I bet ghost stories are one of the most ancient of arts. Probably right around the first time a sentient human died, those close to him or her wondered what happened to the being inside the body, and then wondered if he or she were somehow still around. Add in the element of grief, and the natural desire to have the person that was lost stay near, and it's a short step to imagining every bump in the night, cold wind, or familiar scent is the deceased sticking around.
One can imagine further that it's comforting to the individual who believes in ghosts, to envision an existence where you never really leave, you can have ways to remind folks that you once were alive, goodbye is never forever.
Which brings us to our movie. Lewis Allen's 1944 spook story The Uninvited. Some of these ideas are touched on, at least to a degree, if not explicitly than implicitly. A ghost haunts an old family home on an English cliffside where she died, and the question of why she lingers still is the central mystery of the film. It's unfinished business, but it is it selfish or generous. Is she looking to expose someone, or can she just not leave her daughter?
Such is the story that brother and sister Roderick and Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) stumble into when they take advantage of the too-good-to-be-true deal on the spacious home. He is a musician turned music critic and she is...well, his sister, and they leave London, giddy London, with their dog, cat, and lady servant for a view of an ocean and more rooms than they'll ever need. Once there, Roderick falls for Stella (Gail Russell), the daughter of the specter, probably because she was against her grandfather (Donald Crisp) selling him the house in the first place. (You know how men are...) Stella has an unhealthy attraction to the house, and it has a dangerous sway over her. If she visits, don't be surprised if Stella goes running toward the same cliff where her mom plummeted to her death.
Whether that was an accident, a suicide, or a murder is a riddle that will have to be solved if Roderick and Pamela are going to clear the way for Stella to hang out all the time. Local gossip provides different versions of what went down, but as these things go, each new witness the siblings find adds to what came before, altering the tale just enough to keep everyone guessing. Meanwhile, they must deal with the nightly sobbing of the dead woman and their own skepticism. Roderick believes a spirit is crying in the shadows, but he isn't convinced that séances are real--at least not until the one he joins gets away from him.
The Uninvited is an enjoyable horror movie, even if it's not all that horrific. Maybe in its time it sent shivers down the spine--its ghost is nicely done--but it's so damned genial during its non-spook time, it's kind of hard to go with the chillier moments. Which isn't to say it's not entertaining, or even unconvincing, it's just too polite to be frightening. It's lighthearted and romantic, and there is never any convincing threat or unsettling occurrence. Even the big revelation of what really happened on that fateful day has lost its scandalous edge, social mores being what they are and all.
It's a matter of storytelling, not writing. Structurally, the script by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos (from a novel by Dorothy Macardle) hits the right beats, teasing the facts at the appropriate pace; it's the visual presentation where Allen lets us down. There is not much to separate the haunting scenes from any of the others, it all looks crystal clear and decidedly un-moody. Likewise, the characters don't freak out all that much, they soldier through, keeping calm and carrying on. The whole of The Uninvited is just too damned British and polite to ever unnerve the viewer.
So, The Uninvited is best approached as a sort of gothic romance. Like Wuthering Heights crossed with Topper. The ghosts are real, but not too dark to care.