“The Uninvited,” a 1944 Paramount film starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, takes a keen interest in the paranormal. Unlike previous films featuring ghosts haunting gothic mansions, this film stays away from comedy and remains serious throughout. Milland plays Roderick Fitzgerald, a composer who falls in love with an abandoned seaside mansion called “Windward House” while visiting the Cornwall Coast in 1937 with his sister Pamela (Hussey). The brother and sister impetuously decide the buy the house and relocate there from London, and they avoid asking the question every movie couple sidesteps when buying a haunted house: Why did the property stay vacant for so long?
Roderick and Pamela rush to see the property owner, a very proper Englishman named Commander Beach (Donald Crisp). He gladly sells them the mansion at a low price despite the objections of his teenage granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell). Stella wants the Commander to keep the property for her as a reminder of her mother, who died in a fall over the beachfront cliffs. The Commander goes ahead with the sale but says others have complained of strange noises in the house. The Fitzgeralds think nothing of it and buy their dream property.
The film opens with a narration by Roderick, who talks about the propensity of people on the west coast of England to believe in ghost stories. The Fitzgerald’s dog, a terrier, spots a squirrel and runs after it into the Windward House. This provides a tour of the property while the couple look for their dog. Compared to haunted mansions in other movies, this place is very well kept — clean with very little dust — as though looked after by a property manager. Later, after they move in, the terrier runs away, wanting no part of the mysterious noises and foggy apparitions that turn up often.
Soon, Roderick meets Stella in town and becomes smitten by her. Despite the objections of the Commander, Stella visits the Fitzgeralds at Windward House. That proves to be a mistake when ghosts take possession of Stella and put her in mortal danger. The film gets very interesting when the village doctor, Dr. Scott (Alan Napier), conducts a seance in the mansion. The possessed Stella begins speaking Spanish, although no subtitles provide a translation. The movie explains this plot point much later.
For some unexplained reason, an attic room in the mansion seems the most haunted. Roderick takes that room as his music studio and ends up penning “Stella by Starlight” there. Milland’s Roderick hardly seems like a musical person at all, but the film doesn’t seem to care much about the backstory of either Roderick or Pamela.
The film gets most bizarre and sinister when a Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) arrives. She runs a mental hospital and also lived at the mansion with Stella’s mother, Mary Meredith. She projects a hero worship stance towards the dead Mary that seems to have lesbian overtones, but I found the portrayal to be ambiguous. The resolution of the story involves a power struggle between strong female spirits rather than a definite suggestion of romance.
The ghosts in The Uninvited appear in a misty fog, and the special effects prove to be satisfactory. The misty apparitions have faces, and their undulating movement seems realistic for misty beings. The movie manages to be quite scary, with truly dangerous ghosts.