It’s that time of year once again! Hello! Yes! I am the insane person who has both a toddler and a desire to watch 31 horror movies in the month of October! I decided I couldn’t do it last year, but this year I’m going to give it a shot.
My rules are as follows: I’m going to try to watch at least one movie made during every decade from the 1920s through the 2010s. I’m going to try to watch at least 90% movies I’ve never seen before. I’m going to try to watch a combination of trash and arty stuff.
LET’S GET STARTED!
The first movie I watched this year was 1944’s The Uninvited, a classic film noir mystery / ghost story / haunted house deal, starring Ray Milland. During the opening credits, I learned that the screenplay was co-written by Dodie Smith, which made me excited– she’s most famous for 101 Dalmations, but the thing I love her for is I Capture the Castle, a charming coming-of-age story about a girl whose eccentric family lives in a run-down old castle in 1930s England. That book is so great, and she weaves atmosphere so beautifully, that I was interested to see how that would translate to the screen.
The answer, as it turns out, is “fairly well.” Her fingerprints are all over this thing, and it winds up being a bit like… well, call it “Shirley Jackson Lite.” Here’s the opening narration:
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 most ghosts here than other places, mind you. It’s just that people who live hereabouts 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.
Pretty damn good. It doesn’t touch the opening paragraph of Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, but then again, nothing does. I’ll put that here just because I love it so:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
So, it’s not Jackson, but it’s in the same ballpark. Great opener.
One of the reasons I chose this movie was because it kept cropping up on “best-of” lists: best haunted house movies, best ghost movies, best movies that are actually scary, that sort of thing. “Actually scary” is a bit of a stretch, but this movie is atmospheric as all hell, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it eerie or creepy, which is almost as good as “scary.”
Milland plays Rick. Ruth Hussey plays his sister Pam. Rick and Pam, while vacationing on the seaside, find a massive empty mansion on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Their dog chases a squirrel inside, and they follow. While chasing him through the house, Pam falls in love with the old place– despite a mysteriously locked room and the odd chills. They decide to buy it from “The Commander,” a crusty old dude who warns them about “the wind at night,” which “plays odd tricks in old houses.” His granddaughter, Stella, tries to warn them off, but to no avail. THE DEAL IS DONE!
Once it’s theirs, they unlock that room, and discover an oppressive dampness and cold spots, and Rick is swept with a spell of depression, wondering if they’ve “made the most howling mistake,” and voicing his concerns that he’ll ever be able to write any music ever again, or if he’s just worthless.
Roses, brought in by Pam, wilt in the room immediately.
Despite their initial misgivings, Pam and Rick jolly it up again. Rick hangs out with the Commander’s granddaughter, charmingly played by Gail Russell, and attraction blooms. Pam moves in, and Rick joins her a few weeks later, after moving all the furniture up to the joint. The first night he’s there, he’s awakened in the pre-dawn darkness by a disembodied weeping. He takes a candle into the hallway, where Pam is already waiting. This has been happening periodically, she says, and she’s relieved that Rick can hear it too.
I watched this with Barb, and ten minutes in, she said, “Oh, so I guess this is the original ‘white people get too wrapped up in their haunted house investment and stay beyond the point of all sense’ movie.”
That’s about right, with a few twists and turns.
Ray Milland is excellent in this movie. He’s charming and funny a lot of the time, and he plays frightened with a quiet bug-eyed terror that’s remarkably effective.
I don’t want to spoil it too much– the plot is actually fairly engaging and intricate, with multiple moving pieces, fascinating secondary characters– Miss Holloway, a lowkey lesbian character who runs a sanitarium where everything may or may not be on the level; the leads’ housekeeper, Lizzie, an superstitious Irishwoman who’s at turns hilarious and the only smart person in the entire movie; and Dr. Scott, the town doctor, played to perfection by Alan Napier, who was Alfred on the 1966 Batman series. Classy and charming, that one.
Along the way, there’s some absolutely beautiful cinematography, a beautiful and haunting song, and perhaps the first ouija scene in any movie ever:
Oh, and a ghost or two.
There’s a reason this movie is held up as a classic of the genre. While it never approaches the genuine scares of The Haunting of Hill House or The Innocents, it manages to be spooky and eerie throughout, with moments of humor, warmth, and suspense. The cinematography is outstanding, the music and score are fantastic and very well used– when the film goes silent, you feel the hairs rise on your arm– and the performances are very good. This is a perfect movie for a cold night, when the wind is howling outside and the lights are low.