The Uninvited (1944)

This Halloween the Criterion Collection dropped a special treat in our collective plastic pumpkin baskets with the Blu-ray and DVD release of the classic haunted house chiller, “The Uninvited” (1944).

This release of the vintage Universal Studios produced ghost story starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey marks the first time the film has been restored and released in the digital format. The 2K digital restoration of the original 1.37:1, full screen image is easily the best the film has ever looked, making Criterion’s timely trick-or-treat special for both classic movie fans and for the many ghost film fans who’ve never had the opportunity to see it.

“The Uninvited” is generally considered the first Hollywood film to deal seriously with the subject of ghosts and spirits, who up to that point were generally considered material for comedies like Abbott & Costello’sHold That Ghost” (1941). Keep in mind the context of the time in which this film was released; the idea of a film that seriously dealt with spirits from beyond the grave wasn’t ripe for popular entertainment. The country was still waist deep in the horrors of WWII and the cinema was generally a place of escapism from the themes of death and dread.

Thus the tone of “The Uninvited” is decisively jovial and bubbly, old school Hollywood for the most part. Even though the film deals with mournful, even vengeful, ghosts from the past, it’s still a long way from the much deeper and darker psychological thrills of “The Innocents” (1961) and Robert Wise’s, “The Haunting” (1963). Even with a much lighter tone than one usually finds in the haunted house genre by the late 1950’s, “The Uninvited” is draped in Gothic atmosphere and beautiful imagery.

In fact, “The Uninvited” set the basic template for almost every haunted house film that ever followed. The Guillermo del Toro produced, “Mama” (2013), borrows liberally from “The Uninvited,” especially during the climax set over a windswept cliff above jagged rocks and crashing waves.

The plot follows a vacationing brother and sister from London (Milland and Hussey) who decide to purchase a lonely cliff-top mansion in Cornwall at a surprisingly affordable price. Of course, the house comes with its share of secrets, and soon enough those hidden skeletons are making themselves known as moaning voices in the middle of the night. Milland engages in a friendship with the daughter of the previous owners played by Gail Russell, who lives with her disapproving grandfather who sold them the house to begin with. Together Milland, Russell and Hussey must unravel the mystery that haunts the old house before the ghosts of the past return to unleash tragedy on the present.

One of the film’s great ghostly sequences involves a séance set up by Milland to prove to the others that the house isn’t haunted, which backfires and instead convinces him that it actually is! The ghosts themselves, when they finally appear on screen, don’t disappoint. They’re depicted as wispy mists that seem to be trying to form a human shape, an effect still quite convincing by today’s special effects standards.

Extras include a new visual essay by filmmaker, Michael Almereyda (“Nadja,” “The Trance”), two radio adaptions from 1944 and 1949, both featuring the voice of Ray Milland and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme and a 1997 interview with director Lewis Allen.

While not quite on par with films like “The Haunting” or “The Legend of Hell House,” “The Uninvited” is an absolutely essential part of any haunted house film collection. Criterion has delivered a nifty, classy and affordable package of vintage Halloween chills that is currently available on Amazon for $14.49 on DVD and $20.69 on Blu-ray. Happy Halloween!

The Phantom of The Ville

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