a quick wit, and the impression that she was a woman who followed her own will. That's the quality that comes through in films I've seen her in, and it's certainly on display in this movie. Pam is the one who takes the initiative and coaxes her brother into buying the house with her; she's calm under pressure (perhaps more so than her brother, who can be a bit unnerved by crying in the night from unseen women). We get to like her, and that's all due to Hussey's performance. There's an easy going rapport she has with her brother, the playful and teasing nature of two siblings who genuinely like each other, and we can buy the two actors as siblings. Ray Milland is wonderfully cast as Rick. Milland had a lot of credits to his name down through the years, and he could play the hero and the villain, but there was always a charm about him. Even as the villain (say in Dial M For Murder, for instance), you can't help but like him. Here he plays Rick as an affable lead, a music composer who doesn't take things seriously. There's a quality of the rogue at times, the man smirking at the world. He's a natural flirt, given to occasional risk (such as inviting the Commodore for a drive at the worst possible moment)... and on the other hand he's a fellow who gets seasick on a yacht outing, or as mentioned before, doesn't quite seem that brave when hearing a strange woman crying in the night. And yet he ends up rising to the occasion.

The film is a classic ghost story. For years there have been rumors of a DVD release (apparently Criterion is  finally releasing it). It's been a staple over at TCM off and on for many years, and it's overdue for that DVD release. It gets under your skin in the best of ways, creeps you out... and in the end leaves you immensely satisfied. This is a ghost story you should see.

Have you seen it?



  1. I'm pretty sure I've seen it, but I can't remember much beyond that. This is what happens when you get old....

    You write excellent reviews!

  2. I've never seen the old one, but I'm sure I'd love it. I adore creepy movies, especially this time of year of course.

  3. No, I haven't seen it, but it sounds wonderful. Ray Milland was a fine actor. I've enjoyed his performances in other movies.

  4. @Norma: thank you!

    @Krisztina: keep an eye out at TCM!

    @Mari: he could certainly be a scoundrel in a film!

    @Shelly: they really get under the skin.

  5. If the final scene is a vase of roses withering,then I've seen it. If not, I want to see it.
    Jane x

  6. Oh my gosh, I would *love* to see this! It looks too good to miss (and a fine review as always:) - I hope I can find it somewhere local...

  7. Excellent review. It drew me right in.
    Like Norma it sounds familiar but...
    I must not have finished it. I will see if netflix has it.

    So glad you like Joanna's blog. I have meet her twice and she is fabulous in person as is her husband.
    I love her posts about her gud dugs, home, garden and the area where she lives.

    cheers, parsnip

  8. Even reading this gave me chills! I'm a total wimp when it comes to scary movies, but this time of year they do seem to be called for!

  9. Good review. I've seen this movie a couple times (Donald Crisp and Ray Milland are reason enough for me!). This is a darn good spooky movie.

  10. Yeah, I remember this one.

    For some reason, the old movies have lots better writing than the new ones. I guess that's because only the better old movies get watched over and over!

  11. I want to watch this movie! This is exactly what I love about the old black and white movies. The art in making the movies is amazing. They have to consider all aspects of the movie, from lighting to technology.

    Movies today use more special effects to wow an audience. The old movies had to rely upon pure artistic creation by the film makers.

    I'm on Amazon now and making my purchase. :D

  12. Never seen this. Thanks for sharing, William.

  13. I know that movie--and remember wimping out! Gonna check out your links.

  14. Great review. I haven't seen this, but now I want to! PS: thanks for the shout out :)

  15. I couldn't agree more William. The new scary movies are so over the top that they're more silly than scary. I remember seeing a movie when I was much younger called The Haunted it gave me nightmares for many years, they made a remake not so long ago pffft! not scary at all.

  16. @Jane: actually it ends on a very funny line!

    @LondonLulu: amazon's been listing it as selling imminently. Criterion tends to be a bit expensive, but they put out a good release in return.

    @Parsnip: I'd be surprised if Netflix has it.

    @Meradeth: it certainly is that time of year...

    @Lynn: it surely is!

    @Cheryl: I think a classic stays a classic because it never loses its appeal. You can watch it many a time, and still enjoy it.

  17. @Diane: good!

    @Kelly: you're welcome!

    @Kittie: give it another try!

    @M.R.: you're welcome!

    @Grace: I remember the original from the 60s! Very spooky!

  18. I don't think I've ever heard of this one, William. I'll keep an eye out for it, though. Sounds good!

  19. The old movies are the best because they know how to build suspense without hitting you in the face with it.

  20. So cool! LOVE the concept of a haunted coastline. :) You have to do more of these classic movie reviews, William!

    Headed over to see what Norma had to say about Gravity (I watched and enjoyed it)...

  21. What a wonderful review, William! I love this movie--I saw it many times on TCM.

  22. I"ve never heard of this one but I need to watch it! I went thru a classic film phase where I watched as many as I could as research for a story I wrote last year. It was so much fun!

  23. Thanks for the review just in time for Halloween. I've never seen it.


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