Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
A conversation about Gothic romances and haunted houses with the roommate (Crimson Peak was on at the time) made me think about one of the first American films that dealt with a haunting: 1944’s The Uninvited. The plot focuses on a brother and sister who buy a large seaside mansion in England, and it entwines Gothic elements. (Gothic fiction—originating in late 18th and early 19th century England—tends to combine horror, suspense, and a bit of the supernatural. The sub-genre of Gothic romance adds in a love story and sometimes even a love triangle.) Screenwriter Dodie Smith knew what she was doing: she was also the author of the 1948 Gothic romance, I Capture the Castle.
Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald fall in love with Windward House. (Seriously, all Gothic horror has a house with a name. My house will need a specific architectural style and a name if it ever hopes to be haunted.) They purchase it for a fraction of the cost. Why is that? The original owner, Commander Beech, won’t say, but he refuses to let his 20-year-old granddaughter, Stella, go anywhere near the house. Of course, as soon as that type of rule gets made, the audience knows it’s going to be broken. Mix a possible haunted house with a blossoming love affair (between Rick and Stella) and old secrets, and you have a great ghost story.
The action takes place primarily in 1937 Cornwall. (Even though it’s an American film, it has to invoke that Old World menace. It would be many years before American filmmakers set hauntings within our own US of A.) This is a film that needs to be unfolded, with two questions posed for each question answered. Director Lewis Allen sets the mood well, and the black and white cinematography by Charles Lang even got nominated for an Academy Award. (It lost out to a deserving win by Laura in that category. As a side note, I would recommend viewing Laura and the film, Gaslight—both of which won multiple Oscars that year—to view different sides of the suspense coin. Suspense, apparently, was the best way to take Americans’ minds off of World War II.)
Note that the acting in the ’40s is very different from that in contemporary films: in those days, actors were much more sincere and dramatic. It’s a noticeable difference but fun to watch if you’re in the right frame of mind. Now, most actors try to communicate emotional honesty as much as possible. Back then, however, it was much more important to play up the moment, which is why some performances can seem over the top. (They’re still not as bad, however, as Nic Cage in almost anything.) There is a moment, for example, in which Stella is distraught over something. Then, almost with a flip of a switch, she becomes instantly smitten: there’s no flow from one emotion to another. I’m not putting down the performance: I’m saying that understanding the acting style helps you appreciate it better.
In any Gothic romance (and in Gothic horror in general), the house usually brings its own character to the proceedings. In The Uninvited, Windward House is gorgeous from the outside and stately on the inside. The artist’s studio with its tilted windows is the one exception: the set designers made it seem like the room itself is an uninvited guest. It’s the perfect setting for a haunting.
The Uninvited is a fast-paced 99 minutes that crams in a lot of backstory and plot threads but never feels rushed or overbearing. Credit the direction and editing for that. If you’re looking for a haunted house story from the past, then this is a great choice. Guillermo del Toro cites this as one of his major influences, and you can definitely tell when you watch his take on Gothic romance in Crimson Peak.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below: just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.