One of the most striking things — and there are several — about The Uninvited is that it makes no bones about what it is. It tells you right from the onset — via Roderick Fitzgerald’s (Milland) narration — that this is a ghost pure and simple. It’s not that the film is in any great hurry to get down the scares — the development is carefully measured — but you immediately know what you’re getting into — a haunted house. And it’s a carefully detailed (though not inherently creepy) haunted house, perched on a cliff on the Cornish coast. The film opens with Roderick and his sister Pamela (Hussey) coming across the deserted mansion by accident, and then going inside when their dog chases a squirrel through an open window. Almost at once they decide to buy it (it helps that they seem to have a houseful of inherited furniture at their disposal), and this proves fairly easy, since the house has a “history.” There are no prizes for guessing this history is of the supernatural sort.
Just why Paramount opted to make The Uninvited — based fairly closely on the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle — at this time isn’t entirely clear. At the time, horror pictures were B pictures — the Universal horrors running on the fumes of the glory years — or lower. Critically, the taste in horror leaned toward the Val Lewton B pictures being made at RKO — and those were more concerned with atmosphere than the supernatural. Hollywood was even then not known for taking a risk, so the existence of The Uninvited is something of a mystery — one that is equaled by the fact that, despite its success, it spawned no further attempts at a ghost story. As noted, its sort of follow-up — also from the otherwise uninteresting Lewis Allen — The Unseen sells its shudders very short by being nothing more than a mystery, an even greater pity since it starts out promisingly. What we have here is a strangely solitary movie.
However, this a pretty terrific solitary movie. It’s a beautifully crafted work that suggests more than it shows — though it isn’t afraid to show its ghosts — and works as much on a clever, often witty, screenplay, atmosphere, and performances as on shocks. The shocks in fact are often little more than momentary frissons — like a bit (unseen by the protagonists) where a bouquet of flowers wilts in the presence of the evil spirit. The film carefully builds its thrills — to a point where the story’s revelations are often more startling than the ghost business. It’s also a surprisingly adult film. Within the confines of a pretty regressive censorship, The Uninvited manages to get away with adultery, illegitimacy, and even (barely) repressed lesbianism — no mean feat in 1944.
I should note, however, that the film is too tame for some. When I wrote about the movie at some length for a series on Paramount horror movies for Scarlet Street magazine, exploitation horror movie prouducer Richard Gordon (Fiend Without a Face) wrote a letter to the magazine, generally praising the article, noting that I had convinced him to give The Uninivited another look. However, that new look didn’t change a thing — he still didn’t like the movie. You win some, you lose some.