*. Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was published in 1938. Alfred Hithcock’s film version came out in 1940. Dorothy Macardle’s Uneasy Freehold was published in the U.K. in 1941, and in the U.S. as The Uninvited a year later. This movie came out in 1944.
*. My point is that while this movie may be more than a Rebecca rip-off, that’s what it is. Windward House is Manderley (both mansions on the coast of Cornwall), and Miss Holloway is Mrs. Danvers. Stella Meredith is the troubled young lady haunted by the late chatelaine, who presides over the film in the form of not just one but two giant portraits (of course Miss Holloway keeps the more erotic, sinister one in her office).
*. It may seem uncharitable to begin like this, but I’ll say up front that while this is a good little movie, it’s been overrated. Part of this is the obscurity it remained cloaked in for much of its history (it wasn’t available on DVD until 2012!), and part to the Criterion effect: the bustle of critical notice that surrounds the release of every new title in that catalogue, and the amplification of claims to their being among “the greatest films from around the world.”
*. We may want to keep in mind Pauline Kael’s take: “The picture was popular, though it doesn’t come anywhere near fulfilling one’s initial hopes that it will be a first-rate ghost movie.” Tough, but not unfair.
*. While we’re with Kael, here she is on the threatened lead: “Gail Russell never could act worth a damn.” That’s rough too, but it was a judgment director Lewis Allen may have shared. “I wasn’t very enthusiastic about taking Gail Russell, because she’d only done one small part in a picture before this. And when she read for me, it was pretty bad.” Tragically, she went off her own cliff as a young woman, dying of liver damage from chronic alcoholism at the age of 36. Acting terrified her. What she had was a look, which made the studio think she might become a star. I don’t think she’s very good here, but since I don’t think this is a major film I’ll leave her alone.
*. Stephen King: “what the good horror film . . . does above all else is to knock the adult props out from under us and tumble us back down the slide into childhood.” This isn’t just a useful key to entering King’s terrifying universe, where all the childhood symbols of safety and security — the nuclear family, dolls, the family Saint Bernard — are upended and made threatening. King was on to something when he tells us that this is how all horror works: plugging into childhood fears while making us feel helpless and vulnerable. What we’re all really scared of is the monster under the bed.
*. It’s an observation that’s certainly applicable here. Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald are immediately introduced to us as not grown up yet. He has a sort-of job, but we get the sense that they just have the money for whatever they want. Perhaps their parents died and left them a fortune. Whatever the explanation, they live together and no adult relationships are evident. Their only significant other is their little dog. The stairway at Windward makes Roderick want to slide down the banister, and he later gets a childhood thrill out of blowing out the lamp. When the housekeeper Lizzie arrives they are treated like a pair of children, even being sent to bed. When frightened, Roderick pulls the sheets over his head.
*. The plot is a ball of yarn that’s been tangled up, and it’s straightened out in a ludicrous and abrupt manner. I particularly like how unimpressed Stella appears to be when she learns of her parentage. But does this detract from the terror? A bit, yes. By the end I was honestly confused as to which ghost was operative (is it cold? or is there a smell of mimosa in the air?), and what exactly it was they wanted. In fact, I’m still unsure about that.
*. Allen didn’t originally plan on showing the ghosts, and they were cut from the U.K. release. This is a common debate among horror fans: how much of the source of terror can or should be shown? The Haunting is famous for not showing anything. Night of the Demon has been criticized for giving in to showing the Demon on the rampage (Tourneur wanted to keep it out, having been influenced by Val Lewton, who may be thought of as the muse of the “don’t show the monster” school of horror filmmaking).
*. Personally, I like the ghosts here. They’re indistinct enough to remain creepy even when seen, and Mary Meredith’s cruel face at the end is a chilling look into the abyss. Alas, like everything else about the ending, she’s disposed of far too quickly, leaving the feeling that the film just got snipped.
*. The rushed ending turns into parody when it comes to poor Miss Holloway. Cornelia Otis Skinner is sternly effective as the demonic high priestess of mental health, especially in her weird nun’s robes and clunky pagan medallion. But to have to reveal herself as a raving maniac in charge of the asylum in one brief address made to the portrait of her dark mistress is a reversal that comes so suddenly it’s funny. Really, the structure and pace of this film is misjudged horribly.
*. Returning to Kael’s comment, you have to wonder what the expectations for a “first-rate ghost movie” were in 1944. My guess is not much. This is usually described as an “adult” ghost story, and it had the respectable resources given an A picture. Judged in its historical context it stands out as a solid enough genre effort, distinguished mainly by its nice photography. The script is light to a fault, too jokey to fit the general atmosphere. I don’t think it would be on a list of the top five or even top ten ghost or haunted house films today, and I suspect it will soon be mostly forgotten, fairly or unfairly, again.