Rob Harmon’s Picks 4/22/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThe Uninvited (dir. Lewis Allen, 1944)

Is Best Video haunted?

Sometimes—late at night when the store is empty and it is just me and another co-worker—I do wonder that. A few times I have even been putting away movies and heard a strange sound, a thump or a ker-plop, and, moving nervously through the aisles, have finally come sharply around a corner to find… a dusty old VHS copy of MANNEQUIN or some equally innocent object which has toppled from a high shelf.

The more time you spend in a place—be it home, office, school, etc.—the more it tends to take on life-like characteristics, which, when you think about it, is a kind of haunting. This is especially true in the case of Best Video which is filled, floor to ceiling, with movies, each of which has a story and a history of its own. There is a lot of life on our shelves!

I may not be an expert in spiritualism but I am a video store employee who has seen a lot of scary movies in my life. No, Best Video is not haunted, at least not in the traditional sense of some unfortunate phantom walking the aisles, wailing over a miserable life lost in late fees, or a mischievous poltergeist haunting the Fellini section. Trust me, I have looked for ghosts; they are not there.

Not all places are so calm, however, especially in motion pictures, where the haunted house has been a staple practically since the days of the nickelodeon. The conventions of the genre are obvious to all: Main character tiptoes down hallway, sloooowly turns doorknob, hand—from off-camera—reaches out menacingly to touch main character’s shoulder, hand turns out to be the butler’s, etc. In truth, it takes a supremely confident and deft touch to make a haunted house film which is not awash in clichés.

Lewis Allen’s 1944 film THE UNINVITED is one such example of the genre done right. Produced in the midst of World War II by Paramount (when Val Lewton’s horror film unit at RKO was making a killing turning out pictures like CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) Allen’s debut remains today as sophisticated and as subtly eerie as the day it rolled out of the lab and—courtesy of Criterion—it arrived late last year in a beautiful new DVD edition.

Brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) are in the market to buy a house in the country in southwestern England when they happily stumble upon beautiful old Windward House, which overlooks the ocean. They call upon its owner, a former seaman named Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), and find that the house is going for a rock-bottom price. They spring for it, over the protestations of Beech’s beautiful granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), whose mother died in the house and seems to have an unhealthy attachment to it. Soon after moving in, however, strange things begin to happen, eerie sights and sounds—this in spite of the growing love affair between Roderick and Stella—and especially revolving around that formerly-locked room at the top of the stairs which always seems so cold and drafty and the ominous cliff which overlooks the sea.

What The Uninvited achieves—which is a slow-boiling, all-pervasive type of atmosphere—is done through expressionistic shadows and camera angles, expert production design, music (courtesy of Victor Young), sound effects, editing, and the crisp black-and-white photography of Charles Lang. The film’s more serious tone is nicely balanced by Milland’s lightly comic touch. Edith Head does the costumes and the screenplay is by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, based upon a novel by Dorothy Macardle. Allen went on to a mostly workmanlike directing career in TV and movies, although he did make the compact little powder keg of a political thriller SUDDENLY in 1954. Cornelia Otis Skinner turns in a memorable performance as the stern and dreamily self-possessed Miss Holloway, the owner of a sanatorium where Stella’s mother had undergone treatment while alive and who still carries a torch for her deceased charge.

Yet the most bewitching phantom in The Uninvited is undoubtedly Ms. Russell. Not only does she seem to combine the dark-haired, sultry beauty of Hedy Lamarr with the high cheek bones and poise of Gene Tierney, but she has a tragic life story to match. Discovered while still a student at Santa Monica High School by a Paramount talent scout she was put on the fast-track for success and with The Uninvited—her first significant role—emend to deliver fully on that promise. However, she reportedly suffered from stage fright and, under pressure to become a star, she early on turned to drink in order to calm her nerves in front of the camera. What began as a strategy, however, soon became a habit and she drank heavily, developing a reputation around Hollywood as being “too difficult to work with.” After years of dwindling roles and bad publicity from DUI arrests she was found dead in her apartment in 1961 of liver damage resulting from alcohol abuse. She was 36.